Back in 2010, the Prime Minister launched the 'Big Society', heralding a culture change where people in their everyday lives would no longer always turn to Local Authorities or central Government for answers to the problems they faced, instead helping themselves and their own communities. With the future of many rural services - shops, post offices, doctor's surgeries, buses and schools - under threat; what 'Big Society' approaches to delivering rural services have emerged – and what can we learn? Jessica Sellick investigates.
The Government has been changing the way public services are delivered – with a reform agenda set in train in 2010 intended to give people more control over the services they receive and open up delivery to new providers from public, private and/or community and voluntary sectors. The 'Big Society' is at the heart of this vision, and aims to encourage organisations to develop innovative approaches to the delivery of rural services, best suited to local needs. How have these alternative approaches developed? What are the main successes and barriers to their implementation in rural areas? And, importantly, what lessons can be drawn from both successful and unsuccessful projects? I offer three points.
Firstly, what alternative approaches or models for delivering services in rural areas have emerged since 2010? The Countryside and Community Research Institute (CCRI) at the University of Gloucestershire (working with the Rural Services Network and Rose Regeneration) recently completed a research project for Defra on alternative service delivery models. They identified 11 models - some newer than others.
Many of the delivery models are not 'new'. Social enterprises in England, for example, can be traced back to the 1970s. Others have been hybridised in their application. What has changed, however, is their application and use for service delivery. The research found that no one model was better than the others; with the model/s chosen selected according to local circumstances (e.g. local expertise, type of service, level of resource). However, in many instances a key driver for changing the service delivery approach has been the need to reduce costs. Unfortunately there is little evidence to suggest the alternative model options above are then considered systematically.
Secondly, what are the main successes and barriers to the implementation of these models in rural England? RSN Members have told us about community groups and voluntary organisations delivering all kinds of projects – from libraries and broadband, to shops, transport and woodland – encompassing all kinds of legal structures (e.g. Community Interest Company, Industrial and Provident Society, a charity, a Registered Social Landlord). Regardless of the model chose, for an alternative delivery model to work there needs to be community and user involvement; adequate financial, business and user needs planning; communication on the part of all parties – including openness to user involvement and support for change; and capacity and leadership. These characteristics speak to the importance of accountability and diversity - but how are these principles recognised where service provision is being delivered differently because of cuts? And are these principles interpreted differently if new services are being set up rather than previously sector run/funded services?
It is clear in some instances that a Big Society approach can give communities and Local Authorities the ability to tailor services to local circumstances – in ways that generate economic, social and environmental benefits.
Jubilee Park in Lincolnshire, for example, is being run by the Parish Council 'for the community' after a refurbishment and asset transfer package from East Lindsey District Council. The transfer has led to increased community involvement (1,500 volunteer hours donated each year), an improved "park offer" including the opening of a new cafe and events programme; and more efficient financial management of the Park through local marketing, reduced personnel overheads and management oversight by the Parish Council.
Avoiding a 'one size fits all' approach to services, alternative models enable a diverse range of projects to happen. The closure of the Fox and Hounds Pub in Ennerdale Bridge inspired the local community to take direct action to save this treasured asset. 'More than a pub', its reopening is just one step on a holistic journey of community led regeneration – it now provides outreach facilities for Citizens Advice, Groundwork and Wild Ennerdale, hosts a book drop/library for Cumbria County Council and has created 2 paid positions.
Equally there are barriers to innovation. Those identified by RSN Members include: inflexible procurement and commissioning processes, finance, time pressures, service fragmentation, a lack of local assets and lack of community capacity or appetite 'to get involved'.
Thirdly, what lessons can be learnt, therefore, from both the successes and barriers of alternative service delivery models? For me, I think they open up (a) the need to think creatively in the face of budget reductions; and (b) the relationship between short term necessity and longer term planning. Tackling these issues requires building a shared understanding of the community's needs, ambitions and capacity, reducing wasteful conflict by increasing transparency and appreciating the pressures that different organisations face in reducing operational costs/generating finance, and assembling the right individuals to lead and champion the process. Alternative service delivery models need to be considered viable long term solutions rather than an easy, quick-win to turnaround performance and reduce costs.
In practice, there may be geographical gaps in the take up of new delivery models (where existing services are not reaching rural places) or service gaps (where needs are not being tackled). Gap filling may be happening where community minded individuals are spotting gaps – or potential gaps – and devising clever projects to fill them. Similarly, what happens when something goes wrong? With public service delivery, users generally have someone to turn to and a process to apply. The question of accountability once a service has transferred to an alternative delivery model, or if it arises organically to fill a local void, requires further exploration. If improved understanding of the use and application of alternative models is to be developed there may be a need for a more structured sharing of knowledge and best practice.
Finally, following a recent article on rural transport, many of you have been in touch - describing how transport is not working in your area and the local solutions you have developed. Rother Voluntary Action, in partnership with East Sussex County Council, for example, has published a Voluntary Car Scheme Toolkit; North Devon Public Transport Users (NDPTU) is considering how to join up different transport options into rural hubs; and the Mi Card in Barnsley provides young people with bus travel for 30p per journey. A number of RSN Members are also in dialogue with health services (e.g. local acute trusts, Clinical Commissioning Groups) to ensure rural residents will be able to access medical facilities.