This week, as part of our report with Hope Not Hate, we told the story of East Marsh United, a community group formed on an estate in Grimsby. Their story gives us hope. The power of their project is a symbol of what a huge difference people in communities can make, and we stand full square with them, but not just them. Across the country, in town after town, whether it be a church hall in the Cotswolds or the back of a community centre in Hartlepool, small projects punch above their weight every single day. Often staffed by committed volunteers, working on a shoestring but facing down such challenges and doing it anyway. The strength they exhibit, and their perseverance, is a beacon for our country. But there’s a problem.
You see, we tend to fixate on big projects. Hundreds of millions on mega projects grab the headlines but some community centres might just be happy with some replacement light bulbs and a working oven. Not that we’re anti-progress. Far from it. Clearly, the big projects can bring enormous benefits with them. This isn’t an either or. But do these huge projects also blind us to the power of the small? In our incessant demand for scale, are we in turn forgetting the contributions made every single day by smaller volunteer organisations? More pertinently, if one were to express this in pure monetary terms, what is a better return on investment? Ten million pounds spent on a new roof for a train station or a thousand small community projects given ten thousand pounds each? The answer might centre on the financial rewards when community groups can’t easily quantify their work. Try placing a value on improving one child’s self-confidence, for example? Or placing a financial value on bringing a small group of older people together to socialise in a church hall on a week night?
I’m prepared to wager that just a thousand pounds would make an enormous difference to any one of the small projects we come across in our work. But, there’s a problem here too. As our good friend Professor Rob Ford said recently, “We have a system that gives places with the most the structures and resources to lobby for even more from central government and leaves the rest with less and less.” We see the same problems writ large across the struggles faced by small projects in communities in towns across the country. Simply finding sources of funding can be a daunting prospect, let alone filling out the paperwork required. There's an assumption this process is easy. It’s a system which rewards those best equipped to apply for the necessary resources and whilst there are organisations attempting to bridge this gap there are still too many small projects which can't. Meaning the process bends towards those best able to do so; i.e. the bigger projects.
We can do better than this, and there is potentially some hope. Part of what we do at the Centre For Towns is to advocate for towns; to act as their foghorn if you like. It means we are required, on occasion, to use our elbows in order to get a hearing. Which is, ironically, what towns did in Britain’s referendum on the EU. But it also means that towns are taken more seriously every day. Two years ago, as we slogged through town after town hearing the anger and frustrations expressed to us and feeling somewhat powerless ourselves, we would have been thankful that all of the political parties now recognise the importance of our towns and have made them a priority. More importantly, it means that a range of important national organisations are now recognising they could and should be investing more of their time and resources in our towns. We want to help them, and the good news is that we are helping them.
We’re helping them understand that alongside the multi-million projects which capture headlines are the thousands of community projects across the country which make our towns and cities work. Without their contribution, and the people who run them, we would live in a poorer place. Our job is to remind them and you that in our desire for progress and scale, we cannot forget that a pack of light bulbs and a few hundred quid can make all the difference in the world. It probably won’t garner any headlines, but in its own way it has a power which bigger projects can’t replicate. A power we should all be happy for them to have, and a power which they desperately want to enjoy.
When people ask us for our solution to the challenges facing our towns, we often leave them somewhat deflated by pointing out that a) there aren’t single solutions, and b) the single greatest resource we have are the people of our towns. For every headline we see of left-behind towns we think of the people who get up every day and make a real difference, often against all the odds. To them, we say your work is an example to us all. To you, the reader, we simply ask that in our quest for growth and scale, we don’t forget the power of small projects and include them whenever we consider the challenges our towns (and cities) face.