On the edge of a large grass sports field in the center of the village of Thurnscoe, north of Sheffield, England, construction has just started on what locals hope will be a new center of community activity. The project is a hexagonal plaza, with amphitheater seating, planters, and a sculpture-like concrete parkour course. It’s a modest bit of public space creation that might be familiar to many small towns.
Beneath the surface, though, the new plaza being built in Thurnscoe is one piece of a bold experiment in community self-determination. The plaza, along with hundreds of projects being built and operated in socioeconomically challenged communities across England, are part of Big Local, a $330 million program funded by the National Lottery Community Fund that puts money in the hands of communities and lets them do whatever they want.
Beginning in 2010, about 150 of the most economically disadvantaged places in the country were selected to receive grants of at least £1 million, or about $1.3 million in U.S. dollars. These communities, often referred to as “left behind,” are mostly small, post-industrial, on the outskirts of cities and towns, and deep into years- or decades-long declines in economic fortunes, civic engagement, and social cohesion. The intention of Big Local is to provide these communities with the resources to start rebuilding some of the civic institutions and local amenities they’ve lost or been denied. The money came with few strings attached, aside from the mandate that the communities work together to decide how the windfall gets used.
The program has a distinct timeline, with 2026 as the end date and hard deadline for communities to get the money spent. With the National Lottery putting about 20% of its annual revenue, or $2.3 billion, into philanthropic projects, Big Local represents a sizable attempt at reshaping how that charitable giving happens. Local Trust, the organization formed to administer Big Local, is also using the set timeframe to study how long-term investments can better turn into tangible results.
Now, two-thirds of the way through, the program is beginning to show those results. Big Local has proven to be a slow-burn success, with many of its grantee communities finding ways, large and small, to invest in programs and places residents want and need. Often made up of just a few thousand people, these communities are places where the $1.3 million worth of funding can go a long way. A growing number of the communities in the program are using their funds to build physical spaces where community members can gather, from community centers and gardens to parks and sports facilities. After years of economic turmoil due to the U.K.’s 2010 austerity measures, the divisive politics of Brexit, and nearly two years of a global pandemic, the spaces being built and operated represent a glimmer of hope that even left behind communities can band together and write new futures for themselves.
In Thurnscoe, the public plaza is seen as a catalyst. Expected to open sometime in the spring, the space is intended to be a physical sign of the change that’s already happening there.
“The community plaza is the biggest capital investment in the public realm for decades,” says Alison Vint, who works with the volunteer-run board of Big Local Thurnscoe, the group formed by residents to decide how to spend the money. “We hope that it will mark a turning point in the way residents and the wider community perceive Thurnscoe.”
Lost jobs, lost amenities
For economically struggling towns, something like a public plaza might seem to be at best a secondary concern behind jobs or economic wellbeing. But according to research conducted by Local Trust, economic stability is generally not the main desire among residents in left-behind communities. “What people most want is places to go and things to do, something they’re often shut out from, particularly if they’re peripheral communities that have lost the clubs, that have lost the community centers, that are needing to rebuild that institutional life,” says Matt Leach, chief executive of Local Trust.
He says the communities identified to receive Big Local funding have a lot of shared circumstances that have stacked the deck against them. “They’ve seen a disappearance of the big employers, but they’ve also seen a withdrawal of the private sector and with austerity, the gradual disappearance of some of the things that local authorities might have funded like community centers, civic centers, libraries,” Leach says. For these communities, the sudden infusion of a considerable sum of nearly unrestricted money has become a chance to recreate these amenities.
One community outside Leeds shows how this is gradually happening. The Hawksworth Estate, a housing development built nearly a century ago to house World War One veterans and workers of a nearby forge, has been a deprived area for decades. Some there say the closure of the forge in 2003 and the elimination of 1,500 jobs solidified the area’s struggles. Challenges range from poverty to food security to childhood obesity to violence and sexual offenses. Now home to about 6,400 people, the area has struggled to shake off its burdens and build up. Big Local selected Hawksworth and neighboring Abbeydales and Vespers areas to help the community find new sources of pride.
“It doesn’t have the best reputation. Unfairly, nowadays, but it’s historic,” says Sadie Binns, who works with HAVA Big Local, the group that’s figuring out how to use the funding. Even so, the slow disintegration of the local economy has dried up civic organizations and community spaces like the workers club associated with the forge. What’s left are a few disparate groups, like a local political club and a YMCA.
“There’s a reluctance among these groups to really work together,” she says. “I think the deprivation plays a massive part in that. Like, that’s my bit and I don’t want it to get taken away like everything else.”
HAVA Big Local is steadily making new spaces where isolated residents can come together, including a hub that hosts food distribution and club meetings, and new public parks. These efforts took several years to materialize, says Alison Gordon, a Hawksworth resident for more than 20 years. Part of the slow rollout was just the shock of having a pool of money to use. “Imagine saying to people who can’t even put food on the table, ‘You’ve got a million pounds, get together and work out how to spend it.’ What do you do with that?” she says. “We were very suspicious it was real. Is this a television program? Are they going to say ‘surprise’?”
At first the projects the group pursued were on the small side, like grants for a few hundred dollars to start new businesses and a food-giveaway program. Deciding what to spend the money on led to some anxiety. “There’s a saying here in Yorkshire, and it’s that somebody has short hands and long pockets,” Gordon says. “People in Yorkshire are quite renowned for being tight with the pennies.”
That made it difficult for the group to narrow in on how to start spending the money. “Five hundred pounds is a huge amount of money to waste, so there is that fear of getting it wrong,” Binns says.
The group eventually decided that a key issue facing the community was a lack of places for young people to go. Its first big project was a skate park built near sports fields in one corner of the estate. Adult exercise equipment soon followed. Now the community is considering taking ownership of a nearby building and making it into a community center.
As projects have begun to take shape, people have become more comfortable with the idea of spending the remaining funds. Binns says the group is still making efforts to bring in new ideas and gauge the community’s interest in how the money can be spent.
“We set up a gazebo right in the middle of the estate. We’ll give you a piece of cake and a cup of tea—very British—and we’ll give you some leaflets with information about what we’re doing. But come tell us what is affecting you right now and we can integrate that into what we do,” Binns says.
The virtue of patience
Given the scope of the Big Local program, success is varied and the needs tend to be uniquely local. In Warwick, a community of 2,500 homes outside a decommissioned mine near Birmingham, the Big Local effort has seen some ups and downs. Early investments didn’t pan out. An effort to create a shuttle service to replace a discontinued bus line fizzled, for example. The setback tinged the group’s work and how residents perceived it, according to Kaylee Thompson, a community engagement worker at Warwick Ahead, the Big Local group in the area. But after years of struggling to show results, Warwick Ahead has begun to make a physical mark in the community by creating places where people can physically meet.
In October 2020, the group got control of a vacant storefront in the neighborhood’s largely dormant commercial area and has turned it into a community hub, and is currently using it to run a food pantry and civic center. They have also formed a charity to be able to continue this work after the Big Local funding runs out and the program expires. Thompson says the first shop could just be the start.
“What we want to do is take over that whole square, as many buildings as we can, get as much stuff going as we can—a play gym, a food store, a post office,” she says. “It’s the center of the estate, and the community has said they want more places to go. We’ve got £300,000 left and we want to spend that £300,000 exactly how the community want it.”
Other Big Local groups have been even more proactive. Near Bristol, in the post-war housing area of Lawrence Weston, the Big Local group Ambition Lawrence Weston has turned its funding into a surprisingly robust community development charity. Partnering with other local organizations, the group has become an affordable housing developer. It recently received approvals for the development of a 36 homes on derelict land, including 26 affordable rental units. The property will become part of a community land trust, ensuring the group can retain ownership of the housing and keep prices at levels affordable to locals.
In Thurnscoe, where the community plaza is taking shape, efforts are starting to spread. Big Local Thurnscoe has also built planter beds throughout the community and refreshes them regularly. They’ve also taken over two neglected homes and are in the process of refurbishing them into affordable housing. “We hope that the Thurnscoe will continue to be a better place to live in all kinds of ways with opportunities for all residents and visitors,” says Vint, of the area’s Big Local group.
As the Big Local program enters its final years, many groups are looking to the future, and establishing formal charity organizations to be able to continue their work and apply for grants to support new endeavors. “We see increasingly that they’re looking to take on assets, to acquire buildings, to create meeting places,” says Leach. “And I think that’s quite important.”
Local Trust is also looking at ways to extend the work it’s started, working with various levels of government in the U.K. and other philanthropic organizations to explore more direct investment in community-led regeneration. “We’re trying to release significant long-term funding to invest in communities and to support the rebuilding of the social fabric,” Leach says.
The concept may have relevance beyond England. Leach says he’s had meetings with representatives at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development about Big Local and how its lessons may be applied to communities in the U.S.
The work happening in Big Local communities now—through the efforts and perseverance of residents and regular people—could be guiding models for how funding gets invested in struggling communities in the future. The spaces they’re building now, after years of collaboration, are showing tangible strategies in the gradual work of creating community connections. Local Trust plans to continue its monitoring of Big Local communities as their spending winds down and some move on to new forms of charitable support. In its halfway point report issued in 2019, the organization found that Big Local’s long-term timeline was key to communities’ success.
“One really clear thing that’s come from the program is the virtue of patience,” says Leach. “If you go into a community that’s seen the gradual decline and disappearance of social and civic institutions, you can’t just add money and hope it solves itself.”
The communities making the most progress, he says, are the ones who’ve found ways, and built places, to strengthen social and civic ties. The infusion of funding from Big Local was the instigator, but the people are the ones turning it into the action they need.
Reporting of this article was supported by the Geothe-Institut’s (Re)Collecting Europe journalism grant.