Power to the local people

A new charter could give residents more say in local affairs, says Michael Durham
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Two years ago, the ragged area of land in a back street of Stoke on Trent was occupied by weeds and a derelict block of flats. This month, with the flats pulled down, work is going on to transform it into a walled garden. In 18 months, the Abbey Allotments project in Hadleigh Road will fully open as a community space with seed beds and smart new buildings.

Two years ago, the ragged area of land in a back street of Stoke on Trent was occupied by weeds and a derelict block of flats. This month, with the flats pulled down, work is going on to transform it into a walled garden. In 18 months, the Abbey Allotments project in Hadleigh Road will fully open as a community space with seed beds and smart new buildings.

Civic leaders hope the allotments will be used by schools to teach children about growing their own food. But local people will also benefit, and the transformation could not have been achieved without the involvement of the local community. The Sutton Trust Community group, a neighbourhood organisation, has been involved from the start.

"I thought it was awful that kids think everything comes from packets, so I visited some local schools," said the chair, Betty Rushton. "We are all very excited. It's going to be a real community space. Some of the residents will be teaching the children how to sow seeds and plant. We'll be passing on our skills for generations to come."

Is Britain becoming a nation of insular stay-at-homes, who shut themselves in without a thought for the quality of life in their local neighbourhood and the community outside - or do we care about our local environment? According to Groundwork, a national charity that supports local regeneration projects, there is good evidence that people are concerned about their local areas, the quality of the built environment and the strength of the community.

The Government is keen to support local involvement in creating sustainable communities. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has announced plans to build hundreds of thousands of new homes in parts of South East England over the coming decade. The Government wants to make sure these new communities are viable and attractive, as well as improving the quality of life in existing neighbourhoods.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, has announced a five-year action plan for sustainable communities, with proposals to give local people more say in how communities are run and powers to tackle anti-social behaviour, as well as ensuring high-quality buildings. Citizens could be given a "neighbourhood charter" setting out the standard of life people should expect in their local area. "We believe that by action at the neighbourhood level, people everywhere can make a significant difference to the quality of our country's public services," the Deputy Prime Minister's department says. New by-laws could give people tougher local powers to crack down on street crime, vandalism and yobbery.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is pushing through new legislation aimed at cleaning up local neighbourhoods. The Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill would offer new powers to crack down on litter, fly-tipping, fly-posting, abandoned cars and loud noise.

The Government is giving millions of pounds to Groundwork, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) and other bodies to help local communities improve the quality of neighbourhoods. Sonja Suckling, a landscape architect with Groundwork who is advising on the Abbey Allotments scheme, says: "It's amazing the difference working with a community makes. People usually come to us with an idea to form a community group in their area, get funding and see through a particular project - whether it is improving a whole street or a scrap of unused land. Our job is not to do everything for them but to help them do it themselves. We try to encourage people to learn, so that a community group can be sustainable in future.

"Neighbourhood regeneration now increasingly often includes an element of working with local people to improve their own community and that helps make a neighbourhood sustainable. Without the Sutton Trust Community group the Abbey Allotments would never have been achieved, but now we believe it is going to be a real benefit to the area."

Flexible working Confronting the fear of change

The traditional British working model of long hours spent in the workplace has never looked shakier.

Increasing numbers of companies have realised that getting more from your workforce does not mean getting them to spend longer at work. If it did, the UK, with its long-hours culture, would be the most productive market in the EU.

Instead, many are introducing flexible working policies, enabling employees to break free from the office and become more productive, more committed and less stressed.

In sustainability terms, it's a win-win; a reduction in travelling to work and an increase in job satisfaction; it also throws the spotlight on how working methods can move away from solutions involving transport to those involving technology.

It is a trend that is supported at the highest level. Patricia Hewitt MP, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, has said that "increasingly, flexible working time is essential to business success - and the success of public services".

The public sector has in fact been one of the most enthusiastic adopters of flexible working models. Whether it is flexi-time, long a feature of many civil service posts, or major initiatives such as the Department of Health's Improving Working Lives strategy.

Launched in the NHS in 2000, Improving Working Lives set out the framework for introducing a range of policies and measures designed to improve the working lives of NHS employees and by which all NHS organisations are now measured.

The private sector, too, is beginning to appreciate the benefits of ditching rigid working patterns and embracing flexibility. BT began experimenting with home-based workers in 1984. Now, around 70 per cent of its 85,000 employees work flexibly in one form another.

Caroline Waters, the company's director of people and policy, says that the benefits are felt not just in terms of a happy, committed workforce, but also in terms of savings: "Our home workers are on average 21 per cent more productive than office-based colleagues, which equates to an annual saving of £6m. But they also have three days less sickness absence each year and save me £6,000 for every desk they vacate. We are more productive, we save millions and our workers enjoy a working model that better fits their requirements."

The figures are persuasive, but reaping the benefits of flexible working requires a radical change of approach for many British organisations. It may explain why, when part-time work is taken out of the equation, only 25 per cent of organisations provide truly flexible working models for employees.

"It says a lot about traditional management strategies, which tend to focus on command and control structures. Many UK businesses are blinkered by the traditional assumption that doing a job means being in the employer's workplace for a certain number of hours every day," says Alexandra Jones of think-tank The Work Foundation.

It is certainly not technology that is holding UK employers back. The technology is sufficiently advanced for workers to access files, databases and other information quickly and securely over the internet no matter where they are, while telephone calls can be seamlessly re-routed around the world without any disruption.

As with most innovations, the main hindrance to the growth of flexible working is fear of change. A change in the way employees are managed and a change in monitoring and measuring their performance. "The challenge around flexible working is to change the way organisations think. To put the focus on outputs rather than inputs; to measure performance in terms of what is produced, not how long the employee was at their desk," says Jones.

Once that mental switch is made, the productivity and efficiency improvements facilitated by flexible working speak for themselves.