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
    work.

    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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