Detours Through the Neighbourhood Strategies

After having gone through the draft version of the Neighbourhood Strategy green paper, I took some time out of my day to stop by the Selly Oak meeting. I was hoping there’d a be a Q&A session about the draft document.

But it wasn’t to be. The Summer of Dialogue meetings are apparently conceived as something different, where discussion points are set out by facilitators, and the ensuing conversation parsed as concepts for further consideration. The Green Paper wasn’t particularly central to the discussion, and it turns out that I missed the chance to join in.

However, notes have been circulated, particularly here, and I’ve gone through them to see what kinds of topics emerged in discussion. Along the way, as a kind of detour, I’ve generated some word clouds to help identify the prevalence of certain topics and areas of concern.

For example, using the Selly Oak notes, I did a simple concordance. It is a crude way of identifying concepts central to the discussion – although they may simply be a shorthand form of words preferred by the note taker.  The result is what you’d expect.

Apple Wordle

You could pretty much make a summary from stringing together the most frequently used words: neighbourhood working enables people community networks.

It doesn’t represent something actually said, but does give a nod in the general direction. You can see where the emphasis lies. It doesn’t give much insight, but it’s cute.

So, after gathering and collating all the notes from Edgbaston, Selly Oak, Sutton Coldfield and Yardley meetings, I tried something more complicated. But first, another detour.

Set Questions

The meeting notes are organised around four set questions, as follows.

  • Why does enabling effective neighbourhood working matter?
  • What are the risks of neighbourhood working?
  • What do we want to see in a neighbourhood strategy?
  • What can we do aside from a neighbourhood strategy?

Discussing and gathering feedback around these questions seems to be what the Summer of Dialogue is about. To get my own head round this stuff, I wanted to see what has been said, and look for two things: patterns, and gaps.

For example, in response to the first question, I wanted to see whether people felt Neighbourhood Working was at all useful, and if so, whether it made unique differences that would a justify continuation of the practice.

So this time, instead of doing a simple concordance, I went through every comment and tried to assign a category and a sign (positive or negative) to each. It’s a slow task, and some comments cannot be categorised this way.


Assigning categories is a largely arbitrary business, but some of the comments provide a clear steer, and once a category exists, it’s good to see what else fits. For example, on seeing that one response to the first question set at the Selly Oak meeting was that Neighbourhood Working ‘can be open and inclusive’, I set Inclusion as a category, then looked for other comments that fit the category.

So far, I’ve come up with some 20 other comments that relate broadly to notions of ways that neighbourhood working supports breadth of participation. I included comments about togetherness, linkages, mixing and so on. Some of these comments could be double or triple coded, but for now, one code will do.

Here’s what I coded as about Inclusion:

  • Acknowledge people’s involvement
  • Avoid labelling places as poor – they might be rich in other ways
  • Can be open and inclusive
  • Enables mixing and undermines silo based thinking
  • Enables working between communities in the same neighbourhood including between generations
  • Faith communities really matter – they are values-based and they join people from different classes together
  • Faith groups, sports clubs and others create links between different classes and types of people who live in an area
  • Faith organisations can often act as hubs for neighbourhood working
  • Food is a good way of bringing people together – community lunches and breakfasts etc – and food growing projects too
  • Giving feedback to the people who’ve contributed
  • Help neighbourhoods to talk to one another and learn from each other
  • It cracks open professional and specialist ‘silos’ and ‘jobsworth’ behaviour
  • It enables agencies to listen more effectively to what people want
  • It must cover CCGs , the NHS, police, schools, social landlords, transport bodies and businesses as well
  • It strengthens (and depends on) good relationships between local communities and agencies
  • Make links between neighbourhoods
  • Mean that young people and children are more able to get involved
  • Remember it applies to rich areas as well as poor
  • Remember the importance of business too
  • Respects the role of ‘resident experts’
  • Sports clubs and activities can work in the same way
  • Stress the importance of links between business and community
  • We need business links

Having continued in that vein, my first pass through the notes generated 50 categories. Since I was trying to answer a question about the positive benefits of neighbourhood working, I divided the list into 3 further groups: positive, negative, and other. The negative comments were about fixing what’s broke, as in the comment about cracking open ‘silos’ and ‘jobsworth’ behaviour, or about what’s risky with neighbourhood working.

Top Down v Bottom Up

At this point, I’ve got a way of identifying some of the positives to come out of neighbourhood working. Most of my categories are one or two words long, and are meaningful in a word cloud. So I made one cloud of positive categories, and one of negative. Some categories are both.


Out of all that, I’ve created a tangle of conclusions:

  • current practice has a variety of negatives,
  • neighbourhood working could make some things worse
  • and some things better
  • while some things remain problematic either way

Current practice fosters disparity, but neighbourhood working can foster disparities too.

Money is an issue either way, as are matters of identity.

Where neighbourhood working shines, though, is in effectiveness and inclusiveness. It gets things done at a neighbourhood level by being open and geared to local conditions. It takes a holistic, neighbourhood view that, in the words of one Selly Oak comment, ‘means we can look at issues in the round’. This provides an interim answer to my earlier question about the utility of neighbourhood working.

What Else?

That answer can also be used as a tool to get at different questions.

It seems pretty clear that people want a holistic, inclusive quality to their neighbourhood services, which should form part of any neighbourhood strategy. Is Neighbourhood Working the best way of making that happen, or could those things be accomplished more readily by other means? As posed in the set questions, is there something we can do aside from having neighbourhood strategies? Should we be focusing on the outcomes rather than the means of delivery? I expect those questions are being discussed in small groups, with or without being fed into the public forum.

Having done all that, I am still wanting to look for gaps in the categories of comment. As noted earlier, some comments defy categorisation, and it’s these that hold clues to more meaningful interpretations, and further feedback. An example of a gap that may be relevant is about training, facilitation and arbitration. If Neighbourhood Working relies on volunteers, what model/s of working will they have access to, and how will their efforts be managed? This turns into a question of resourcing, and about roles for organisations like BVSC.

I suppose the next thing I’ll do is go back to the four questions and see if I can come up with some straightforward responses.

Neighbourhood Strategy Green Paper

A few notes/comments as I make my way through this document. (See also Neighbourhood Strategy Dialogue Launched! | Fair Brum for context.)

Page 2
1. Neighbourhood Summit? What’s that?
2. Summer of Dialogue? The meetings in August? Not sure I think that counts as dialogue.

Page 4

the  scarcity  of  resources  suggests  that  public  sector  resources  for neighbourhood  working  should  be  focussed  on  areas  with  high  levels  of  deprivation,  that  is, where the need is greatest.

This has been the approach adopted in the past in Birmingham, as in other parts of the country, with  the  identification  of  Priority  Neighbourhoods.  This  can,  however,  be  combined  with  an enabling and empowering approach in all neighbourhoods, and an approach which responds to capacity, assets and opportunities in each neighbourhood.

I’d expect this to mention the possible significance of working across neighbourhoods – where people and resources from one can help support people and activities in others. The absence of such mention prompts a thought about the prevalence of inward-focused, hierachical ways of working. That’s the nut to be cracked, which in turn means prying entrenched postholders from their positions.

Communities will need to be less reliant on public services and do more for themselves if they are to protect and improve the quality of their lives. They will need to be even more enterprising, developing their capacity to deliver local services and thinking of new ways to attract resources into their neighbourhoods. Above all, they will need to be resilient with citizens supporting each other to overcome challenges, hardship and divisions.

  1. Who sets the priorities about which services to focus on? My interests are not those of the guy next door. Who decides?
  2. Who and what promotes this mutual support? Too often the big egos in a given area dominate and drive out potential helpers. Who is going to ensure that there’s a sense of respect for each person?

Page 5

It  describes  the  roles  of different parts of the council, and the new District Committees in particular, in making services respond to an individual neighbourhood’s needs and priorities.

My experience of District Committees is that they operate without much engagement – they seem incidental and poorly integrated. What will change that?

One of its proposals is to create an independent Neighbourhood Trust for Birmingham to attract investment  in  neighbourhood  working  and  mechanisms  for  reviewing  progress  and  learning lessons are outlined.

Could be good. Who sits on these Trusts, and how are they chosen?

Skipping ahead …

Page 13 – Arena 2: City-wide initiatives

  • Employment,
  • Public Health,
  • City-wide co-ordination

Need to look at these more fully.

Page 15

A  primary  function  of  such  a  Trust  would  be  as  a neighbourhood  investment  broker,  raising,  disbursing  and  managing  funds  on  behalf  of
community-based neighbourhood partnerships. The aim is for the Neighbourhood Trust to play a similar role in the neighbourhood investment field that the Birmingham Employment Skills and Training (BEST) consortium plays in its field.

This sounds rather narrower than I’d prefer. Need to get more info.

Welcome – – expired domain?

 Page 17

1. Is there a need for a Neighbourhood Strategy bringing together in one plan a coherent approach to working and seeking to transform place?

– Possibly. Haven’t enough info yet.

2. Should the strategy be designed as a framework document:
a. with core values and priorities with multi agency and cross sector buy-in?
b. with built in flexibility to encourage innovation and, self-directed activity?

– The latter.

3. Should the idea of identifying three arenas of activity together with an enabling strand to ‘make it happen’ be included in the strategy? The arenas include:
a. joining up local service delivery across all agencies;
b. bringing citywide programmes to have greater impact in place e.g. employment and public health
c. empowering the community, voluntary sector and residents/stakeholders to make a difference in place

– Not convinced that more is better when setting out strategy. Less may be more.

4. Within the framework approach is there merit in allowing differing agencies to champion and lead each arena of activity and to develop a range of action?

– Which agencies? In many cases the answer should be no.

5. Do you think District Committees should be the agency responsible for identifying and declaring places or neighbourhoods for action and then for holding relevant agencies to account for actions to make a difference in these areas?

– Not convinced that District Committees are suitable vehicles.

6. Would you support a twin-pronged approach to identifying neighbourhoods:
a. District Committees being responsible through an agreed methodology in identifying and declaring priority neighbourhoods with a clear social cohesion challenge
b. District Committees and other agencies identifying places where general work to improve place should take place

– Possibly. Which other agencies?

7. How should governance and accountability work at a neighbourhood level:
a. In addressing agreed priorities and targets particularly on social cohesion targets
b. In addressing local plans drawn up by a range of community led groups

– The latter more than the former. But this sounds incomplete as a means of governance and accountability.

8. What are your views on developing and establishing:
a. A Neighbourhood Trust, either citywide or a federated structure with local boards, designed to identify funding opportunities
b. A Leadership Prospectus where different agencies come forward to lead a place and coordinate activities – similar to the neighbourhood management approach adopted previously
c. A Neighbourhood Learning Network – bringing together what works and shared learning across the Neighbourhood programme
d. Neighbourhood Service Standards – defining standards for local services and a wider compact between agencies delivering services and residents, community groups and other stakeholders.

– The first two sound a bit suspect, and the last two sound pretty good.

9. How do we ensure that different communities of interest are engaged and have a voice and role in Neighbourhood Management?

To some extent, as noted on p. 15, ‘simply getting out of the way’ would reduce obstacles to community formation, though that is not a comprehensive approach. There is a far greater need for using existing structures and agencies to gain leverage – but the questions of how to deal with power grabs, paternalism, and diversion of resources remain as unaddressed obstacles to an effective leveraging and capacity-building process. Perhaps a Neighbourhood Standards Inspectorate would be a useful intervention, along with resources to help establish and maintain facilitation within and among groups.

FOI study

Beginning to look at the protocol and etiquette of making FOI requests. A couple of incidental but noteworthy points.

What should we do when we receive a request for information? | ICO

To be valid under the Act, the request must: be in writing. This could be a letter or email. Requests can also be made via the web, or even on social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter if your public authority uses these;

Yet a Sheffield Councillor thinks otherwise…

which in turn link to this:

Would be nice to know whether a simple question is better/worse than an elaborate request for information on a range of inter-related topics.