'If people don't come, we find them'

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The Independent Online

Ask anyone connected with neighbourhood renewal what's different this time round, and the first thing they'll say is community involvement.

Ask anyone connected with neighbourhood renewal what's different this time round, and the first thing they'll say is community involvement. Don Smallwood, a resident from the Preston Road New Deal for Communities partnership in Hull, explains: "There have been plenty of attempts at regenerating our housing estate. But because they'd failed, we didn't trust the new promises that came with the NDC. We're now two years in, and residents here will tell you that the promises are being kept and that the reason is, for the first time, our input – which has not only been welcomed but demanded."

The agricultural drain that runs through the estate is, he says, a case in point. "It's always been a dumping ground – cars are even chucked in it. But we can't get rid of it because its purpose is to drain the area. So we set up a 'Citizen's Jury' – one of the Government's new initiatives – made up of local people who call in appropriate experts to help decide on a solution. In this case, our decision was to make the drain into a feature. We can already see a return of our village centre as somewhere to be proud of."

Indeed, at every stage of every project in the 39 NDCs across England, local people are consulted. Richard Davies, the Managing Director of the NDC in Hull, explains: "If people don't come to us, we find them. To get the views of young people, for example, we set up a meeting with free Coke and pizza. The message that we have to get across is that every single local person is a stakeholder in our projects. It took a while, but we had literally thousands of people coming up with project ideas."

Not all deprived neighbourhoods have NDCs, of course. But they have played an important role in the development of the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal and, more specifically, for Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs) – the main vehicle for delivering neighbourhood renewal at a local level. These partnerships will bring together the public, private and voluntary-sector service providers with the community and business sectors. They will offer the opportunity to rationalise the many partnerships that exist already.

The Government's intention is that such partnerships will play an increasingly important role in co-ordinating national and local initiatives. They will also aim to put a stop to regeneration projects being removed from the community they serve – the very problem of past initiatives. "Groups that represent residents' or their members' interests are vital in making strategies work. So we are seeking out these groups' views in whatever way we can – indeed, we have been provided with resources to ensure that we do," says Nathalie Hadjifotiou of Southwark LSP. In some areas, local forums have been set up to gather views.

To help people get involved, new funding is on offer from the Government through the Community Chest programme. A fund of £50m will be available over three years to provide small grants of between £50 and £5,000 for organisations and individuals who want funding for community projects. "A group of tenants, for instance, might wish to set up a credit union but not know how to go about it," explains Sian Jones of the NRU. "They could apply for a Community Chest grant to study how other communities have achieved it or buy in professional training. Almost any idea is welcome – from toys and equipment for parent-and-toddler groups to IT for refugee projects."

The Scarman Trust – one of the agencies that has been approved by the Government to help manage the programme – already has experience of running small grants. Nana Ama Amamoo has already benefited. "Having developed a keen interest in cooking while growing up in Ghana, I developed a project on healthy eating and African foods in my local area of Peckham, funded by a Scarman Trust Millennium Award," she explains. Ms Amamoo wanted to use local grocery shops that had become little community centres as dissemination points for her leaflets; she was successful not only in Peckham but also in Deptford and Brixton. Now, through her project, she is advocating to the African communities the benefits of healthy eating and exercising.

Since the NRU claims to take a "bottom-up" approach even at government level, it has recently selected 20 "real people" to join a government panel, with the aim of "acting as a critical friend for the NRU and ambassadors for neighbourhood renewal". "There was a rigorous recruitment process because we wanted to get people who could reflect a genuine grassroots voice and passion for neighbourhood renewal," explains Ms Jones. "What we didn't want was the usual suspects – those who already get their voices heard."

The panel members will investigate what works and what doesn't and the Government will take their opinions on board. "One such issue might be our expectation of local community members to participate in short-term renewal initiatives. It might appear to be a good thing that we offer financial incentives, but if someone is on benefits, the money earned is taken out of the benefits. The panel will hopefully identify problems such as this."