Tag Archive for neighbourhoods

A brief view of some of Birmingham’s dalliances with varieties of localisations

The city as a local entity

It is a long time since Birmingham was recognised, by Charter, as an administrative structure in its own right. Various surrounding towns and villages were incorporated into the city, making it the largest local authority in Europe.

There have been recurring issues lasting until the present:

  • What freedoms and flexibilities does the city have, or is it there mostly as a locality for the delivery of central government diktats?
  • Birmingham has always looked for Birmingham solutions to Birmingham problems (from early sewerage systems; civic developments; slum clearances and Manzoni planning; ….) but with the dangers that its size makes Birmingham ‘over-important’ or that its history as the City of a Thousand Trades encourages it to dismiss ideas not Made in Birmingham.

Birmingham has had various attempts at getting a local dimension to city planning and governance, to service delivery, and to the engagement of residents in neighbourhoods in key actions in their locality. Some key features, and tensions, of these are set out below. This is not an in-detail account of all aspects of localisation in cities, but a brief overview of some developments within one city.

In-city area structures for local service delivery and management

Given the size of Birmingham there has been an urge for the division of services into area-based teams localised along constituency lines. This has particularly been the case since the 1960s and particularly for services managed by the City Council. At the same time, police had their own boundaries; public health services had their boundaries; and schools were clustered into various consortia groupings.  

Tensions included:

  • Boundary disputes where service needs overlapped across boundaries for different services’ delivery and local management.
  • The degrees of relative autonomy afforded to locality service management and to whole-city planning: Locality structures being primarily there to ensure that central intentions reach into every locality; or there to feed intelligence from the ‘swampy lowlands of frontline practice’ up into the shaping of central decision-making.
  • When budgets tightened (1980s; early 1990s; since 2007) locality services were increasingly merged from being managed on the basis of 12 separate constituencies, to 4 areas of 3 constituencies, to 3 areas; etc… with area managers being asked to take on more and more activities across wider-spread localities. Balancing city-wide and small-area development has been a recurring theme.
  • Potential lack of clarities and responsibilities, particularly where Area Managers each had responsibility for a locality, but where some also took a citywide lead on particular themes or for specific client groups.
  • Senior managers were expected to attend multiple locality meetings, each with the same agenda. One potential result of this was attendance at regular, scheduled, locality-focused meetings eroding time and energies from the oversight of service delivery across localities.

Localisation of governance

In 2004, a strong effort was made to embed this localisation and devolution. Birmingham City Council established a set of  local constituency-based Area Sub-Committees – to bring some decision-making closer to the communities involved; to engage locally-elected councillors with the service delivery of partner agencies; to allocate small improvement grants for local spend; to diversify services based on detailed locality profiles. A lot of energy went into these actions. Community engagement was enabled; inter-service understandings improved and joint-working improved. Substantial improvements in the lives of local residents were less easy to demonstrate.

Tensions included:

  • Determining what is best for Birmingham:  central overview perspectives cf aggregated local determinations.
  • How far Birmingham should take localisation forward: A push for up to 50 parish councils? Delegated, devolved, Total Place budgeting?
  • Endless recycling of committee papers up, down and across overlapping governance and decision-making processes across layers of the Council, various partner agencies, specific projects and initiatives etc.

Financing localisations

In addition to arguments for reshaping mainstream budgets towards some level of place-based or community-budgeting, Birmingham has had various versions of specific budgets for localised developments.

Neighbourhood Renewal: Based on a whole-city framework re teenage pregnancies, infant mortalities, domestic violence, NEET, employability, housing needs etc; to be coloured in locally to bring about local changes, steered by local processes etc.

Single Regeneration Budgets: Rolling together various strands of national development monies to give a unified fund behind a single locality (or theme) plan across several years; with approved Annual Development Plan commitments to next-step developments, quarterly monitoring to ensure planned progress is made. Two models were tried in Birmingham, with Audit finding one more successful than the other.

Working Neighbourhood Funding: 47 neighbourhoods were identified, determined by the day-to-day lived experiences of local residents rather than by a distant carving up of existing administrative areas. These were localities where there were high levels of unemployment and low levels of skills. Year-on-year progress in the neighbourhoods was to be driven forward by a focus on work and employability.

Tensions included:

Such initiatives brought about significant changes in the city but, in many cases, encouraged the establishment of a separate team/organisation to manage the process, with some replication of existing management and decision-making. Too often, there tended to be an over-focus on money, bids and projects rather than ensuring that longer-term progress was locked into place across target localities.

Networks of localised professional understandings and actions

Fifty years ago Birmingham had an established pattern of professional workers’ meetings in localities: 20-30 local workers from a range of local agencies; for about an hour over a sandwich lunch, monthly; a round-robin update on changes to staffing or policy for each agency followed by a short input on a topic of local relevance, then a brief discussion of implications for the area.

Recent versions of this have focused more on immediate family problems: Up to 10 staff from police/ housing/ care/ health/ schools etc; discussion of urgent issues for specific local families; each agency committing to particular actions; with some sense of urgency; commitment to meet in a week’s time to confirm that problems had been fixed for the families. These initiatives were, however, unusual rather than the norm.

The more consistent model, over several years, was one of services across a local area being co-located in a local appropriate venue eg a Children’s Centre; a Neighbourhood Office; a Community Hub. Locating services in a shared property has been one position on a spectrum that included integration of information; single-door access points for residents with multiple concerns; and a potential for integration of staffing, planning, budgets and responsiveness across service silos.

These models have generally provided organisational improvements, better working across agencies, and improved services for residents of the city.


Localities and neighbourhoods have always been important in Birmingham, as has operating as a coherent set of whole-city arrangements.

Various aspects of localisation need to be considered, across a range of agencies involved at different levels: decision-making; management structures and activities; delivery of improvements and stabilities in the lives of people needing particular forms of support and development.

Structural features (boundaries, financings, accountabilities, leads etc) can start to have more emphasis than is sometimes necessary.

There have been successful models. The extent to which these got embedded into normal practices depended largely on national policy and funding changes, but also on the extent to which they were used as opportunities for real change or perceived as one-off initiatives driven by finance or by organisational restructurings.

Insights have been gained from past experiences, but organisational memory is weak in a large fast-shifting city. The tensions and issues emerging from the wish to balance city/local can be avoided, minimised or optimised by careful forethought.

Cities: Flourishing? Learning? Resilient? Capable? Emergent?

Following on the thinking from previous posts:

If cities are important (If only because more than 60% of the UK population now live in cities), are they all important in the same ways? There are qualitative differences between London (as capital city, federation of a number of small boroughs, making a lot of ‘noise’? within national debates etc); and cities with a strong industrial heritage (Birmingham, Manchester, Coventry etc); maritime/seaboard cities (Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle); small ecclesiastical/academic cities (York, Durham, Cambridge, Oxford etc); recently nominated cities, and so on. Cities have, variously, claimed status for themselves as a learning city, or a resilient city, or a connected city. From the lines of thought up to now I would also add Flourishing City as the status that many cities are aspiring to be, even if this not yet being claimed in those terms.

From the various lines of thought described in my previous post, a number of overlapping elements recur time and again as key factors. These can be listed and arranged in different ways to create ‘constellations’ of meaning. Other people may come up with their own slightly different set of aspects, and arrange things in somewhat different arrangements. Below is mine.

Although it is set out (far ease of reading?) as a list it is seen as far more intra-connected since the components can be constructed together in different ways. It is intended more as a flexible lens/framework through which cities might be considered rather than as a definitive checklist. (I would also extend this beyond cities, and suggest that it is possible to use the same kind of framework to look at Organisations or Networks or Communities or Neighbourhoods or Families etc.

Aspects of a flourishing place/organisation/network:
Sets out a moral purpose; there is meaning in what is done; promotes a compelling vision of where want to get to
Is aware of values/goals; uses agreed values as basis for decisions
Acts ethically; confronts wrongdoing; challenges bias and intolerance; deals with conflict and barriers
Can go out on a limb; able to express unpopular views
Sets challenging aspirations; driven to meet outcomes; results focused; maintains commitment/purpose
Asks why things aren’t done differently; approach involves querying and puzzling
Uses complex strategies without over-complicating things
Connects disparate things; seeing potential for linkages (up/down/across)
Looks outwards as well as inwards; interested in broader context
Observes what is going on in practice; watching the realities
Fosters active engagement with people, ideas and events – in ways that are authentic
Seeks positive relationships/interactions; collaboration; linking up with others; manages relationships with peer agencies
Feels part of a wider network/community of others; connecting with others (family, friends, colleagues); being in touch with people
Sees that today’s right answer may be wrong for tomorrow; recognises need for change
Generates new ideas; can put ideas into practice; adapts responses as new circumstances emerge; acts like a creative brain
Shows an interest in things/in the world. Passionately curious re why things work the way they do; how can be improved; wants to know other people’s stories. Relentlessly questioning; being curious; remarking on the unusual
Stays up-to-date; maintains currency in thinking/knowledge
Looks for information that can help improve things
Is open to new perspectives/viewpoints; sees changes emerging; prepares for change
Reflects on past experiences; Learns from experience; open to feedback
Learns from differences/ambiguities/gaps; Encourages debate and discussion; promotes conversations-of-equals
Is flexible in how events are seen/interpreted; sensitive to other viewpoints
Experiments; enjoys fiddling about to see what works
Operates in uncertainty; calculated risk-taking
Tries new things; rediscovering old interests; exploring/ formulating
Understands how people work; how to get best from self/others; Seeks opportunities to raise skills of others; Creates culture in which people can thrive
Listens well; picks up clues
Meets commitments; keeps promises
Leads by example; takes bulk of responsibilities
Has adequate self-determination and assertiveness; has presence, presents self with confidence and assurance
Has a degree of flow/mastery; has vitality about what is done
Shows grit, stickability, self-discipline
Wants (and gives) clarity, precision, succinctness
Is good at decision-making; decisive despite uncertainties and pressure; thinks clearly; organised; manages multiple demands
Demonstrates resilience; coping skills. Embraces adversity with a track record of overcoming it; strong work ethic
Stays composed, positive, unflappable; relaxed, calmness; manages impulses, avoids over-reaction
Handles difficult situations well; looks for mutually beneficial outcomes
Is aware of own strengths/weaknesses; key strengths are used to good effect every day
Is aware of the world and how reacting to world events is influenced by collective feelings
Savours the moment; appreciating what matters
Shows optimism; spreads positive emotions; cheerful, smiles, thanks others in genuine ways
Is unselfconscious about doing unsolicited acts of kindness for others; readily volunteers
Takes on new challenges/different responsibilities
Offers advice, feedback, coaching to others
Makes sacrifices for the greater good

This thinking is currently being developed further (particularly with the colleague Andrew Harrison) and additional thinking will be set out here and elsewhere in the near future. We hope that others will comment as one way of contributing to the thinking.

Flourishing neighbourhoods: what contribution can learning make?

One key concern in the regeneration of Birmingham over recent years has been that of creating economic prosperity for residents whilst also creating flourishing neighbourhoods.

These flourishing neighbourhoods are seen as small localities, each with its own distinct sense of place; where people are relatively happy to live; where public and private services are well delivered; where there is a strong network of activity and were residents feel that they have some degree of influence over their lives and there is a sense of hope for a positive future.

A number of managers from different agencies, each with their own differing concern for neighbourhood renewal in Birmingham, explored what a flourishing neighbourhood might look like in terms of learning, and established what data might be needed to substantiate this.

A neighbourhood might be considered to be flourishing, in terms of learning, when:

There are large numbers of families in which children are given an early learning start:

  • children have access to high quality learning experiences 0-3, in the home, in the community and in early learning organisations
  • there are sufficient pre-school childcare places, including well-resourced, well- nursery places for all children wishing them (age 3-5)
  • libraries and other community venues are well equipped and welcoming to families with children 0-5
  • additional support is available to specific groups and families (such as those in hostels; refugee/asylum seeking families; those wanting to develop bilingual skills in young children; those in need of parenting support or advice; young children in public care etc)
  • children enter school with adequate levels of language, literacy and a sense of number – as well as good emotional, social and behavioural skills.

There is high quality primary and secondary education available to young people who live in the neighbourhood

  • there are sufficient school places in, or close to, the locality
  • schools are reported as being of high quality, by internal and external reviews
  • pupils readily attend school and are happy in schools which are secure, attractive and welcoming
  • schools are well staffed, and have good resources and facilities across the curriculum
  • schools act as reliable information, access and referral routes to other opportunities and services
  • parents are able to support their children’s learning

There are interesting opportunities available out of schools:

  • there is a variety of well used youth opportunities re leisure, art, sport, technology, citizenship, culture etc
  • specialist 1:1 or small group support services exist for young people
  • young people are involved in local decision-making
  • libraries, supplementary schools etc are linked to mainstream schools and are well-equipped and well-staffed
  • there is good access to ICT facilities in the home and in the community
  • there are supported opportunities re mentoring, challenge, taking on community roles – by, and for, young people

There are high levels of skills achievement across all groups (11-25)

  • young people have access to significance, being able to define and implement a valuable set of activities for themselves
  • there are no substantial gaps in achievement levels between different groups
  • achievement rates at 11, 16, 19 are relatively high
  • there are high proportions of people qualified at level 3 and level 4
  • young people needing additional support know who to turn to
  • young people make the transition from learning at 14 to continuing learning, in work training etc by age 19
  • there are high levels of functional literacy, language, numeracy and ICT skills post-16

There are sufficient, appropriate opportunities to continue learning post-16

  • libraries and adult learning venues are well staffed and well stocked with appropriate materials
  • learning is available via a variety of loosely-linked organisations; in a variety of forms; and via a range if organisations
  • next-step learning is accessible in terms of place, time, by ICT etc
  • there are local training opportunities for adults wishing to take on community roles or be involved in community activities
  • there are people who are sufficiently motivated about learning, that they act as learning advocates
  • there is readily available information about learning opportunities
  • there are ways of learning that can happen anywhere/anytime
  • there are wide opportunities for families to learn together at a range of community sites

Throughout the neighbourhood there is an environment rich in stimulation and opportunity

  • good use is made of media and ICT, for own-time learning
  • people seek out opportunities for change and improvement; people take responsibility for own learning
  • there are openings for creativity and problem solving
  • area looks beyond the immediate, tries to get a sense of the bigger picture
  • homes and community venues are seen as places that stimulate learning
  • there are opportunities (for all ages) to learn to be healthy, to be safe, to be ‘green’, to be involved, to be employable etc
  • learning is related to art, sport, culture, spirituality, academic knowledge etc
  • organisations in the area link up to support learning
  • there is easy local access to the wider sets of social resources

There is a valuing of learning and of the variety of cultures

  • there is promotion of learning as well as courses, programmes, and groups
  • ‘achievement for all’ is celebrated
  • there is an expectation that provision will be high quality
  • each learning opportunity is strongly able to create a further desire to learn
  • draws on resources within different sectors; reflects a diversity of cultures and traditions
  • learning is seen as a valuable tool – as a solution not a problem
  • people learn from each other and see themselves as having something to teach others

The above focused on the links between learning and flourishing at the neighbourhood level. There was acknowledgement that there are other factors associated with Flourishing (not least around employment, income, occupation etc) and that some of the driving influences operate at the broader city or national level. At the same time the development of this potential framework was helpful in a number of ways:

  • to feed into discussions about measurement of progress towards flourishing neighbourhoods (not only in terms of contributing to Birmingham as a learning city, but also contributing to the wider considerations of Birmingham as a safe place, an environmentally sustainable place, a healthy place, an economically secure place, and a place with good housing and transport etc).
  • to advise local decision-makers about the best investments of local development money
  • to feed into local planning mechanisms, in terms of what are the puzzles (in terms of learning) for each area and what might the solutions be.