Lee Robb and Positive Carrickfergus

Forget levelling up – here's how to really fund change in communities

Last week, the UK Government announced that 45 places in the UK would share a £1 billion “towns fund” to help them address economic issues like lack of investment and an ageing population. The funding was immediately controversial: not only have the Tories cut more than £2.4 billion from such towns since they came to power a decade ago, but 39 of the 45 places on the list are represented in parliament by Conservatives.

So what does it take to fund change in places? I’m avoiding the language of the government – levelling up, the left behind – because it suggests all places should be aiming for cookie-cutter ideas of growth in a warming world, when it might be more appropriate to aim for sustainability or even de-growth. My thinking on all of these issues has been informed by gin-fuelled chats with Lee Robb, who has worked on both sides of the divide managing projects for funders and now as a grantee of the National Lottery’s Emerging Futures Fund with Positive Carrickfergus in her hometown in Northern Ireland.

Interviewed on July 16, 2019

I’m really curious about place-based approaches to funding which focus on place rather than funders. For example, in Carrickfergus I would like to understand how much money is coming into Carrick from different funders. Their priority is on their funding space rather than on Carrick, whereas if that was put into one pot for a place that would be much more transparent, it would create a different conversation about what happened with that money. Big Lottery funders are talking about participatory budgeting.

What if the funders put it into a pot and the people of Carrick got the opportunity to choose what happens with that funding? That would help shift the power.

But certainly, from my experience living in Carrick, and the repair cafe in Belfast, there is a growing sense of place being a key component of change. That becomes less about levels of deprivation, or about older people, or younger people, or putting people in boxes. I find it frustrating for people to talk about intergenerational projects, and I think if we didn’t have funding for young people and funding for older people, we wouldn't need funding for intergenerational projects! That funding contributes to that atomisation.

I think with this wider conversation around loneliness, that atomisation is affecting everybody, and while that is awful, there is an amazing opportunity to think about how we break down that class distinction to bring people together in a more asset-based way.

In asset-based community development, Cormac Russell talks about starting with what’s strong rather than what’s wrong.

What’s wrong is focussing on deficits and fixing people. It sees “deprived” communities as an empty bucket that needs filling up. Constantly telling people they are deprived is insulting and is not the right place to start with creating change. Asset-based community development is about creating space for people to build community in its truest sense, whereas deficit-based community development is about middle class people delivering services to working class people.

While some services are definitely needed, when you are operating from a service mentality your only response is more services.

It should be about fewer services and just getting out of the way, because you’re creating barriers to people building community and what they can do as a neighbourhood. It’s about fighting that atomisation and individualisation. Cormac talks about associational life - those friends and neighbours and connection in the place we live in that are so important and when you start delivering on the basis of mental health, age or ethnicity, it can stop us from seeing whole people. 

Interviewed on February 12, 2021

During the first lockdown local politicians never talked about how they were going to change policies so that people don’t need to rely on charity for food. There was a bit of mutual aid stuff popping up in Carrick and the council squished it all by engaging a charity to work across the whole of the borough. They swept in and charity took over from the emergent mutuality.

I keep seeing all the stuff about the positive mutuality stuff and it didn’t even get a chance to take root here. 

Meanwhile, we formalised Positive Carrickfergus as an organisation last summer. It had been running since October 2017 as a way of building community around a more positive story about Carrick than is usually told. In June, we applied for funding from the National Lottery’s Emerging Futures Fund, which was about building capacity to think about the future. There was some framing around Covid creating a space to think differently. They talked a lot about narratives and that was always part of our work. We were awarded £37,500 for six months, which is quite a lot of money. 

We had planned to open up a shop, to create a space to talk about how we create a future together. It wasn’t about, after six months, coming out with a co-created vision of the future. It was about taking a step towards that: here’s some themes we came up with talking to about 100 people. And that change wouldn’t happen by talking to these people but talking about how things would start to change as part of that. We’re fortunate in that most funders, if you said, “I want to open a space and have conversations,” they’d say no – so we have been fortunate that we’ve been able to do that.

We got to Christmas and I had been working on the shop, redecorating and buying furniture. And then they said there would be a big lockdown after Christmas and I just thought – I’m out. I’m just sad that I had to say goodbye to that idea. There’s other stuff emerging, we’re doing stuff online.

The forced slowness might end up being a gift.

I do think we might have pushed too hard in person, I don’t know if Carrick was ready for the conversations that I had envisaged. So, we’re building the community online and dropping in ideas on the way. We’re building up a mailing list so I’m getting right into people’s inboxes rather than being on Facebook, and that’s at a manageable level. 

I did a course with University College London called social futures from heritage, using heritage as a starting point for the future. Carrick is one of the oldest towns in Ireland. I find some of the heritage stuff quite boring and stuffy.

This made me consider heritage as a strength-based way of engaging the community.

So, what is in your back pocket to unearth the diversity of experience and identify those things that really matter? We went through a process and by the end of the course we were doing backcasting, so if you imagine the future you want in 40 years, what needs to happen 10 years before that to make it happen. 

Now we’ve been holding online conversations where people are sharing their stories about their harbour and are giving us their photos for the exhibition.

Last night, ironically, we had a conversation about trade with EU countries, imagining a Carrick that's more outward looking.

We were awarded £10,000 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, for the maritime exhibition, so that opened up that space, just to bring in extra resources into our town and maybe some jobs in the future. I think that just with two people working on heritage from a community perspective in Carrick could make a profound difference. 


Lee and I met on the edges of the Stir to Action festival – remember when we could meet people at festivals? Well, it looks like Stir might be holding a real in-person event again come July. More about the National Lottery Emerging Futures Fund. Thank you for reading this far. Please consider forwarding this to someone else who might find it interesting. Subscribing is free!