Visit to Greece

As a member of the UK delegation visiting Patras in Greece with Locality as part of an EU project to foster a citizen led response to austerity I was anxious that the exchange (one of multiple visits across Europe over the last two years) avoided a voyeuristic insight to the challenges that the people of Greece are facing.

Our hosts from the Institute for Innovation & Sustainable Development were amazing, not least in their organisational and translation skills that helped us get under the skin of the real experience of intense austerity, also helping us to appreciate Greek culture, not least socialising, eating together and being outside – a real relief following the prolonged winter just passed in the UK.

Greece, we’re advised, has suffered from a severe and all pervasive form of statism which perhaps accounts for the absence of any social enterprise models, but none the less surprising given the global history and growth of social enterprise. It appears that NGOs and for profit businesses are the only legal forms that can operate within the constraints of Greek laws. Whilst this doesn’t prevent social business it may be one contributory factor preventing innovation that could be readily addressed with either revisions to company law or support to develop hybrids that enable local people to develop community and social enterprise.

Some of the projects I visited were developing in parallel to familiar UK projects (volunteering/ time banking/ soup kitchen) but all were relatively new, busy with lots of volunteers (largely university students)

I didn’t see any evidence of supported housing for vulnerable people other than an institutional project for people with learning disabilities that reflected mainstream UK provision of the past with no sense of personalisation or influence of the user movement.

I’d be interested to know how Greece is responding to older people and in particular, the increasing number of people with dementia.

Does Greece have a better, more community/ family focused means of providing dignified care compared to the UK for example?

Access to health services are insurance based so those unable to afford the premiums, typically have no access to health care. With increasing unemployment I fear that the longer term impact of such health inequalities will further compound recovery in Greece.

However, the Municipal Clinic and Social Pharmacy run by volunteers was heartening with services providing free access to primary health care and medicine. The Social Pharmacy recycles unused medication making it available to people without funds through a network of professional pharmacists and lay volunteers.

I was encouraged by the volunteer commitment from pharmacists and lay people to support this initiative in Patras and expect that, as a response to the cliff edge of insurance based healthcare it can easily be replicated, at least across urban areas of Greece

The Social Pharmacy may be a model that could deliver benefits in the UK given the estimated £300m per annum that is wasted on unused/ partially used medication. Savings reinvested in frontline prevention would benefit people, commissioners and the public purse though perhaps not pharmaceutical companies.

Of course, immigration was a major concern, with Patras appearing as less of a destination and more of a stopping off point to Italy and western/ northern Europe. Nevertheless, the risk of harm that young migrants are exposed to suggests that targeted EU funds (e.g. NGOs operating in Greece) would provide savings and better outcomes for public money in preventing costs further downstream (western/ northern Europe)

I was somewhat surprised by the absence of charity shops from the Greek high street given retail provision across the UK. A significant proportion of UK people routinely shop/ donate to charity shops to support the charity/ recycling and to live a more affordable lifestyle so if donated goods were developed as a retail proposition then it may serve a number of purposes and deliver sustainable benefits

Finally, I was surprised how outwardly resilient Greek culture appeared given the commitment to café culture. Most cafes/ restaurants seemed busy in the town centre of Patras. Hwever, I suspect that beyond the town centre and across regions, especially those without/ fewer tourists, many local businesses will struggle to survive. Patras, in terms of population, is similar in scale to my local town (Northampton) but appeared to be less afflicted by shop closures perhaps reflecting the relative absence of out of town retail parks, less internet shopping and a culture of ‘going out’ to eat/ socialise. Patras also seemed to have a better balance of independent shops and less of the ‘clone town’ culture of UK towns which may be indicative of a more resilient local economy. I certainly hope so.

I look forward to the next installment with a visit to Utrecht, Netherlands in June where the combined learning from exchanges will inform actions, we hope that benefit communities and citizens across Europe


Posted in community enterprise, Europe, Local Authority, Third Sector

Lifestyle Advisors

I’m excited by the prospect of working with two incredibly experienced health trainers embarking on an adventure to set up as a community enterprise; helping people to learn and support each other to live healthier lives

They’re totally plugged into the heart of key local neighbourhoods and trusted by people that usually steer clear of mainstream services – the ‘hard to reach’ from a top-down perspective, which in reality, describes services that are remote and hard to reach, rather than people that are hard to reach, primarily because services are not designed for or by local people.

My new colleagues start from the bottom up and have great skills and experience to make an impact for people, but also for commissioners. So when they’re ready to go I hope the commissioners are equally ready to respond or perhaps they can get involved now to seed an exciting new venture and contribute to its success – the benefits on offer are multiple.

We’re using Action 4 Community Enterprise as the development framework for this new venture and I can’t wait for the next episode….


Posted in Action 4 Community Enterprise, community enterprise, Products, Third Sector

Pearls Of Peace

I’ve enjoyed running two sessions, using Action 4 Community Enterprise (ACE) helping Pearls of Peace, a Northampton based Muslim Women’s Support Group, to develop into a more sustainable community enterprise.











Not only are Pearls of Peace more confident in articulating their offer to their members, customers and commissioners. They’ll soon have a plan with agreed priorities to pursue their plans for growth and development.

It’s a real pleasure to work with such a dedicated group with a wealth of experience,  knowledge and wisdom they’re happy to share with others. We’ve learned loads from each other already and they’re on the cusp of making the transition to the next level and those beyond that. Good to make a contribution to their success

Great fun as well, and something of a virtuous circle emerging as helping them to unlock their potential improves their ability to helps other; building and renewing connections, one at a time

Everyone wins including me. I get paid to play games! Can you believe it! It doesn’t get much better than that. Reminds me of my children when they tell me to stop working, come and play and have some fun. That’s where the serious work gets done. Game on….

Looking forward to the next session. Can’t wait.

You can contact Pearls of Peace here

Posted in Action 4 Community Enterprise, community enterprise, Products

Third Sector Mikado

Did you ever play Mikado when you were young?  You chuck lots of sticks up in the air and just see where they land, and that of course can be anywhere.

Something very similar happens when a local authority adopts a “let’s just throw a funding programme open to the Third Sector to do what whatever they can with” approach, with no requirements set out for preferred bidding models across geographic areas covered by a fund and no guidance on preferred structures, or priorities. Understandably, adopting such a funding approach cannot fail to leave organisations and groups in the Sector utterly confused and unsure about which ‘bid mast’ to pin their colours to.

The sector as a whole asks itself various questions:

  • Which bid is most likely to succeed and be the most financially beneficial for my organisation or group so we can keep going?
  • Which choice of partnership to join will result in the greatest tensions locally (and avoiding these if possible) reducing further the likelihood of us being able to work effectively together in an environment of openness and trust in the future?
  • Which choice of partnership to join will cause the greatest alienation and organisational risk to the smaller community groups already struggling fiercely to survive in a difficult funding climate in order to continue helping those most in need?
  • Which choice of partnership to join will deliver consistency for communities and maximise opportunities for equal access to services to help them achieve their potential, rather than create a ‘luck of the draw’ approach depending on where people live?
  • So many questions….and of course the most important one of all ….which bid is the best one for our collective communities now and in the future?

This last fundamental question is probably the one given the least consideration as, understandably, the sector is forced to enter yet another chapter in their fight for survival – small perhaps but bloody, with a funding regime that sets groups and organisations against each other in competition, deepening mistrust and parochialism.

Decisions on how to come together end up being made based on very limited, if any, information about other bid aspirations and are often based on who people feel comfortable working with. The likely result? A fragmented, inconsistent picture of support that doesn’t provide the best for communities with tax payer’s money.

Community values are stretched to the limit as the principles of successful long term community development that a local authority should be custodians of, for example effective use of scarce resources, trust, openness, strong equitable partnerships, and social justice or ‘fairness’ for all communities are placed niftily at the ‘collective foot’ of the Third Sector.

“Well” a local authority might say “we gave you the freedom to demonstrate how you would do it properly and work together. If you can’t get it right, that’s not our responsibility”. Hmm……with no structure, no rules of engagement, imagine if the tables were turned on a local authority with all departments scrabbling about internally for a share of a grant pot?

As you might imagine such an approach is likely to have a harmful impact on the Sector.

In reality a very small percentage of the enormous amount of effort, time, expense, heart ache and hard work expended by the Third Sector as a whole will be transformed into successful bids to a funding programme, and is likely to leave a legacy of divisions and further fragmentation.

Just a thought, but perhaps if funding policy and strategy for delivering Third Sector support to communities were to be co-produced equally with the Third Sector, designing some useful rules for engagement that supported the development of meaningful structures and partnerships from the outset and set within, or across, geographic boundaries, the time that is spent working out how best to respond to such an open book and who to partner with could be better spent working on the all-important bid content, and avoid the negative fall-out from such a process.

There is a different and a better way to do business with the Third Sector, through co-production, but Public Sector needs to understand what this technique entails and embrace it to avoid a continuation of the ‘same old’ agonies that sadly don’t achieve the best outcomes for communities most in need of support and certainly don’t support survival of the best of the Third Sector.

Anyone up for change?

Posted in Local Authority, Third Sector | Leave a comment

How to save money – don’t answer the phone!

Call centres. I bet you love them as much as I do. Almost as much as automated call systems directing me to press 1 for customer service, press 2 for deliveries and so on as I quickly lose interest in holding on in the vain hope of speaking to a real person.

More often than not, ‘success’ means hearing a message along the lines of “all our advisers are currently busy, your call is important to us and will be answered shortly”. After this has been repeated maybe half a dozen times my patience starts to wear a bit thin. I know I’m being conned. My call and your call isn’t really that important or there’d be sufficient advisers ready to answer and resolve the issue.

I understand that every business has to strike a balance between responsiveness and the costs of delivery and I’ve been conditioned to expect this from companies focused on maximising profits including where it might be detrimental to the customer experience.

But have you noticed what’s happening with Local Authorities?

Okay, I know, LAs are easy targets – financial pressures and growing demand for services and not always known for their accessibility but these are public services and accountable to us.

Many LAs seem to have adopted the sharp practices of their private sector brethren and installed call centres to manage communications with their public and are now much less visible to the outside world. If you haven’t contacted your local authority recently, give them a call and see how you get on.

They’ve probably got a single point of contact, one telephone number through which most of the call traffic is routed to make it easier for everyone to stay in touch. Makes perfect sense. Why wouldn’t you operate in this way?

Well, not so long ago, a very senior manager of a nearby authority jokingly suggested that not answering the phones would be a great way to save money as people would have to be really really determined to get in touch. After all, if people give up easily their need can’t be so great or important enough for the LA to be concerned. I think it’s called ‘demand management’ and something like pretending you’re not home when the window cleaner comes to collect his money.

What a great wheeze – make a saving on staffing costs by employing fewer call centre staff and save again with fewer people accessing your services because the front door is less open than it used to be. Oh and direct everyone to your website where you can make it really difficult to find your telephone number…. to the call centre – works a treat.

The reality is that the LA does want to know about your concerns, your compliments and your needs but is overwhelmend which can make it quite difficult to engage. Nonetheless you are a cost and by denying you access that cost can be bagged as a saving – genius!

That is, until that quite poorly person or that child at risk doesn’t have access to a relevant service in a timely fashion. I genuinely hope that never happens but with authorities under increasing pressure to do nothing the probability and impact of failure is notching up and even with a greater appetite for risk there are some practices, like letting the phone ring, that appear to be in operation even if not publicised and claimed as an innovative efficiency saving.

Now of course, I’m speculating and perhaps being a little mischieveous. I don’t know if this kind of practice is common across the country but I’d be interested to know, wouldn’t you?



Posted in Efficiency, Local Authority | Leave a comment

Neighbourhood Plans: opportunities for Community Development

Neighbourhood Planning – so how do we do it and who is to pay?

Neighbourhood planning is changing the whole landscape for local planning.  Whether these radical new rights result in a slow burn in uptake, or a frenzy of interest and discussion at the local level, the same questions will be asked – how do we do it, what does it cost and who pays?

Neighbourhood Plans are about much more than a set of lines on a map which shows what is to be built where. Perhaps one question not asked so much relates to the real value to be gained from taking part in the process such as greater cohesion, sense of community, pride and local identity.

Neighbourhood plans present a good opportunity for community development.

The ‘front runner’ neighbourhood planning schemes, of which there are over 200, raise the question of how local authorities assist and engage with their preparation.  Will local authorities act defensively, seeking to retain control over the future planning of their neighbourhoods and therefore overlook the opportunities for local communities to reach out and build a better relationship within and, sometimes, between communities or will they approach the matter in a more collaborative spirit to maximise benefits?

To an extent, this must depend on how many communities take up the offer in each borough or district and the resources available to local authorities to support the process.

An announcement is due shortly from the Department of Communities and Local Government about the level of funding to be made available to local authorities to support Neighbourhood Planning and how that is to be used. The Government estimates that a Plan could cost anything from between £17,000 and £63,000.

Our discussions with parish councils and local authorities indicate that local people want support to draw up plans for themselves – to take ownership of the process rather than have specialist advisors offering to do their plans for them. It seems that what parishes and forums are looking for is guidance and support through a regulatory process that may appear daunting and complicated.

With the recent publication of the Neighbourhood Planning regulations which come into force on 6th April, many parishes and neighbourhoods may be wondering how they will undertake, and pay for, various requirements, such as compiling a robust evidence base needed to underpin a plan, undertaking effective community engagement and preparing the Sustainability Appraisal where required (a joint assessment of a Plan’s environmental, social and economic impacts).

The estimated cost, based on the cost of consultants or local authority planners’ time, of preparing a typical Sustainability Appraisal alone is between £10,000 and £30,000[1].

However, there is much you can do for yourself.  For example, according to Sustainability Consultants Levett-Therivel, reports indicate that a Sustainability Appraisal can be done for much less than this, maybe for free, if local residents are willing to do the work themselves.

Carrying out a ‘DIY SA’ also has the advantage of making sure that local residents develop an interest and understanding of the local area, and can make sure that the plan is effectively put into action.

There are various toolkits already available to help you through your own development of a Neighbourhood Plan, so don’t feel that you can’t do it for yourselves should you want to.

The proof is in the pudding with Neighbourhood Plans – so you may be able to have your pudding and eat it, just as long as you can stay the course, as Neighbourhood Plans are more a marathon than a sprint.

[1] Source: DIY SA: Sustainability Appraisal of Neighbourhood Plans, Levett-Therivel sustainability consultants, August 2011

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Piloting innovative approach to supporting community enterprise

Community Pilot of “ACE” Action 4 Community Enterprise training/ discussion aid 

Great pilot of “ACE” community enterprise training recently with eight community groups – thanks to everyone who spared their time to take part and for all the fantastic feedback (check out our events page).  We’re really pleased this self-facilitated training/discussion aid worked for groups and offers a totally different approach to engaging people in exploring their ideas for enterprise and innovation further.  Soon will be ready to launch ACE, hoping that groups far and wide are able to benefit from this low cost, high value support.

Next steps in our training programme  “Making it Happen” and “Working Together” facilitated training based on a community development framework  – also ready to go… watch this space….

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Rough Sleeping – Back to the 80’s?

If you were around in the 80’s & 90’s and earlier you’ll recall increasing numbers of people living and dying prematurely on the streets of Britain, from a complex interplay of government policy, social and economic factors. Conditions which are re-emerging at a worrying pace and threatening to plunge a new generation of people into extreme hardship.

Yes, we have funding announcements to support the ‘No second night out’ initiative which is helpful, but woefully inadequate. In my local patch a fund of over £200k has been announced but cuts of £15m to local prevention services, many of these focused on preventing homelessness, have been proposed in addition to cuts already implemented over the last year or so.

I don’t believe, back in the day, that it was a failure of housing, welfare and economic policy that forced vulnerable people on to the streets. I don’t believe either that rough sleeping, as the visible part of the homeless spectrum, was an unintended consequence of policy that could neither be predicted nor prevented.

My recollection is that only when West End theatregoers found it increasingly difficult to get into the performance of their choice because of the ‘litter’ of rough sleepers around the Strand did government act to address the visible consequences of their welfare policies. Not driven by a humanitarian perspective but forced to act from embarrassment, literally on the international stage.

At best, government remained indifferent to the sharp end of homelessness and in all likelihood did not consider themselves accountable, driven instead by a free market ideology holding the individual rather than the state responsible; rendering homelessness simply a failure to take responsibility at a personal level.

In the last days of 2011 I don’t believe that rising homelessness and rough sleeping is an accident, nor a failure of individuals but is rather an inevitable and predictable outcome of housing and welfare policies. Take a look at housing allocation policies, welfare benefit reforms, cuts in support services and localism for an alarming cocktail of policy that will deny increasing numbers of people access to basic essentials.

Perhaps a bit random but I stumbled across a UNICEF statistic relating to UK child poverty recently .

In 1979 1 in 10 children were considered to be in poverty

By 1997 the proportion had grown to 1 in 3

Without getting into the whole debate of measuring poverty I was initially shocked to consider the shift in children’s life chances but began to join up the dots by asking a few simple questions

Was this shift an accident?

Was it inevitable?

Could it have been prevented?

Was it predictable?

Was it negligent or deliberate?

How could this happen in a wealthy, modern democracy?

Assuming for a moment that you accept the UNICEF figures and agree that they’re reasonable questions to ask, what answers do you come up with?

Beyond the statistics, I’ve been struck by the level of apathy and resignation of professionals in my local housing sector to the increasingly damaging impact of locally applied national policies. But what do you do? Keep your head down, get on with your job and hope you’re not on the wrong side of the fence?

The view from my local housing authority is that with already high levels of homelessness across the town, the situation for an increasing number of people is about to get a whole lot worse. Current and proposed government ‘welfare’ reforms will plunge a modern generation of people into crisis.

Cuts to support services developed over the last ten years will push more people and whole communities further to the margins of society. This will be at great cost to the public purse because there are no real savings to be recovered from the blunt edge of a desperate programme of cuts, just an ever-rationed offer to those still with access to a service.

For example,

Who believes that the health bill won’t rise as a result with increased pressure on mental and physical health services?

Who believes that the bill for crime won’t rise as increasing numbers of people engage in offending behaviour?

The stakes are rising on a daily basis with ideologically driven policy set to dramatically increase inequality, the one thing in my view that must be narrowed to provide for a fairer and more just society.

I started off on a trip back to the 1980s but equally we might be heading back to the 1880s, the 1930s or other bygone era unless we choose not to.

History has a habit of repeating itself. Much of the near future can be seen in the very recent past and it’s not going to be fun for the majority but we do have choices

A choice to ignore, collude or challenge.

I’d be interested to know your choice and understand your views…

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EASI Launches

We formally launched the company from Northampton Museum & Art Gallery on 3 November and welcomed about 150 guests to an evening of celebration and entertainment accompanied by delicious food prepared and served by Flourish.

The event was a great success and you can see some of the pictures on the events page with video material to follow.

So many thanks to all those that supported the launch including

Northampton Borough Council for the venue – great support from all the staff. Both a wonderful place to work and a great venue for all manner of events and activities

Flourish for their delicious food and professional service. Book them for your catering requirements, you won’t be disappointed

Justin Thyme – our compere for the evening, a master wordsmith and curator of the Bardic Chair amongst other talents

The Samba Bandits raised the roof with their Latin grooves and are available for your event

Badra Tribal performed their mesmerising blend of rhythmic dance and run both classes for aspiring dancers and are available for your events

Caroline Hussey-Bain aka the ‘Bard of Northampton’ wrote and performed a dedication to the birth of EASI and can also be found performing with the Love Poets at select venues

Joe Woolley perfomed a mellow set of folk inspired blues and can be found performing locally and nationally. Catch hime when you can for a little inspiration

Pat Fish of Jazz Butcher fame performed a unique blend of post punk acoustica and can be found performing up and down the land to great acclaim

Thanks to Bob Fielding for his photographic skills capturing activity during the evening. Bob is available to discuss you photographic needs

Thanks to Charlie Trotman and Leigh, students from the University of Northampton, for the videography – soon to be on the site. They’re available to video your events and offer a high quality good value service

Big thanks to Andy Partridge for the use of and setting up the PA for the evening. Andy’s blues band, “The Blue Road”, are worth checking out on face book

Massive thanks to a number of local businesses who provided refreshments, food and support. We’re grateful to Daily Bread, The Co-op in Daventry & Northampton, Sainsbury’s & Morrisons

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The real opportunity in CSR is for people to offer up their specific skills

I’ve experienced blue-chip financial sector companies ‘painting the hostel’ when the charities involved really needed their financial expertise to develop a more commercial approach to fulfilling their charitable objectives. On some occasions, there is a need to adopt a more coherent approach, matching need to resources.

With the public sector in rapid retreat, the private sector unfamiliar with the complexity of social value and the third sector fearing the worst, the opportunity lies in tapping into skills and competencies within communities. The invitation is not to ruthlessly exploit these resources for a quick return but to nurture and support communities to find and reach their potential by combining “assets” to create more than the sum of the parts and benefit for all stakeholders.

We can only achieve this if we choose to establish more equitable relationships across the public, private and voluntary/community sectors. I’m generalising, but in the main, most stakeholder relationships are inherently control weighted in one direction.

So what’s new?

Recognising that we have a problem is a start, alongside action to establish a more level playing field to engage on or we’re going nowhere fast. It does mean that the empires, egos and politics need to be put to one side for productive relations to seed.

If communities are a bit like icebergs, with much of the action hidden from view, then we all need to get a little closer to make sense of the rich and challenging mix of relationships at play. The temptation might be to parachute in yet another top-down initiative destined to make a lot of noise but add little of lasting value.

At a time when resources and goodwill are fast ebbing away, exposing communities to increased risk of harm we have a great opportunity to recast roles and responsibility across the public, private and community sectors.

My experience of the last twenty years, with half of this time as a public-sector commissioner and the other half as a voluntary-sector professional and community activist, tells me that the public, private and voluntary sector is too far away from communities to maintain a meaningful and mutually beneficial relationship.

In taking a step outside my comfort zone (public-sector commissioning for the last 10 years) to establish this social enterprise, focused on asset-based community development I’m hoping to be a constructive part of the transition. We’re interested in supporting the ‘bottom up’ to meet the ‘top down’ and harness the strengths of all parties genuinely working to address complex social issues.

At a local level, the impact and targeting of volunteering would be better understood if companies (public, private and voluntary) pooled their offers through an online portal to match need with resources (people, buildings, the environment et al). We’ve been encouraging our public-sector colleagues to consider releasing each of their staff for just one day each quarter and offer this resource to their community through a smart online database. I’m also aware that many private sector companies remain frustrated in deploying their resources and expertise at the local level so we do have to address this weakness or accept missed opportunities for all.

Imagine the benefit of 10 local authority planners offering their expertise to communities to develop neighbourhood plans (as envisaged in the Localism Act). That’s 40 days’ work in a year with the potential to unlock a reciprocal response from communities and magnify the value. Extrapolate to the whole public/ private/ voluntary arena and without very much effort we have the potential to build stronger, more cohesive, trusting, confident and connected communities better able to meet their own needs.

Chief executives resistant to this option might do well to build a more sustainable relationship with their staff and wider public, perhaps embedding volunteering within annual appraisal objectives to reinforce the commitment. In these austere times, measures that give staff room for volunteering will be more than recouped with reduced sickness, improved motivation and a renewed vigour to go the extra mile.

I’m not sure where we’ll get to with this particular proposal, but as a community-based enterprise with ideas and experience to share, we’re intent on working collaboratively to break new ground and invent our way to a more prosperous future; mindful of people and communities more vulnerable to the fallout from policy change already moving at a rapid pace and with no brakes.















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