Sir John Bourn, Head of the National Audit Office, reported to Parliament today that single Community Programme funding is leading to greater involvement of deprived communities in influencing local decisions but more needs to be done to reach all sectors and groups.
Thanks to simple and straightforward grant application procedures the Programme has been successful in providing funds to some 25,000 self-help and community group projects in England’s most deprived neighbourhoods. After a slow start, Community Empowerment Networks have begun to establish themselves and are exerting influence by establishing links with service providers at a neighbourhood level.
Devolved administration and simple applications processes are major reasons for the grants’ success. Most of the funded projects contribute directly to neighbourhood renewal objectives such as greater community cohesion and improving skills. The remainder provide indirect help with activities like transport and running costs. Providing funds directly to the voluntary sector is building the confidence of community groups. The grants are helping small groups that have not previously benefited from public funding.
Community Empowerment Networks were established to bring community and voluntary sector groups together in deprived communities and enable them to influence and shape decisions of public sector bodies in Local Strategic Partnerships. Community Empowerment Networks have so far had a limited influence over local decision making and will take time to become established but a recent focus on developing neighbourhood-based sub groups is bringing local communities and service providers together.
In some areas, tensions remain between community members and public sector members of Local Strategic Partnerships. This has been caused in part because many Community Empowerment Networks were not established in time to influence neighbourhood strategies and the allocation of the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund. The tensions are reducing as opportunities increase for Community Empowerment Networks to work alongside local democratic structures.
Publicity about the grants could be better targeted. Most groups hear about the grants through word of mouth, favouring groups that are already well-connected. Further work, including promotion, is needed to distinguish single Community Programme grants from over 40 other government area based initiatives and improve the Programmes’ effectiveness in drawing groups into Community Empowerment Networks: over half of groups that receive funds do not join.
Many community groups feel poorly informed about the reasons to reject grant applications and about how community representatives are chosen to serve on Local Strategic Partnerships. Community Empowerment Networks need to ensure their processes are transparent as failure to do so risks isolating Networks from the communities they serve.
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, through Government Offices, needs to monitor the representation of groups on the Community Empowerment Networks and ensure the Programme’s objectives are properly understood. They also need to ensure Local Strategic Partnerships provide adequate support to Networks.