old building next door to a new building

The past and potential of ‘place’

In a recent blog we shared some ideas on why we need to rethink public services and develop new approaches to providing better social and economic outcomes for citizens in the communities where they live. In this blog, I want to explain why I think we’re undergoing a revival of interest in so-called ‘place-based’ efforts to achieve social change and why the charity and wider social sectors have an opportunity to get stuck in and shape this agenda.

I think that this drive towards place-based solutions is a cry against working in specific silos—children’s, or older people, or mental health or whatever—instead focusing on how change can be achieved within a framework of where people live, where the connections happen.

I’ve long been an advocate of ‘place’, particularly in my previous lives as a government adviser and Chief Executive of the New Local Government Network (NLGN). Over the past twenty years I’ve been involved one way or another in a variety of policies, including the Single Regeneration Budget, New Deal for Communities, Total Place, Collective Impact and City Deals—so I’m keen that we learn the lessons of these past initiatives if we are to maximise the promise of place over the next decade.

For me, ‘place’ has always been based on three foundations:


Place (or in former times, ‘an area’) has the potential to be the optimum framework through which we can achieve social and economic progress. Within a place or community, problems are often complex and necessitate more than one intervention from any single bit of either the public or charity sectors. Instead, we need a range of people working together to solve these problems, as Save the Children is doing, for example, in its Children’s Communities or the work Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Charity is doing in its approach to health in Lambeth and Southwark. Place instinctively makes sense to the people living and working within it; enables and forces different sectors to work together to overcome the silos, incentives, data issues and so on that too often force them apart.


To stem the endless stream of need (instead of just meeting it) then you must change the system that produces it, a belief that has led the LankellyChase Foundation—with its longstanding interest in systems change—to explore place-based approaches. So, if too many kids are going into care in an area then you need to understand why social services, schools, NHS bodies, early years practitioners, the benefits system and local charities working there failed to prevent this outcome—and you need to get in there and change the way they work together. Personalities and relationships often cause these failures, and they are easier to deal with in an area, and with local knowledge.


Many of the problems we face link to something going wrong with our relationships with each other, and within the communities we live in, as recently argued by David Robinson. Rectifying this will mean bringing people together to encourage participation, activity and grassroots mobilisation and will only come about within a (small) geographical space. Local approaches help build social capital along with the capacity of the community to take charge of it’s own future—indeed, this is the explicit focus of initiatives such as Big Local and the Big Lottery Fund’s ambition to put ‘people in the lead’.

These foundations are strong, and organisations such as The Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) and Collaborate have made much progress in promoting thinking about and popularising them in recent years. Combined they provide a strategy for dealing with what have been called ‘wicked issues’ at a time when money is short, and faith in top-down approaches has diminished.

With my experience at NPC I would now add a fourth foundation: local giving. Independent charitable foundations—individual as well as corporate philanthropists—are often attracted to a focus on a location, hence the existence and recent rise of place-based giving, for example Community Foundations, Islington Giving and the like. They bring funding from outside the traditional accountability structures, widening the range of interventions available.

The crucial question for us is: what does this all of this mean for the charitable and wider social sectors?

If I am right, that new models are needed locally and that place-based approaches have a lot to offer (and we are aware of potential problems—look out for a companion piece blog next week), then charities need to be a fundamental part of this process. That does not mean just trying to pick up new grants and/or contracts but seeing themselves as part of the make-up of a locality, pitching in with the public and private sectors to secure lasting change.

A lot of NPC’s work over the next couple of months will be dedicated to seeing how this can best be done.

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