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Working with housing association 'Bolton at Home' to reduce unemployment and deprivation – Bolton Council

Seeking to identify ways to close gaps of employment, deprivation and engagement in one of Bolton’s most deprived areas, Bolton Council provided funding and significant freedom of action to a housing association, as the best-embedded organisation within the community, to experiment with innovative forms of community engagement where traditional approaches had failed. Key to the new engagement programme was the freedom to invest substantial time in building relationships, and a light-touch approach in terms of reporting outcomes to give innovative approaches time to embed and have an impact. New approaches have created increased trust and engagement from local residents with council and housing association services.

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Case study video

The place

Bolton is a metropolitan borough in Greater Manchester, with a population of around 280,000. Bolton has struggled to replace mills, factories and large industrial employment that was lost in 1960s and 1970s. It has relatively high levels of unemployment, and issues with educational attainment, ranking 111 out of 149 council areas nationally for GCSE attainment.

The challenge

  • Project focused on a neighbourhood called Breightmet – low income, ‘quite grim’.
  • Built as a 1960s /1970s model housing estate with only 11 per cent unemployment. By the nineties it had risen to 60 per cent.
  • Knock on negative impact on local shops and economy as people lack money to spend.
  • Was eighth worst 'lower layer super output area' (LSOA) in the UK at start of the project.
  • Challenge set by Bolton at Home (a housing association which receives some funding from Bolton Council) to narrow the gap between Breightmet and other areas of Bolton – particularly getting people into work.
  • Previous attempts at community meetings and residents groups failed – ‘flat atmosphere’, cynicism, mistrust of council and housing.

The solution

  • £180,000 from Bolton Council in the first year of work (2007/08), topped up with funding from other sources (need to clarify what fund this was as interviewee was unsure). Bolton at Home was given lots of freedom on the implementation – just had to provide an annual report on impact.
  • Spent a year slowly building credibility. Took a creative approach to engagement and tried a number of things including:
    • Taxi conversations developed when staff struggled to get people in to the community centre but saw them waiting at bus stops to get into town. Fifty people were given free taxi rides in exchange for a meaningful conversation and mapping of their community networks during the ride. Council had taxi firms working for them at £15 per hour.
    • One Question Brieghtmet and Mr 1 Million film projects to hear local views
    • Three women’s poetry groups to explore hopes and concerns of local people and build community relationships
    • Working Wardrobe – free smart clothing for local people to wear at job interviews.

The impact

  • Boosted intelligence about neighbourhood issues for council and Bolton at Home staff
  • People furthest from jobs market got into work (check stats – 117 people from Breightmet in new jobs in one year)
  • Increased awareness and engagement with Bolton Council and other local decision makers via the Urban Care centre
  • No need for leaflets to promote things as trust is high; word of mouth is most powerful mechanism
  • Huge numbers regularly entering urban care centre means they can use it as a hub to host other services. Relationships mean that 'warm handovers' are provided rather than cold referrals.

How is the new approach being sustained?

  • Frustration that the work gained lots of visitors and admirers but failed to be replicated elsewhere (tried with an embedded writer doing a blog to promote the work).
  • Other officers felt they didn’t have permission or patience for a six-month timeframe of building trust / letting messages spread by word of mouth.
  • Neighbourhood management model has been retained – means staff advocate for their own place with conviction.

Lessons learned

  • Be willing to invest months in relationship-building without pressure for outputs/return on investment – work at the speed of trust.
  • Don’t dress it up if it’s not working – honest appraisal (no fear of losing funding?) led to quickly ditching ideas / existing methods that didn’t work and openness to new things.
  • Don’t impose services based on your preferred outcomes / targets (for example, no ‘employment support service’, just staff running projects that people want, who are able to provide advice or signpost to relevant services at the appropriate time) – avoids cynicism and stigma.
  • Courage of Bolton at Home CEO combined with light touch oversight from Bolton Council created space for creativity.
  • Importance of arts and poetry for providing space to get to know people and their personalities.
  • Targets culture and value for money concerns is preventing innovation.