An ordinary hope helping to power communities across Britain
23 May 2023
As local government and community leaders from across the UK meet at the annual Stronger Things conference, politicians of all parties are asking how we can unlock the energy and talent of our people. I talked with UCL’s Dan Honig and travelled to Sheffield to try to find out.
By James Baggaley, UCL Policy Lab
On a sunny day in Heeley, you could be forgiven for forgetting that the community was once at the hot and dirty heart of Sheffield’s steel industry. The molten furnaces and tightly packed terrace housing were levelled in the 1980s, an early victim of de-industrialisation. What was left was a community with all the usual scars of post-industrial Britain.
Today Heeley is home to a new revolution, one that is being forged by citizens and melded by community leaders. A revolution that hasn’t just wrought economic success but also a social infrastructure that has given hope to a community and enabled it to withstand the storms of COVID-19 and the cost of living crisis.
This new approach is embodied in the Heeley Trust. The Trust formed in 1996, was born from residents' desire to rebuild their community. To restore the soul to a place that had been counted out. The result was the Heeley Peoples Park. The park now sits at the heart of the community. Andy Jackson, the trusts manager is clear about the ambitions of that initial project.
“The community had been left with the physical scars of de-industrialisation. This was most clearly seen in a large stretch of land which ran right through Heeley. In those early days, regeneration in places like Heeley meant levelling unwanted homes and factories, filling in the basements, and that was that. But we didn’t think that was enough – we wanted to build something together as a community.”
Heeley Peoples Park was born. The Park, which is now rich in trees and activity, is unusual—not born not from the generosity of Victorian philanthropy but the shared ambition of a community. The process of securing a park became a catalyst for a new way of doing regeneration in Heeley.
“When we got to designing and building the park, the idea was to try and consult everyone. We’d knock on their door ‘Are you sure you don’t have a view?’ ‘What could be done better’ we ran events, did planning for real, built 3 D Models together; It was about creating something that served the entire community’s needs but also gave people a stake in Heeley’s future.”
Anyone who has ever encountered a government consultation will know that this kind of ambition to engage is rare—too often seen as a task along the way as a pose to a tool for betterment. Consultations have the uncanny ability to come up with the same top-down plan proposed at the outset.
With the Heeley Peoples Park, the opposite was true. Consultation and design was about creating ownership of a process and a place. The result is a glorious green corridor connecting a community that once felt dislocated. But it hasn’t stopped with the park. What was planted in this first project was a belief in doing things differently.
Today the Heeley Trust help runs a co-working space bringing businesses into the community, a cycle workshop, a festival and a cultural programme to showcase the incredible talents of Heeley and Sheffield. And most recently, working to deliver social prescribing and public health services within the community – with incredible results.
“The COVID pandemic revealed so much about what was going wrong but also what could be done differently. Here in Heeley, we mobilised that social infrastructure we’ve built up over the years. We wanted to make sure no one was left behind, we did shopping, collected prescriptions, supported community groups to move online and checked in with hundreds of our local contacts. But we ended up being one of the leads of our local vaccine programme. Delivering 32,000 vaccines and a really strong partnership with our Primary Care Network.”
The results of this work are clear. Although Heeley, much like other post-industrial communities, continues to see deprivation driven by wider shifts in the UK economy, it has become a community where people are proud to live and eager to move. The businesses in the co-working space are vibrant and diverse in number. There is currently a waiting list for space.
Central to this renewal is ownership. And it’s where policy, both local and national, can make a clear difference—the rules of ownership, but also the sense that ownership gives to people and places. It's why campaigns such as We're Right Here are clear about the need to allow communities to own assets.
Andy is clear about the role it can play.
“As we’ve done more work, be it the community hub or cycle workshop or the festival – our ability to have a stake in our own future is key. Without ownership of the asset and the process, how can we unlock the energy and talent of our people?”
The hope that is born of ownership and the implicit trust that it brings was recently explored at the launch of the UCL Policy Lab and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation project Ordinary Hope. How can politics and policy support ambitious grassroots programmes for change? What are the political implications and the economic challenges?
The opportunities, represented in Heeley seem clear. And underlined in the research of thinkers such as Dan Honig, who is exploring how empowering communities and officials can be transformative for outcomes.
“The community, those closest to a given problem, often understand best how to tackle it”, says Dan. “Public servants often also want a different, better relationship with communities – in no small part because people who work for government are often are drawn to the work precisely because they want to help citizens lead better lives. The lowest hanging fruit to achieving better outcomes, in my view, is creating opportunities for empowered communities and supportive public servants to collaborate to achieve their shared goals.”
What has been achieved in Heeley isn’t easy. Andy and others in the community make clear the challenges of trying to build shared projects, which by their nature will mean different things to different people. But as Dan Honig makes clear in his research, trusting people can have remarkable results.
As Andy puts it what has happened in Heeley is a vision of what the UK can do at a national level.
“Whatever our political allegiances, I think most people are clear that we need to rebuild the country. That should be the ambition of any government – and it’s our ambition at a local level. Rebuilding for something better”
There’s hope in the hills of Heeley. And perhaps even a plan for how we can all have a stake in rebuilding Britain.
To find out more about the Ordinary Hope project in partnership with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, contact James Baggaley (email@example.com).