Headlines: July 20th, 2004

More than a thousand local people and front line workers from public sector agencies have been involved in Britain’s first Social Enterprise Zone. A report today says it has not only brought together local residents and staff to find innovative solutions to problems in London’s East End but has also influenced national policy.The SEZ in the Forest Gate and Plaistow areas of Newham was created six years ago to help community services in similar ways to those which operate in Business Enterprise Zones, where designated areas are freed from rules and regulations thought to be obstructing local economic growth.

Today’s report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation describes how the project designed a tool called ‘What if…’ to gather experience from local residents and front-line staff from national agencies like JobCentres and the Inland Revenue. People taking part were invited to design and try out changes to regulations and services and to pioneer ways of working that were more suitable to local circumstances.

The report has been produced by Matthew Smerdon and David Robinson of Community Links – the organisation running the SEZ. They say that many of the ideas to emerge have not only helped local residents, but also the government in meeting its Public Service Agreement targets for better service delivery.

The authors say some proposed changes to regulations and working have been readily accepted by government but there are some areas where the SEZ has found it harder to get departments and agencies to acknowledge problems. Similarly, while some senior officials have responded positively to ideas emerging from local consultations, others have tended to treat new ideas as unwelcome criticism.

Some of the ideas to come out of the scheme include a support service assisting claimants to fill in benefit claim forms at four local JobCentres. In two years more than 1,800 people were helped and problems with incorrectly completed forms were almost entirely eliminated. ‘What if…’ exercises also highlighted issues concerning people who work informally without declaring their income to the authorities. A senior policy official from the Inland Revenue was seconded to the SEZ for four months and now heads a unit that is preparing proposals for the Inland Revenue Board on better ways of dealing with the ‘informal economy’.

The report says mainstream government budgets could make a far stronger contribution to tackling local deprivation if they were planned in collaboration with the people they are intended to help and it argues that local evidence should be given equal status in the planning process with research from universities and government departments.