Companies and councils forge vision of the city

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The Independent Online
BUSINESSES have gained new insights into community problems and local councils have become more positive towards commerce and industry as a result of the Common Purpose programme, say its co-ordinators. It is so successful that it is set to expand in Britain and establish new projects abroad.

In the past five years Common Purpose has had more than 2,000 participants, many of whom believe their managerial skills have improved as a result. It has become an effective network of senior decision- makers, with graduates of programmes continuing to meet.

Participants attend two-day workshops monthly for nine months. Each workshop concentrates on the key concerns of the local community, and how the sectors can work together to solve problems. The intensity of the sessions combined with their frequency ensures that the programme builds close contacts, which are reinforced by an annual graduates' conference.

'We now operate 26 programmes across the country, and potentially that could be 45, with one in each of the major cities,' said Julia Middleton, chief executive and founder of Common Purpose. 'In Bristol now, for example, you can feel an active civil society, which is achieved by what I call 'critical mass', because there have been 200 people going through the programme there.

'We are developing the next generation of decision- makers to make them better than this generation, and to have a vision for a whole city.'

New programmes are to be established in Berlin, Dublin and Lille in France. 'This will enrich the British programmes enormously,' Ms Middleton said. 'There will be added value in seeing people do things differently. You can see the networking within professions in Europe, but not between them, and not between cities.'

Jane Hustwit, Leeds regional director of Common Purpose, says that the programme discussions are focused on real dilemmas. 'Our last day, in early May, was on health. We looked at the health reforms, whether they have worked, and how to choose between competing priorities. It was helped because participants included people who worked in the Department of Health's headquarters, and for NHS trusts.

'Participants' attitudes shift, and that applies to everyone who comes on the programme. We are taking that forward into action,' Ms Hustwit said. 'Muslim girls, who are only allowed in female company, have gained work experience in a women's law firm. We have introduced people from outer Leeds who have never been to see a play to the West Yorkshire Playhouse.'

Benefits are considerable to the participants, as well as for people who are disadvantaged, Ms Hustwit argues. 'What makes me passionate is that it gives people in mid-career an opportunity to pause, re-assess and stretch their brains.'

Barry Oliver of Vickers Defence Systems in Leeds, who has attended the course, is as enthusiastic. 'It's hard work, but fun. You find out about activities in your area; what should be going on but isn't; and who's doing what. You see the city as a whole. I can help people I didn't even know existed. I'm about to discuss doing some talks about what it's like to have a job. It doesn't sound much until you realise that some people don't know.'

The scheme has also led Mr Oliver to be so critical of Leeds council that he is considering entering local politics. 'It never occurred to me that there were ways I could help the community,' he said.

'Vickers has supported both Leeds and Newcastle programmes, to show employees how the company fits into the cities. We are trying to forge links with the universities on a personal level, and ask if there is something we can do together on a commercial basis. That would create work and jobs,' Mr Oliver said.

A note of caution has been raised by some participants who are worried that the programmes are at risk of being elitist. Gary Coleby is the head of a Leicester school and a graduate of a programme. 'I'm sceptical, though I enjoyed it. I'm concerned about the naivety - that just by meeting we will change anything. How people are chosen worries me. It is not by national advertising, but by word of mouth.

'I've benefited from it. My understanding of industry is better. I've offered placements for voluntary projects, and got a very supportive lawyer on our board of governors. It has lots of possibilities, but it must lose its Masonic overtones.'

(Photograph omitted)

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