THE BLOG
11/06/2015 06:53 BST | Updated 10/06/2016 06:59 BST

Let's Give More Control to Residents and Local Volunteers to Help Create Positive, Lasting Change for Our Communities

Volunteering to help others can have diverse benefits both for us as individuals and for those we volunteer with. It can increase people's confidence, boost wellbeing and help strengthen the fabric of society. There is increasing recognition of this from policy makers too. Take for example, the Government's pledge to offer up to three days' paid volunteering in companies employing over 250 staff - a move which could provide new opportunities to around 15 million staff.

Measures to increase voluntary activity throughout society are to be welcomed. But when focusing on new strategies, we shouldn't forget one key area of volunteering that is often overlooked: that carried out by residents in their communities, with their neighbours, friends and community groups. Many of us are likely to have volunteered our time and skills in this way.

This kind of volunteering has a major impact on increasing social capital, building networks of relationships among people and helping communities to function more effectively. It can also have a hugely positive impact on tackling poverty and inequality.

Lots of communities rely heavily on the support of residents and local volunteers to create local employment opportunities and boost the local economy - from offering community transport schemes to running local markets or supporting jobs clubs.

For many communities however, there can be challenges in helping residents become involved with voluntary activity, especially where people may feel unable to make their voice heard about changes that are most needed locally. In 2014, we published research finding that communities most affected by public spending cuts and welfare reform are more likely to find continued community engagement a greater challenge.

We believe that providing more opportunities for residents to have a say in decision-making is one of the most effective ways of addressing this issue. There are many communities where people may feel unable to make their voices heard and, last week, we published new survey findings showing that residents want a stronger voice.

Over three quarters of us think residents are best placed to know what is needed in their community and two thirds of us are willing to volunteer by helping our neighbours and community, if given the opportunity to do so. The research also highlights incentives for increasing engagement, with three in five of us wanting the opportunity to help decide how funding is spent.

The findings show the potential for creating more opportunities to harness the skills and enthusiasm of residents to help transform their communities. Devolving power to local government and encouraging them to work with and provide greater independence to local areas is an important step.

This doesn't mean relinquishing support - it means giving residents more opportunities to take on responsibility in a way that they are comfortable with, making contributions in a number of different ways whilst not over-burdening them.

Local Trust has seen the benefits of this approach through its resident-led Big Local programme, which is happening in 150 communities across England over 15 years. It provides residents in each community with at least £1m and a range of other support and funding to enable them to make their own decisions to create positive changes in their local area.

We work in communities that have been overlooked for central funding and support in the past, and so far we have seen residents report a real sense of ownership from being involved; they have reported feeling more part of their local community and more positive about their areas through having opportunities to learn new skills and make a difference.

It's clear that we can do much more to engage and empower residents and local volunteers to take control of leading change in their communities and we will be working closely with local government, funders and service providers to realise the benefits of this collaborative approach, helping communities become stronger and more effective in the long term.