Communities know the challenges they face better than anyone. However, when people feel they have no control - over their local economy, their workplace or the businesses they use - there is a crippling effect.
How do we break this vicious circle? A group in St Austell, Cornwall is attempting to do just that by restoring the area's rich ceramic heritage. Another community group in Blackpool is attempting to tackle an epidemic of closed shops and social issues, while in Dorset there's a response to the proliferation of low-skilled jobs. These are not isolated examples.
Bootstrap solutions are being championed across England through the Community Economic Development programme, delivered by Co-operatives UK. This government-backed initiative - the first support of its kind for a generation - is now into its second year. Twenty new groups are working to develop their own community economic development plans to help boost their local area, bringing the number of communities which have been involved in the programme to 70, and providing a model for community development that could be used more widely.
Community economic development is about small-scale action, but it can have dramatic effects on a neighbourhood over time. Twenty five years ago this summer, the Meadow Well estate on Tyneside was hit by riots. Since that time, supported by the late Tony Gibson, a pioneer of the approach, it has become an exemplar for community action. Neighbourhood Inspector Neil Armsworth, of the Northumbria Police, commented recently that "the changes to the Meadow Well estate as well as the role and work of the police has been simply transformational over the past 25 years."
The beauty of community-led projects is not just the invaluable local knowledge groups are armed with, but also the energy and enthusiasm brought to the table. The people involved are heavily invested in the success of the project. After all, the results benefit the very community they are a part of.
Through the CED programme, each of the new groups will work with an experienced adviser to develop a dynamic and deliverable local economic plan. They also benefit through a £5,000 grant and access to specialist support on a diverse range of areas including community enterprise, finance, stakeholder engagement and asset acquisition and development.
We are talking about making a positive difference to communities, to people's lives. The breadth of impact may vary from project to project, but the strength remains. As Sarah Gorman, the Project Director at Edberts House in Gateshead, puts it: "What we develop will be small but extremely significant for all those that are involved."
Edberts House operates in an area severely affected by public sector job cuts. By working with local people it aims to deliver qualifications and raise expectations. Another ambition through the CED programme is to create businesses that will benefit local people and their communities by utilising the co-operative model.
The reference to the co-operative model neatly brings us full circle. Co-operative businesses are owned and run by their members. They offer a solution to the growing sense of powerlessness people feel over businesses they are closest to - whether they shop at them, work at them or supply them. And co-operation is also key to the success of community economic development.
We are already witnessing the positive impact of the programme's first year, the second round promises to be just as successful and a step further in proving the value of local community-led economic development.
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