Regulations bonfire lights up local lives

The UK’s first social enterprise zone was established by inner city
charity Community Links in Newham, London, six years ago and has
just presented its report.

Built on the business enterprise model, in which designated areas
are exempt from statutory regulations that obstruct local economic
growth, the zone was freed-up from community services. Local people
and front-line workers were consulted extensively to generate fresh
ideas on tackling regeneration, using the zone as a testbed.

Some of the results have been stunning – in spite of rather than
because of central government support. For instance, over a
two-year period, more than 60 volunteers were trained to support
claimants filling in benefit application forms in Newham’s four
JobCentres, allowing advisers more time to help them find

The number of forms returned due to errors was reduced to nil;
queries about missing or late payments were reduced by 80 per cent;
35 of the volunteers have themselves found work and the JobCentre
advisers have seen how volunteering can be a first vital step to
getting the long-term unemployed back into work.

It’s a simple idea with far-reaching results (other pilots in
JobCentres are now under way). The less welcome result of the zone
is that, in practice, consultation often falls well short of
genuine involvement.

“There seems to be continuing scepticism over the real value of
involving people with practical experience of services in the
process of designing policy,” says Matthew Smerdon, who is
community work director at Community Links. In other words,
government knows best.

Community Links devised a “what if?” approach to encourage
individuals to discuss the barriers to their ambitions. These
conversations were then turned into practical ideas for change. The
zone’s workers conducting the sessions were themselves local
residents and had personal experience of some of the frustrations
people discussed. As part of this invaluable exercise in local
democracy, child care, refreshments and transport were provided.

The government talks about citizenship a great deal. It is also
concerned about political apathy. One way to ensure that people
become more involved in shaping their own destinies – as the social
enterprise zone project has so triumphantly proved – is to listen
to local voices, but then act on what has been heard.

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