Newswise — Lancaster University has led on a major research project to help evaluate the impact of a large scale initiative in England – Big Local – that aimed to increase the control communities have over improvements in their neighbourhoods.

Funded by the National Lottery, Big Local began in 2010 with 150 areas where local residents were given £1 million over ten years to improve their own neighbourhood.

Residents had complete control over decisions about how the money was spent, with support from an independent organisation, Local Trust.

The £3M+ Communities in Control study from 2014 to 2021 is the longest evaluation of a community empowerment initiative ever conducted. The study has investigated the health and social impacts of Big Local with the aim of improving the development of future community initiatives.

As part of the study published in Public Health Research, researchers investigated how funding has acted as a facilitator for local action, as well as the challenges associated with community decision making. The study calculated that the original National Lottery grant of over £196M for the Big Local provided a return on investment of 30%.

They found “tentative evidence” that the mental health of populations in Big Local populations improved and burglaries were reduced.  There were also significant improvements in the mental health of residents actively involved in Big Local.

However, there was also evidence of negative impacts on health and wellbeing. Moreover, the benefits were also unequally distributed. Men were more likely than women to report improved mental wellbeing as were those with higher educational qualifications.

The third phase of the evaluation received over £700,000 from the NIHR Public Health Research Programme with earlier phases funded by the NIHR School for Public Health Research.

Led by Jennie Popay, Professor of Professor of Sociology and Public Health in the Division of Health Research, other Lancaster University researchers included Dr Emma Halliday, Dr Rebecca Mead, Dr Katharina Janke, Dr Michelle Collins, Dr Anne Townsend and Dr Joanna Reynolds and Professor Bruce Hollingsworth

Partner universities included Professor Margaret Whitehead from Liverpool, Professor Claire Bambra from Newcastle/Durham and Professor Matt Egan from Liverpool School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Professor Popay said: “Our findings on the positive and potential negative impacts on residents of place-based empowerment initiatives in relatively disadvantaged areas are particularly timely with growing calls in England for a new “community power paradigm” and the anticipated proposal of Government Levelling Up policies that may extend current policies, devolving more decision-making and resources down to local people.”

Matt Leach, chief executive of Local Trust, said: "Empowering residents to take the lead can drive substantial positive change. Future governments must prioritise communities at the heart of their policies if we are to address contemporary challenges effectively. 

“Communities across England are diverse and require tailored approaches. By offering appropriate resources, flexible long-term funding, and the means for local residents to form partnerships, these communities can effectively address and overcome these challenges. 

"This report demonstrates that just 10 years into what is a 15-year programme, National Lottery Community Fund investment in Big Local has delivered significant returns to local communities above and beyond the funds originally committed."

The study has implications for the design of future community empowerment initiatives, finding that:

  • investment is needed to develop and sustain smaller scale community associations and organisations to emerge from and work with communities
  • residents should take the lead in designing solutions but not necessarily be leaders in action
  • local agencies should prioritise working as equal partners with communities rather than leaving communities to act alone.
  • externally determined governance standards may undermine the development of communities’ capabilities for collective control

Journal Link: Public Health Research, Oct-2023