Links boost urban regeneration: Community development projects are benefiting from increased corporate thinking in business partnerships

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FOR YEARS, businesses throughout the developed world have sought to pay something back to society by contributing money and time, and lending their people to community projects.

Strangely, though, little progress has been made in translating corporate thinking to this work. This may be out of concern about being seen to be taking over the programme. But a paper published on 7 December by David Grayson, managing director of Business in the Community's business strategy group, suggests that this should change.

Just as companies of all sizes are starting to focus on such issues as empowerment, partnerships and people development, so too should the economic development programmes with which they are increasingly involved.

For example, he cites how former US president Jimmy Carter has put together the Atlanta Partnership with the aim of creating a model for urban regeneration by the time the Olympic Games open in the city, which has long been regarded as a symbol of the 'New South', in 1996.

The centrepiece of this strategy is forming business support groups to help community groups, with a particular focus on neighbourhood schools as the catalyst.

In other words, rather than adopting a vague programme aimed at society in general, he is concentrating on people - in much the same way that Henry Cisneros, the Housing and Urban Development Secretary, is devoting efforts to develop human capacity. According to Mr Grayson, Mr Cisneros wishes he had done the same in his previous role, as mayor of the Texas city of San Antonio.

Likewise, Mr Grayson says the notion of empowerment could be used to help the targets of economic development programmes (whether community projects like those at Hartcliffe and Withywood near Bristol or smaller companies hoping to grow) to act for themselves. As a useful model, he points to the Plato programme in Flanders, where managers from more than 20 multinationals work in pairs to help developing companies expand. But more can be done.

'Are we being radical enough in our thinking about how we transfer the expertise of major corporations like BT and British Airways, which have successfully applied major culture-change programmes, when it comes to training public agencies so that they can empower for community economic development?' he asks.

The role of partnerships is reasonably well known as a result of the tendency for supermarket groups such as J Sainsbury to build public amenities in return for receiving planning permission for stores.

But Mr Grayson, who is co- founder-director of Project North East in Newcastle and chairman of the national review panel for Business Links, or one-stop shops for business support, sees this process being carried much further. For instance, one company said it would like to see the sort of partnership where there was a land swap between the company and the council. In return, an organisation would be developed to exploit the company's Japanese connections with the aim of bringing businesses from that country into the area.

Furthermore, projects should seek to measure their outcomes by using another in- vogue management concept - benchmarking.

The danger of succumbing to trendiness does not appear to be lost on Mr Grayson. He acknowledges that 'partnership' is a vogue word - but says it is fundamental to successful economic development.

In the meantime, he offers 'seven deadly sins' and 'seven heavenly virtues' of partnership. With the former including 'unrealistic timescales', 'confused objectives' and 'lack of training' and the latter comprising such factors as 'clear vision', 'leadership' and 'adding value', the similarity with business's main activities is inescapable.

(Photograph omitted)