Community Links

Community Links blog

A reflection on corporate volunteering

September 11th, 2014
Volunteers from London City Airport transforming the garden at Community Links Asta neighbourhood Hub

I believe in volunteering, I believe in supporting in it, and I try to engage in volunteering where possible. This “where possible” is an important detail; in a common complaint many seem to empathise with, days and weeks tend to run away with themselves in the midst of work and desperate attempts to exercise enough, read the stack of books that hasn’t been touched since January, keep up with family demands, and still manage to relax enough to make the week manageable. The voluntary donation of time can be hard to achieve when the malaise of seemingly more pressing activities dominates the week, and months can easily slide past without time being put aside for voluntary work.

Despite experiencing and recognising these difficulties, the concept of days of obligatory volunteering insisted on by your company as part of your day job, initially led me to feel some reservation and feelings of doubt. Is volunteering still valid if you’re ‘made to do it’ and if it’s expected as ‘part of your job’ or ‘commitment to the company’? I also had been exposed to critical positions on Corporate Social Responsibility as a concept, and I suppose I’m a bit naturally cynical about why a company might choose to do one thing or be associated with one charity brand over another.

However, in the six months that I have been working with corporate volunteers, my perspective has changed dramatically. Firstly, given the previously mentioned competing range of clamouring demands on time that one experiences in the 9-5 existence, the provision of two days’ worth of time for voluntary activities is not to be disregarded. Secondly, a day’s exposure to volunteering activities can also be a great starting point for engaging in further voluntary activity.

Most importantly, I have realised that whether a voluntary activity is actively sought out by an individual or offered to them by the organization for whom they work, the attitude they come with is their own. Among the hundreds of volunteers I have met, I have repeatedly encountered enthusiasm, dedication and the genuine desire to make a difference, and I have seen people take to a range of tasks from the strenuous to the downright messy with fervour and impressively good grace and humour.

Corporate volunteers engage in a range of activities with Community Links, from gardening and constructing fences and play equipment at our Community Hubs to interview and employability skills training with young people, from literacy sessions with local children to mentoring entrepreneurs in their business journeys.

Beyond simply measuring volunteering in terms of allocated time, there are a number of ways to assess the impact of these voluntary activities. Often the measure is practical, as the impact that a team of volunteers working on and outdoors project or site is visually demonstrable. Similarly, the impact of volunteering on the volunteers themselves can also be measured through the assessment of the feedback they provide after participating in one of our projects. However, what is harder to quantify, but in my opinion of overwhelming importance, is the impact that volunteering can have on extending a person’s personal understanding.

The UK – and particularly east London – is at once extremely diverse and desperately unequal. Perhaps no place other than this part of the capital shows both the cultural richness and economic disparity of the nation so clearly – between Canary Wharf and Canning Town it can be hard to draw comparisons. It is dangerously easy to exist in one of the dimensions of this part of the city without often straying into others. After several months working in Canning Town, a five minute tube journey to Canary Wharf can make you feel like you are in another world. Volunteering can offer us a chance to gain a new perspective, and allows a temporary window onto a contrasting reality to be opened. My experience working with corporate volunteers has shown this in a powerful way; even volunteers who are from or who know Newham have commented on how much they have learnt about the realities of the borough as a result of volunteering with Community Links.

And this is the best bit. After spending time volunteering with Community Links, many people have contacted me asking to be involved in subsequent events and activities in a personal capacity. As a charity we’ve got a big vision and there’s a lot to do – we need an army of partners, supporters and volunteers to help us.

In conclusion, be it a result of personal impulse, organizational engineering or even peer related pressure, almost all of us could and should volunteer more. Similarly, we all need to ensure that we regularly open our eyes to worlds which are not our own. I celebrate organizations and individuals who are willing to give their time and energy to voluntary work, and those who are open to learning about the actions, lives and activities of others.

If you’re inspired by volunteering, why not  find out out how you could get involved at Community Links.

An edited version of this blog post was first published by Third Sector

Play Streets – playing out and reclaiming childhood.

August 28th, 2014

Playing out in Tower RoadBack in July The Arts Council announced its investment plan for 2015-2018 and within that announcement it became clear that the English National Opera was the highest profile loser as its grant was slashed a third to £12.4 million from £17.2 million. This is a grant that the ENO use “to develop new audiences for opera through English Language performances which are affordable and accessible to everyone, alongside providing access and pathways for British singers and artists”.

Access to high quality arts is very important for all and especially those living in the neighbourhoods that we at Community Links operate in throughout east London, – though I doubt that even if a performance which is “affordable” is within the reach of many of the families that use our free open access play provision or the raft of other free opportunities taking place in our Neighbourhood Hubs.

It got me thinking about how I could spend a grant of £12.4million and achieve similar aims.

With such a large amount of funding I would want to reach the greatest number of people possible, therefore dividing the grant amount by the 326 boroughs that make up all the districts in England, gives each borough a total of £38,036.So the equivalent of one post with employers costs factored in and a very small amount of project costs.

What single post could be funded in every single council and district up and down the land that would have the a big impact in bringing people together and like the English National Opera provide new experiences and opportunities for a diverse group of people?

It’s a challenge to say the least but I have an idea.

What if every council had within its staff a Play Street Activator? A person that could be responsible for promoting the concept of play streets, spreading the idea among communities on a local level, working with groups of people who want to come together and start a regular community activity in their neighbourhood, a play street in their road.
This person could help local people to navigate the bureaucracy of local authorities to make it happen (it already happens in many areas, so is possible it there is will) The Play Street Activator could provide support to local groups to get their own community-led play street off the ground and ultimately contributing to developing community resilience.

Play streets are not a new concept, in fact in 1938 legislation was enacted in parliament to allow for them and they became a regular part of urban life, reaching a peak in the 1950’s with over 700 taking place in England and Wales.

But sadly by the 1980’s and the growing domination of cars on our roads and streets they had almost completely died out.

In more recent times, communities have been taking parties to the streets more and more with Royal celebrations and small grants packages such as the London Borough of Newham’s, Lets Get the Party Started supporting such activity, to a point in 2013, following valuable work from London Play – the Government recognises the benefits of play streets on outcomes such as health.

But the outcomes achieved by play streets are much broader than just health, activated streets, safer streets with people outside, engaging with each other and getting to know their neighbours all contributes to community cohesion as neighbours work together to make the event happen and deliver it on the day.

Children are provided with space that they can explore , create, imagine and perform in, which for maybe the first time is super local to their own house and free, helping those on low incomes and completely accessible to all, some play street activity might even provide intergenerational opportunities. The other massive bonus of play streets is that they require very little financial resource and can be entirely sustainable with the will of the organisers and the local authority.

Investing in a play street activator might pay dividends in terms of outcomes, locally community members will be more connected, more able to come together to support each other and with networks, that all contributes to the idyll of the “myth of the golden age” where everyone left their street door open, children played on the pavements and mothers sat on doorstep shelling peas chatting to each other but ultimately keeping an eye on all the children and the neighbourhood itself.

Streets being thought of solely as routes for cars has been a recent construction, in 2007 a playday poll found that 71% of adults surveyed played in the street or neighbourhood as children compared to only 21% of current kids.

If we are not careful the idea that of the street as a playspace could be lost within a generation.

So if the £12.4 million paid for a Play Street activator post in each district, this one post could ensure that a millions of children in this country could begin to use the space outside their house as a playground and the children living around them new playmates. This one post could have a lasting positive impact on neighbourhoods nationwide as people come together, make something happen and teach children that living in a community is special; important and possible.

As stated earlier investing in the arts is important, as is Opera in English to make the arts accessible but what better than an activator in every community to help children reclaim the streets one afternoon a month led by their parents. A catalyst to help children reclaim a childhood with a level of independence and exploration, some of which might lead to an interest in performing – especially if the two became more closely aligned – a marriage between the arts council and a newly formed play council for the uk would be an ideal.


The Fourth Emergency Service? Early Action and Social Security

July 30th, 2014

When we think about crime we can’t help but think of criminals and crime-solvers. The public imagination is informed by stories that focus on reactions to the act of crime; whether it’s a series of devilish riddles solved by Sherlock Holmes, a criminal investigation by Columbo, or a police procedural undertaken by the officers of Sun Hill Police station.

We could therefore be forgiven for believing that the primary role of the police service is to solve crimes, rather than to prevent them. However as Sherlock Holmes once pointed out, sometimes “there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”. We appear to have forgotten the first and arguably most fundamental Peelian Principle: “the basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.

Similarly when we think of the fire and rescue service we think of fire engines rushing to a smouldering building, and fire-fighters desperately trying to put it out. When we think of our health we worry about unexpected illness; very few of us seek medical advice before a problem has already arisen. In this sense, using a metaphor the Task Force has often used, emergency services are the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff: supporting people when they are already in crisis.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and indeed in some cases it isn’t. Take Lancashire Constabulary, for example, who have just received £3 million in funding for its Early Action Response project. Or Manchester Fire and Rescue, who have been investing in preventative measures such as Community Safety Apprenticeships for a while now. These initiatives have, or will in the case of Lancashire Constabulary, not only save money, but ultimately ensure that problems are prevented from ever arising.

So what about social security?

Ask anyone about the purpose of the welfare state and they’ll most likely use the metaphor of the safety net; a last resort to save those who find themselves in crisis. Despite its origins as a system of mutual insurance, it is now viewed at best as an emergency service – or at worst as an emergency service that creates ‘dependency’ and traps people in poverty.

Undoubtedly helping those who find themselves in crisis is an important job: as a society we should ensure that these people are supported and enabled in such a way as to return to a general standard of wellbeing. Many benefits are already supposed to work in this way; for example, Jobseekers Allowance is there to help those who find themselves unemployed survive whilst they look for work.

However the social security system currently has three major problems. Firstly, it acts too late; for example most people must wait a year before they receive more intensive employment support, there is a nine month gap between first becoming ill at work and receiving any support, and there are many avoidable delays that are caused by incorrect or inefficient assessments.

Secondly the social security system fails to prevent poverty, both for those in and out of work. This is most stark for people who have been sanctioned, and poverty and destitution has clear links to poorer health outcomes (amongst others). Finally, its delivery can exacerbate already existing problems – whether through harsh eligibility tests for disability benefits or hostile treatment at the job centre. Both of these issues can have a detrimental effect on both physical and mental health.

Acting earlier for social security

Perhaps by looking at social security through an early action lens we can re-imagine it as something that stops problems from occurring in the first place, rather than a safety net that catches those who have fallen.

Community Links and the Early Action Task Force will explore some of these ideas in a paper that will be published this autumn. We will show that the social security system should not be seen as the ‘fourth emergency service’, even though responding to emergencies in a timely and cohesive manner (‘running those ambulances’) is very important. Social security should be underpinned by earlier, more generous and universal support, both in terms of cash transfers and public services. In doing so it could not only yield a triple dividend (thriving lives, costing less, and enabling people to contribute more), but also ensure that every individual in our society feels more secure.

It is important to challenge the prevailing ethos that ‘cutting the benefits bill’ is a good idea. We need to return to and re-evaluate the underpinning principles of our social security system and see it as an investment: in individuals, in communities and, ultimately, in the whole of our society.

Joining Up Welfare

July 25th, 2014

 Policy Exchange’s new report “Joined Up Welfare” addresses the crucial question of how public services can support people into sustainable employment in a more flexible, holistic and joined up way. Those who are familiar with Community Links’ work will recognise this as an issue that we have frequently grappled with – through our work on Deep Value and early action approaches – and this question continues to be a focus of our ongoing research into the impacts of welfare reform and the quality of welfare to work support.

Policy Exchange’s report looks at the structural reasons why “the current welfare system does not deal with [jobseekers’] overlapping problems from the beginning of the process”. In particular it finds that “siloed” government budgets prevent a cross-cutting approach, that the absence of “single, clear, and central point of contact” for jobseekers means that a piecemeal approach remains; and that a lack of local information “stymies coordination”. These issues resonate with findings from our policy and research work: we’ve found “siloed” budgets can undermine a longer-term preventative approach, and we agree with the need for better join-up between benefits and employment support – a single point of contact would be a great improvement.

Based on this analysis, a central recommendation of Policy Exchange’s report is to split up the Jobcentre into its two constituent parts. The first would be a central hub administering benefits which could refer people into specialised provision from a range of voluntary and private sector providers while remaining a single point of contact for overarching issues. The second part – the employment support of the Jobcentre Plus currently provides – would be formed into a mutual which would be able to compete with said voluntary and private provision. This is similar to the model which has been attempted recently with probation – with limited success for former state providers who have struggled to find the financial backing to run stringent payment-by-results contracts.

The right of the Tory party has reportedly jumped on this as a chance to call for the closure of all job centres. But the idea of splitting up their role has found more widespread support. Labour MP David Lammy has welcomed the suggestion, saying that we need “radical reform of an institution that in its current form is not fit for purpose”. We know the value of diverse, specialised employment support provided by local partners with in-depth knowledge of local labour markets. Policy Exchange promotes this, though our experience of delivering the Work Programme shows how hard it can be to commission this support without forcing out smaller providers. We are also very aware of the negative view many claimants have towards Jobcentres, which is due, at least in part, to its dual role. People feel the fact that JCP staff are ‘holding the purse-strings’ on their benefits poses a barrier to real support to get into jobs. In the words of one man:

“[Jobcentre Plus] says it’s supposed to support you, but fundamentally it’s an administrative centre. They want you to go in, and they want a rubber stamp on what you are doing in order to give you money”. 

The jobcentre is only now undergoing the types of reforms which have led to more person-focused, tailored support in other sectors – health and social care for example. It continues to operate a largely top-down and – according to many people we work with – disempowering service, although recent changes such as the introduction of the Claimant Commitment could begin to change this. Policy Exchange’s report has provided a useful addition to calls – including recently from the Work and Pensions Select Committee - for an urgent rethinking of the role of the jobcentre. But it is the suggestion that the job centre should be transformed into a “Citizens’ Support Centre” which offers perhaps the greatest opportunity for transformative change. This would be a central hub covering a range of needs: not just the classic employment barriers but underlying issues of debt, mental health, housing, or anything else. It could address the problem that our research has found of people feeling passed from pillar to post between different forms of statutory and contracted support.

The suggestion made me wonder whether this model could then be taken beyond addressing “barriers for work” and extended to provide support for people who are already in jobs too – an idea that Policy Exchange moots but doesn’t commit to. Many people in work who want to progress into more interesting, stable or better-paid jobs may still face a range of complex issues which joined-up support could address. Under Universal Credit, people in work will be required to show they are looking to progress: alongside these increased requirements they should be offered additional support and it would be great if the “Citizen’s Support Centre” could proactively work with them in the same joined-up way as is does with the unemployed.  This could also reduce the stigma and exclusion that people feel when going to the Jobcentre, as well as helping the government deliver on its side of the ‘something for something’ bargain.

The report stops short of calling for JCP to move away from simply aiming to get people off benefits, towards a more positive, long-term focus on supporting thriving lives, sustainable careers and wellbeing. Such a shift would be needed to produce systemic change in the way people are treated and supported, but that megalith deserves more than one blog post’s thinking.

On the anniversary of the Olympic and Paralympic Games – how’s that Legacy working out?

July 24th, 2014

As the second anniversary of the Olympic and Paralympic Games rolls around, there will be a flurry of reports and very positive press articles from the Government and Boris about what’s been achieved in the last two years, and an upsurge in the number of calls from journalists who’d like Community Links to take the opposite view and say that’s it’s all bitterly disappointing.

For Community Links, a social action charity rooted in east London, the Olympic Games were always about the Legacy they would deliver.

East London won the Olympics on the strength of the story the bid told about the potential of the young, diverse and entrepreneurial population. Since 2005 when the bid was won, life is significantly tougher for this amazing community. The recession led to a sharp increase in youth unemployment, and family poverty has increased as welfare reforms bite hard. We support thousands of the most excluded young people each year, through projects which provide education for those excluded from mainstream schools, divert from gangs and crime, build confidence and skills, secure opportunities, apprenticeships and sustainable work. But in the years when young people have needed us most, funding for our services has reduced dramatically.

So the pressure couldn’t be higher for Legacy to deliver. We want the Legacy to deliver a significant shift in the mindset of young people who, up till now, have believed that they can’t achieve; that they can’t cross that postcode; that this isn’t for people like them. A Living Legacy.

So how are we doing?

The Park is open, it’s a beautiful and inspiring space which attracts a great mix of local people and tourists, and feels (so far) like a safe and neutral space for young people. The Park works because it was designed very thoughtfully and is being maintained exceptionally well. Often the redevelopment of public spaces in communities like ours has been done cheaply, almost as an afterthought, with no future revenue to maintain them, which leads inevitably to them not being cared for by the communities around them. Right now the Park is a place that local young people feel proud of. Sustaining this pride into the future will be essential.

The venues and attractions are open, many of them (thanks to the efforts of local councils) no more expensive than other local pools and tracks. The level of local employment in the venues is something that the Legacy Company can be very proud of – and includes some of the young people that Community Links has supported over many years during their journey from a young person in trouble or a young gang member, to fully qualified sports coach / caterer / maintenance technician. Westfield Stratford set the bar high by investing in an employment preparation programme that enabled them to beat their own targets for local employment and now enjoys the lowest staff turnover of any of its Shopping Centres around the world. The record of involving local enterprises in the Park itself is less good, despite quite radical procurement policies from the Legacy Company demanding supply chains that involve local subcontractors. Again, Westfield has been thoughtful on this, providing high end retail spaces as pop-ups for local enterprises – like our own Established initiative. The big opportunity for local employment and enterprise now is Here East (previously the media centre) – apparently larger than the Canary Wharf Tower lying on its side. The messaging is inspiring; the follow-through will require solid connections into what already exists locally alongside the best we can attract globally.

Families are now living in the East Village – the first housing scheme in the Park and the only one likely to have any significant social and affordable housing. We remain disappointed with the structural constrictions that limit the potential of regenerators to create genuinely mixed communities at scale in such a special place – the commitment of the Mayor to include a Community Land Trust is welcome but it will be extremely small. Of course the Park is surrounded by many square miles of some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country. The Legacy Company is wisely investing in engagement activities that blur the boundaries between the Park and its surroundings. Community Links is delivering all sorts of practical projects – carnivals and processions, fetes and picnics, sports, photography and arts, with others involved in growing, cycling, and a hundred other things that create the space in which neighbours can meet each other and begin to knit a strong link between new and old communities. It’s this kind of activity – small scale, almost invisible, hard to measure – which is first to get cut when the money gets tight, but that creates the invisible web of connections without which the billions invested won’t have made a blind bit of difference to the mindsets of the people who live around the margins. In fact it will reinforce the message to young people that “this is not for people like you”.

The plans in place for the next phase which will include a world-class cultural quarter and academic quarter are awesome (I believe it’s currently called Olympicopolous but let’s hope that swiftly fades…). With potential partners like the V&A, Smithsonian, the Young Vic and Sadler’s Wells, you actually can’t argue when Robin Wales talks about the centre of London moving east. Boris agrees – Stratford will be re-designated as Zone 2 on the London transport map from next year. How long before young people from east London feel like west-enders with all of this on their doorstep?

Potentially this all adds up to a far bigger and more life-changing opportunity for the young people of east London and their families than we dared to hope for back in 2005.


Of course, Legacy has had public investment at a level that other regeneration programmes can only dream of. How will what is being achieved in and around the Park influence the rest of the physical regeneration in east London (Canning Town, Silvertown, the Royal Docks etc) and more widely beyond London? Are we all committed to drawing out the learning? Who’s sharing it? And are the other programmes listening?  And as more partners are engaged, how are we ensuring that the vision of Legacy doesn’t get diluted and start to be replaced with the old fashioned approaches that regenerators and developers are often so comfortable with: invest in shiny new stuff and offer a few entry-level jobs and over the generations the prosperity will trickle down and out into the surrounding neighbourhoods.

Because let’s be clear: Legacy is not the sole responsibility of a Government established legacy delivery body. We’re ALL responsible for Legacy. And that includes you, the negative journalists who seem to want young people to think that nothing good is ever possible. I hope that this blog shows that it’s not just the Legacy Company but the councils, the businesses, the local charities and enterprises who are working together to make this happen at every level. I think that together we’re on track to do regeneration better and righter than it’s been done before.

But despite my optimism, let’s not forget the wider context; these are difficult times to be young and poor. Unemployment here is still sky-high, jobs on offer are poorly paid and insecure, the safety net is being swiftly withdrawn (faster if you’re young) and there are significant public expenditure cuts still to work through. My two year report on Legacy is positive but there is a risk that wider economic forces will divert our attention, make our dreams smaller, or derail us completely.

That’s why Community Links will remain relentlessly positive about Legacy. But also why we will keep challenging everyone who’s involved to aim as high as possible. Get it right, now, and we will see an accelerator effect for all the young people of east London, lifting spirits and inspiring them to believe that they are the Living Legacy.

Launch of “Towards Effective Prevention: Practical steps for the next government”

July 17th, 2014

In our newly launched paper, “Towards Effective Prevention”, the Early Action Taskforce argue that early action, an ethos that emphasizes intervening earlier at all points in the lives of individuals, should be a central part of the next government’s policy framework.

The paper outlines a set of recommendations that could contribute to this vision, split broadly into three themes. Firstly, by building support for early action goals across the whole political spectrum we can enable people to live happier and healthier lives. Integral to this is ten year, longer term planning, including regular budget reviews to ensure changing economic circumstances are taken into account. Finally, we must increase investment in early action by utilising better information, incentivising the breakdown of silos, and encouraging collaboration between a wide range of innovative people and organisations.

Responses at the launch

The recommendations were welcomed by Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, who stated in her response that it was time early action, a common sense idea that most sign up to in principle, was implemented across the board. She argued that moving beyond a parochial focus on political cycles was integral to this, and that leadership firmly rests with the Treasury and Cabinet Office. Furthermore she called for ring-fenced funding for early action initiatives, and suggested that Labour would do well to adopt an explicit early action ethos if it gained power in the 2015 General Election. Indeed, some of these ideas are already embedded in Labour’s most recent thinking about public services.

Alison Scott, assistant director at CIPFA, echoed some of these sentiments and added that there is a need for accounting practices to focus on outcomes as well as outputs. She argued that, by quantifying future liabilities that were likely to incur without such a transformation, we could incentivise a shift towards early action. She also recognised that whilst buy-in from the Centre is important, we must not forget the importance of a local approach in finding solutions and overcoming silo working.

These responses prompted a thoughtful discussion from attendees. A fundamental concern centred on the high costs of simultaneously running both preventative and acute services. This is exactly why longer term planning is needed, however, as higher costs in the first few years will be saved further down the line as demand for acute services diminishes. It is very important that this is made explicit in plans and budgets during the interim period in which policy shifts towards early action.

Another strand of discussion emphasized how we need to understand the way in which cultures and systems reinforce each other. Whilst it is important that we financially incentivise change, there must also be a shift in wider policy cultures. Linked to this is a need for a concerted effort to replicate successful early action initiatives. Both of the above could be addressed through a more localised approach, one which complements change at the Centre. This is an issue that the Taskforce has started to think about, and will be developed in more detail at a later date.

What are we waiting for?

It is always striking how you can tell anyone about early action and they will, to some extent, agree with its central tenets. Unfortunately there are still several barriers to overcome in both central and local government; barriers such as short termism, under investment, and silo-working.

It does not need to remain this way. The 2015 General Election is a prime opportunity for any new government to transform what is currently accepted as common sense into something concrete; a platform of early action from which everyone in society can benefit. With the framework set out in this paper, there is no longer any excuse not to act.


The paper launch was reported at localgov

Enterprise, Education, and Enthusiam in east London

July 17th, 2014

Enterprise is a key part of Community Links’ work. For us enterprise isn’t just about helping people to set up their own businesses: it’s about ensuring that the people we work with are ready with confidence and skills they need to seize the many opportunities available in east London.

This week we launch our latest Policy Briefing – where we set out how we see enterprise as a vital way for people to overcome their barriers, develop their strengths and realise their passions. The briefing also sets out our recommendations for public policy: policy-makers are increasingly keen to promote enterprise, as a way both to boost employment and to develop skills and innovation.

Our enterprise project, generously supported by Barclays works with young people to help them realise their ambition and release their entrepreneurial energy. Crucially our approach is to provide both theoretical and practical knowledge for our young entrepreneurs – whilst also working to change the environment in which enterprise is understood and taught within schools. Monique Graver who has direct experience of trading through our Barrow Boys and Girls Academy, has written this personal account which sets out her part in shaping and influencing government policy. Participants from Community Links “Next Generation” conference visited Downing Street to pass-on recommendations about Enterprise in Education which were referenced in the final report from Lord Yong of Graffham.


Community Links – This Generation Youth Conference from CL-Q on Vimeo.

A few months ago I received an email, inviting me to ‘This Generation -Youth Conference’.  I’d only even been to religious conferences and they’re usually elongated so I didn’t have high expectations for this one. When I did arrive at community Links for This Generation I was pleasantly surprised to see a room packed with youth predominantly.

The conference started in the best way possible – a speaker; but no ordinary speaker. Terry Jervis  left us all in shock and disbelief as he took us through his journey and his life. Many parts of his story seemed very hard to believe and as I pictured myself in his situation, at his very young age (at the time), I shuddered at the thought of even imagining, being able to do what he was able to do. Yet his continuous message throughout his whole speech was ‘You can do it do!’

We were quickly placed into groups and worked our way around tables, each with their own topic to discuss. By the end of the day we would all choose what we thought were the most important recommendations to be sent to the government to implement Enterprise as a mandatory school subject.

I enjoyed discussing my thoughts and ideas with like-minded people of different ages from different communities. Together we all had one thing in common – we loved enterprise and wanted young people to be able to experience Enterprise from a much earlier age. That way they could grow with it, and be in a better position to utilise it when they grow up. I left the conference that day not only feeling that I’d potentially helped to change history but also felt a sense of elation. I promised myself that nothing was going to ever stop me from making my own success.

A couple days later Kevin Jones from Community Links, called me to ask if I were available to go to 10 Downing Street! Of course I was available, who wouldn’t be? But I was quickly informed that this trip was not for leisure… I and four others were to deliver the five recommendations discussed at the conference to: Lord Young of Graffham, the Prime Minister’s Enterprise Advisor. 

We arrived at Downing Street,  after spending the morning rehearsing what we would present. Before we were allowed onto the street, our bags had to be searched and we all had to walk through a metal detector. Although we were warned of the entry procedure, this was very surprising for me to see, but we finally stood outside Number 10 Downing Street, for photographs with our specially made placards. We were soon ushered inside – where we saw beautiful paintings on the wall and a lady sitting by a computer that surveyed the street outside; I giggled to myself when I realised that she was watching us outside all that time and probably saw the amusing photographs we took.

It wasn’t long until Lord Young himself, came downstairs to greet us each with a handshake – automatically I could sense his calmness and felt very relaxed around him. We all conversed together for a while, sharing our individual experiences with enterprise and the recommendations from the ‘This Generation Youth Conference’. I was very surprised to find out that Lord Young grew up in Muswell Hill and his assistant, Paul Lewis was actually a St Bonaventure’s School Boy – both of these places relatively close to where I reside in London.

Lord Young himself has had many businesses and enterprise related encounters; and understood our ideas and opinions completely.

I think that the government should promote enterprise more. Enterprise is all around us and benefits us all. It’s something that can be moulded by our individual interests and skills and still be used to create something amazing.

If I was given the opportunity to study or learn about enterprise whilst in school, I may have had my own business today. There are so many things I feel I’m good at or ideas that I’d like to expand on but without the relevant knowledge and support, putting these plans into action is very difficult. Things like how to work out a mark-up when selling products, or understanding the business environment and the best way to penetrate the current market. Implementing Enterprise into the national curriculum would change this. Yes, Business studies covers these topics but alongside learning about these ideas we need to also need the opportunity to practice.

At the conference, the question ‘what proportion would you give to Practical and theoretical learning?’ was asked. At first, the most popular answer was 60% Theory and 40% Practical – but after discussing the reasoning for this we all changed our mind. In order to fully understand what has been taught in the classroom we need to be given the opportunity to try it out. After all, practice does make perfect.

Underspent housing support funding does not mean it is not needed

July 7th, 2014

Newham rooftopsSometimes we shy away from stating the obvious. Perhaps we are afraid that, in doing so, we will attract the scorn of others. Sometimes in not bothering to challenge seemingly straightforward messages they can be twisted and take on a whole new meaning.

A good example of this is a recent press release by DWP about Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP). DHP is an important source of support for people experiencing hardship, most of which is caused by welfare reform.

The press release states that 63% of councils have spent less than their DHP allocation for the year, approximately 1 in 10 have spent less than 60% of their total DHP budget, and 18 have spent less than 50%. It argues that “recent scare stories about councils running out of money were grossly exaggerated”, and that “vital reforms are fixing the broken welfare system… as part of our long term plan”.

This is important because DHP has become one of the primary tools to mitigate the worst impacts of welfare reform. Although the amount of funding has been increased substantially – it tripled to £180 million last year according to the press release – it has also been extended beyond its original purpose of supporting those struggling to pay their private sector rents, to also help people affected by the Benefit Cap and Bedroom Tax as well.

Distorted reality

The major implication of this press release is that there has been plenty of support funding, and that councils actually needed less than was originally thought. This is a distortion of the truth.

Firstly whilst the 63% figure is true – 240 local authorities have spent less than 100% of their total allocation – of these, 73 (30%) have spent over 95% of their total allocation. This could be seen as prudent fiscal management. Many of those councils who spent 95% or more also had to reject tens of thousands of support funding applicants, presumably at least partly because demand exceeded supply. This mirrors JRF research findings that most councils are making full use of DHP even if individual practice varies.

Secondly, if we compare data for the ten most deprived local authorities in England with that of the ten least deprived some interesting patterns emerge. For example, all ten of the most deprived had spent over 99.5% of their total allocation (which includes any extra money they have bid for and won), and seven of the ten had spent over 100%. In contrast, 5 of the least deprived councils had spent less than 95% of their total allocation, and the average underspend was almost six times higher than the average underspend for the most deprived local authorities.

Those who overspent in the least deprived areas did so, on average, by £7,661: just 3% of the average overspend for the most deprived areas. There are far more people affected by welfare reform in more deprived areas, and it is exactly those areas who have to make up the shortfall in DHP funding from elsewhere in their budget.

So what?

This may all seem self-evident: of course there is more demand for hardship payments in more deprived areas, that’s just common sense. However, when we combine the above with recent research showing how the ten most deprived areas in England face cuts averaging 25.3% between 2010 and 2016, ten times higher than the average of 2.54% in the ten least deprived areas, the story gets even more worrying. There is already less money for vital support services in these areas due to cuts, and this is exacerbated by the need to find more funding for DHP from elsewhere. In fact, “recent scare stories” may not have been “grossly exaggerated” after all – especially when we consider warnings of future funding problems for local authorities and the fact that actually many people, particularly those with disabilities, have DHP claims rejected anyway.

Those who have underspent may not have done so due to a lack of need, but rather due to confusion and miscommunication – both within and beyond councils. As the remit of DHP has been massively expanded there was a need for caution: expecting a fund to be perfectly spent in its first year is unrealistic. Another important point to consider is that the introduction of the Benefit Cap was delayed, which could well have had an impact on the amount that councils spent. Furthermore, some local authorities apply curious conditionality to their DHP awards; take North Lincolnshire, for example, which denied funding to tenants who made ‘negative life choices’ such as smoking or even having satellite television. Finally, funding allocation was done using a complex and opaque formula; partly based on previous spending rather than need, which is a fairly static way of allocating hardship funds in a time of such social turmoil – turmoil largely brought on by the cumulative impact of welfare reform.

Those who have overspent are likely to need more funding in the future, or risk not properly supporting those who need it most. There are other potential impacts too; for example, increased rent arrears, homelessness, and additional costs to the voluntary sector who often have to pick up the pieces.

Closer to home

At the risk of stating the obvious, then, continued funding for DHP and other support is still desperately needed. This is especially true for those areas where spending has been high. Newham, for example, is the third most deprived local authority in England. The council spent 99.52% of their DHP allocation for 2013/14, and actually proactively targeted people who were going to be worst affected by the cumulative impact of welfare reform. This is a laudable approach, and we should also welcome the fact that central government made more money available for these vital hardship funds. However, if the press release is taken at face value it is unlikely funding will be increased in the next year. Indeed, the overall amount for DHP is likely set to reduce in 2014/15 and 2015/16. As a result some tough decisions are going to have to be made over the next few years, and not just in the most deprived areas.

The “Condition of Britain” and Localism: Why Go Local?

June 23rd, 2014

I have a problem with national political leaders talking about localism. If they don’t mention it I wish they would. If they do, I’m suspicious. Why would an ambitious politician fight night and day for high office and then give away the power?

Possibly because they recognise that economies of scale may work for the making of widgets but support for the clinically depressed, the desperate parent , the isolated elderly, works best on a local scale? The “big is always best” approach lacks the granular sensitivity to maximise efficiency on tackling issues that are definitively personal and it ignores and squanders the assets of the wider community.

Or possibly because the problem is too difficult for them? The Prime Minister, for instance, has repeatedly sidestepped responsibility for voluntary sector cuts by explaining that these are a matter for local authorities. True, of course, but a somewhat partial answer given the scale of budget cuts imposed on councils like Newham by his government over the last three years.

Sometimes politicians want it both ways. Eric Pickles, apparently ideologically attracted to localism and responsible for its delivery from the department of communities, cracked the whip swiftly and loudly when tory voters began complaining about reductions in the bin collection service.

The excellent IPPR report The Condition of Britain launched last Thursday talked a lot about devolving power and rightly calls for “… a different kind of spending review … to devolve power and resources in significant areas including housing, back to work support and parts of the criminal justice system. … The spending Review would be accompanied by longer term financial settlements for local areas with the flexibility to pool budgets…  Essential steps for enabling the leadership of local areas to deliver real spending efficiencies, shift resources into prevention and prepare our public services for the challenges of the next parliament and beyond”

I whole heartedly support the intention but the specific proposals in this largely impressive report are less reassuring. For example, 95% of the housing budget is currently spent on Housing Benefit and 5% on building homes. This is plainly stupid and devolving housing benefit – IPPRs suggestion – may be a good idea for all sorts of reasons but doing it to “drive down cost” , begs more questions than it answers.

Similarly how are we to understand IPPRs enthusiasm for investing in the expansion of the worthy but insubstantial National Citizen Service programme? NCS is a national two month youth engagement scheme which has been established under the current government, whilst the kind of local youth provision that provides deep value care and support week-in-week-out been disappearing all over the country. Nothing it seems to me is more dependent on sustained commitment, neighbourhood roots and personalised delivery than first class youth work. Surely providing for the restoration of that work, owned, managed and led locally, is a higher priority than a national scheme, patchily distributed?

IPPRs proposal for a “Troubled Lives” programme on the other hand seems to get the balance just right. It would address “the root causes of a set of social problems” and “be developed collaboratively with local authorities and voluntary agencies working with people facing social exclusion and with these individuals … People living with multiple problems have the greatest insight into what would enable them to turn their lives around and the ways in which existing services could do more” A “National Social Exclusion Board” would “ensure that local authorities work with those facing the most serious problems … monitor progress and spread innovation”. So – real local control, real user engagement but also real oversight and real quality control. Exactly the correct balance.

Devolution is absolutely the right idea and we warmly welcome the thrust of the IPPR narrative, but doing it right is difficult. It needs to be well considered, consistently applied and above all, when politicians promise it, we need to understand why.

The Work Programme – making it work for those who need it most.

June 20th, 2014

Job Centre plusYesterday, the government published the most recent tranche of statistics on their flagship welfare-to-work service, the Work Programme. This is the second time that the Work Programme has hit the news in a week, coming just a few days after think-tank IPPR’s report made national coverage – “Work Programme failing those most in need and should be broken up’” were the headlines.

These statistics show that the work programme continues to do fairly well for mainstream jobseekers – as well as previous programmes, like Flexible New Deal, did, and at a lower cost. The Employment-Related Services Association (ERSA) estimates that over half a million job seekers have entered employment via the Work Programme since its inception, and 300,000 of these have remained in work for six months (or three months for the hardest to help).

But the statistics also show that the Work Programme is continuing to struggle to deliver for those with the biggest barriers to work. Despite increases in success rates for new claimants of the main disability benefit, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), they are still only half as likely as jobseekers allowance (JSA) claimants to get a job. The succes rate for other ESA claimants (who have been on benefits for a longer time) is even worse. ERSA estimates that only 25,000 jobseekers on ESA have found a job through the Programme, much lower than for JSA claimants. Figure 1, taken from IPPR’s paper, shows the stark difference in how well the Work Programme works for mainstream jobseekers compared to those with larger barriers.

Figure 1: Proportions of Work programme participants and outcomes by payment group.

At Community Links we know from first-hand experience how this differing success rate can pan-out on the ground. We’re proud that the type of employment support we deliver – grounded in communities, using our knowledge of local labour markets, and focusing on supporting the harder-to-help – is the right model for those with the largest barriers to work. But some aspects of the Work Programme’s structure make it very difficult for us to deliver intensive support to those who need it most. Today we’re publishing our newest policy briefing on the Work Programme, which sets out how we think it should be changed.

All of us – Community Links, IPPR, the official statistics, and many others – agree that there’s real a difference in how well the programme supports different jobseekers. It works well for the ‘mainstream’ but struggles to support those with largest barriers. Our briefing sets out some key things that could be changed to address this problem:

  • Make sure payments to providers match need. The current system of assessing people based primarily on benefit status leads to incentives for providers to focus on those with the smallest barriers. Needs-based, up-front holistic assessment to define the amount of support people need would help to address this.
  • Provide tailored services for those with the greatest barriers to work. Some people on the Work Programme – including many on the ESA benefit – are a long way from the labour market and face complex problems. Paying providers only when people move into work simply doesn’t work for this group. Support for people with the largest barriers should be funded on a cohort-based model, or provision should be made with the focus on achieving intermediate steps and ‘soft outcomes’.
  • Improve accuracy and performance reporting. The lack of transparency in the Work Programme, with providers being forbidden from sharing their performance data, prevents us from learning what work for others. Additionally poor referral forecasts from the DWP make it hard for us to plan our work for the hardest to help – for example to hire the right number of staff with the right specialisms. DWP should improve its referral forecasts, and should provide contingency funds to providers when those forecasts are incorrect.
  • Strengthen co-working across the supply chain. We know that local collaboration is important to ensure that people, especially those with the largest barriers to work, can be helped. DWP should introduce local partnership forums to encourage better collaboration at a local level.

It was good to see the IPPR report making many similar recommendations. Like us, they recommend that future employment support programmes should “adopt a more sophisticated framework to triage claimants into appropriate support”. Like us, they recognise that “the current ‘work first’ philosophy does not work for everyone” and that future employment support must “explicitly recognise the differing support needs of diverse claimants”. Putting these changes into practice would really help to close the gap and make sure the Work Programme really works for everyone.

Finally, like us the IPPR report argues that more local provision could be essential for people with the largest barriers. IPPR’s suggestion for how to make this happen – by locally commissioning programmes for ESA and former Incapacity Benefit claimants – is more radical than ours of “introducing local partnership forums” which support collaboration, but ultimately both work towards the same aim.

There’s real agreement now from across the welfare-to-work sector on some of the key things that need to change about the Work Programme. It’s essential that the government implements these changes, to make sure the Work Programme works for everyone.

Download our Policy Briefing on the Work Programme