A new report from the Southwark and Lambeth Early Action Commission, Local early action: how to make it happen, aims to make preventing harm the driving force behind local policy and practice.
Just about everyone agrees it is better to prevent a problem than cope with the consequences. None of us wants to be afflicted by obesity, unemployment, social isolation or violent crime. These problems can ruin lives and trigger high-volume demand for cash-strapped public services – yet they are all preventable. So why do they keep on recurring?
The two south London boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth asked the Commission to help them make a radical and sustainable shift towards early action. Chaired by Dame Margaret Hodge MP and supported by the New Economics Foundation, the Commission has conducted research, consulted experts and engaged with local residents and groups.
Most local problems share the same underlying social and economic causes. The best way to prevent them, says the Commission, is to change systems, which involves changing habitual ways of thinking, organising and working. While some of the underlying causes, such as poverty and inequality, are best tackled at national level, there is plenty of scope for local early action.
To make a real difference, says the Commission, its proposals “must be brought together and strengthened, placed at the heart policy and practice, and pursued forcefully over time.”
For example, local action can improve everyday living conditions – what places are like, what they offer and how they make people feel. And it can strengthen social relationships – how people get together and interact across networks, neighbourhoods and groups.
Four goals for achieving early action
The Commission has identified four main goals:
- Resourceful communities, where local people are agents, not victims, of change and are able to shape the course of their own lives.
- Preventative places, where the quality of neighbourhoods makes people feel good, and helps them lead fulfilling lives and look after themselves and each other.
- Strong, collaborative partnerships, where organisations work together, share knowledge and power, and foster respectful, high-trust relationships based on a shared purpose.
- Systems geared to early action, where the culture, values, priorities and practices of local institutions support early action as the new ‘normal’ way of working.
It’s clear that early action is the only viable response to the current scale of public spending cuts. But at a time when local leaders are preoccupied with defending existing services, many are reluctant to take risks.
The Commission acknowledges that extra resources must be found to support the transition.
Making the transition
An important first step is to identify local assets – from public amenities like schools and parks, to the wisdom and experience of individuals, and social qualities such as love, empathy, responsibility, care, and informal teaching and learning. Unlocking support in the local community would give a huge boost to early action.
The Commission recommends setting up a Change Fund, financed through a local charity, to help realise systemic change. It calls on the councils to classify spending, so they know whether money is spent on prevention or on coping; to shift a significant portion of their budgets to early action each year, and to set out a long-term plans, with specific milestones, regular monitoring and reporting.
Drawing on conversations with residents in Southwark and Lambeth, the Commission calls for more partnerships and stronger communications between organisations, more places for people to meet and act together, more strategic use of councils’ ‘place-shaping’ powers to improve the quality of neighbourhoods, more power devolved to communities, more co-production and participatory budgeting and a stronger role for the voluntary sector.
Building on what’s already happening
Much of this is already underway, but on a small scale. The report pulls together more than 30 case studies of early action in Southwark, Lambeth, and beyond. In Southwark, for example, there’s a scheme to keep fast food and betting shops off the high streets. In Lambeth, there’s LEAP, a lottery-funded partnership to boost the development of children over a 10-year period. Across both boroughs, local care networks are working to join up local voluntary groups and public sector professionals to reduce dependency on downstream services.