Author: John Griffiths

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BIDs  . . . Boris 50, Sadiq ??

BIDs . . . Boris 50, Sadiq ??

What could Sadiq Khan do for BIDs in London?

One of Boris Johnson’s final acts as Mayor of London was to announce he had achieved his 2012 manifesto target of seeing 50 Business Improvement Districts set up in the capital. London’s reaching 50 BIDs (almost a quarter of the total in the UK) does not mean we are at saturation point. Several of the 14 boroughs which have not embraced BIDs are considering their feasibility, including Wandsworth, Tower Hamlets and Haringey.  However, the 50 BID milestone is an opportune moment to reflect on what BIDs have achieved, their strengths and weaknesses and how the new Mayor of London may decide to enable them to work more collaboratively with other partners who are interested in the place-shaping of London’s many different communities.

The first BID in London, Kingston First, was set up in 2005 and in 2015 entered its third 5-year term. Term renewal is regarded as one of the most telling indicators of a BID’s success.  All BIDs in the capital which have held renewal ballots since 2012 have seen an increase in turnout and approval rates.  And yet, whilst London’s BIDs seem here to stay, they still face considerable challenges:

  • Cuts in local government funding mean that BIDs have an opportunity to expand their responsibilities and importance, but this also threatens their raison d’etre as business-led membership organisations which, first and foremost, exist to add value to statutory provision not substitute for it;
  • Opportunities presented by the government’s commitment to devolution and localism also bring risks and uncertainties for BIDs in terms of their financial sustainability, given changes to local government finance, rate revaluation and new taxation mechanisms;
  • Expectations of BIDs to play a role as convenors and enablers of local/neighbourhood plans bring added responsibility and requirements in terms of professional skills, and expectations of greater accountability and transparency to stakeholders other than just a BID’s levy payers.

BIDs appeal to the majority of London’s councils for different reasons. Inevitably, as town halls face further funding cuts, BIDs appear attractive as a money-saving device. Within that framework, some London boroughs adopt a hands-off approach, reaching a baseline-agreement for local services, but largely recognising BIDs’ autonomy as private-sector organisations. In contrast to this laissez-faire approach, others have sought collaboration in the form of public-private partnerships. Councils that have redefined themselves as enablers, see BIDs as integral to establishing new forms of service delivery and stimulating economic growth. Boroughs which have taken this approach include the City of Westminster, now home to eight BIDs; Lambeth (6); Southwark and Camden (4 each).

Westminster, for example, recently instigated regular meetings between the Leader of the Council, the Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Business and Economic Development and the borough’s BID chief executives.  This is a clear signal to the BIDs that they are regarded as key to the economic development of the borough. The meetings enable the BIDs to report back on council services in their areas, but also to identify opportunities for contracting out services, including to local BID partnerships. The council has also encouraged BIDs (eg Victoria and the New West End Company) to support the work of local Neighbourhood Forums; as business led forums they can then access Community Infrastructure Levy funding to support the development of a Neighbourhood Plan.

Lambeth’s transformation into a ‘Cooperative Council’ includes identifying opportunities to break up bigger contracts as they come up for renewal; smaller contracts, delivered more locally, have provided opportunities for BIDs (eg Vauxhall BID taking over management of Vauxhall Park under a council contract). The Council’s bi-monthly BID forum also lets BIDs propose and test new ideas, including South Bank BID’s proposal for a shared apprenticeship scheme.

Systems for engagement need to be robust. There will be occasions when the BID’s and the local authority’s interests conflict. Angel BID, for example, which has a close working relationship with LB Islington, found itself leading a vociferous and ultimately successful community campaign against the council’s proposed parking policy. In Croydon, relations with the BID became temporarily strained last year when the Council’s Labour administration took umbrage at the blue uniforms, along with bowler hats, of the BID’s new Street Ambassadors. They now wear an eye-catching pink.

A recent report[1] commissioned by the GLA and the London Enterprise Panel recommended that the new Mayor should focus less on the setting up of yet more BIDs, but rather find ways to support existing BIDs as agents of local partnership. The growth in number and diversity of BIDs in the capital calls for a greater awareness of the sector’s segmentation, enabling groups of BIDs to collaborate on different issues, as well with the voluntary sub-regional arrangements of boroughs which are linked to London’s devolution proposals. In the meantime, this is happening as much by chance as by design, with an ad hoc mix of BID-financed infrastructure and area-based partnerships in place (eg the Cross River Partnership), providing support for both inter-BID collaboration, as well as cross-borough public-private initiatives.

As, in the words of one BID Chief Executive, the “new kids on the municipal block”, BIDs are quickly having to find their feet in a fast-changing environment for both local government and wider governance arrangements in London.  It will be those BIDs with an enterprising mind set, political nous, an open and supportive relationship with their local community and a propensity to collaborate which succeed.  As new BIDs continue to emerge whilst others grow in maturity, the London BID community will become increasingly diverse.  This will require a variety of different support arrangements and partnerships – both area and issue based – in order to harness BID energies and resources, enabling BIDs to maximise their contribution to tackling London’s policy priorities which is in the interests of both their members and the wider community.

John Griffiths is a Director of Rocket Science and one of the authors of The Evolution of London’s Business Improvement Districts

[1] The Evolution of London’s Business Improvement Districts March 2016

The Change Ahead – a future for civil society in London

The Change Ahead – a future for civil society in London

Named after Janus, the god of transitions and new beginnings, January is a time when we tend to look backwards to the past and, at the same time, forwards to make potentially life-changing resolutions. A conference held just before Christmas to consider the emerging findings from the review of support for civil society in London felt prematurely Janus-like, torn between these two directions.  The eighty or so delegates were reminded of the maxim that “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it” whilst there seemed a general acceptance that the environment in which the sector now finds itself means that the status quo is not an option.

The Change Ahead will need to be far reaching, in the same way that, twenty years ago this year, the Deakin Report on the voluntary sector heralded a new settlement for the sector. That report paved the way for nearly fifteen years of heightened prominence for the sector as a trusted partner of the state, and sustained investment by government in the infrastructure of civil society.

Yet one of the more sobering findings of the current review is that, since the going got tougher, the sector has been poor at identifying its support requirements and implementing change. “Despite the numerous reports and reviews carried out in recent years, there is still no shared understanding of the role of civil society support . . . [they] offer long lists of recommendations as to what civil society support organisations should do, without taking into account the limited funding and room for flexibility that their funding allows, and without prioritising roles and responsibilities.”

The following reflections on the Change Ahead are more optimistic; in spite of the continued austerity and the magnitude of the cuts in local government funding (one of the mainstays of support for the sector), there is a genuine opportunity to learn from both past and current practices and a desire to collaborate in order to implement an effective settlement for the c21st.

  1. A broader definition of civil society

A theme running through the conference was an appreciation of the paradox presented by increasing cuts to government funding at a time of ratcheting demand for public services. Collaborate and the Local Government Association estimate a £14.4 billion supply-and-demand gap will emerge for local public services by 2025.  London Councils have argued the gap could be over £3bn in London alone by 2020.  As one delegate remarked, faced by such challenges we must accept there are “no longer any single sector solutions”; no sector (public, private or voluntary) “can afford to sit in splendid isolation” commented another.

In these circumstances, we should be looking for a broader definition of civil society for the 21st century. The one presented by the review seems too narrow; by highlighting the distinctions between the different sectors, it is too last century for our increasingly common purpose: “Civil society is where people take action to improve their own lives or the lives of others and act where government or the private sector don’t. Civil society is driven by the values of fairness and equality, and enables people to feel valued and to belong. It includes formal organisations such as voluntary and community organisations, informal groups of people who join together for a common purpose and individuals who take action to make their community a better place.”  Surely an “enabling state” and an enlightened private sector are just as much part of civil society – and potentially invaluable contributors to it – as voluntary and community organisations, or informal associations?

  1. A new settlement

The economic situation and social conditions in 2015/16 may not be as critical as they were sixty years ago, but a new settlement, as was forged in the post-war consensus, is essential.  Just as Beveridge recognised the importance and value of voluntarism working alongside the arms of the state, more than six decades on government and civil society are as mutually dependent as ever.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has talked of initiating a “revolution in the way we govern the country”, moving the UK from a “low wage, high tax, high welfare economy, to a higher wage, lower tax, lower welfare country.”  The total % of GDP on public expenditure has already fallen from 43% (2012) to 39.7%; by 2020 it is projected to reach 36.5%.  As Simon  Parker of New Local Government Network has pointed out, a 36.5% state is a return to the state spending levels of the late 1990s.  However, the UK will be vastly different in 2020, with an ageing and increasingly expensive population.

In the meantime, it is local government which is taking the brunt. One HM Treasury graph from the Spending Review shows that whilst government grant to local government is being cut by 56%, overall levels of Council resources remain pretty flat for the rest of the decade.  By freeing up Councils to raise and spend their own sources of income – from local business rates, council tax increases and other receipts from local economic development – the government expects Councils to transform, in Professor Tony Travers phrase, from being a “mini-welfare state into a local economic growth agency.”  The distributional impact of such a transformation will be significant. The new freedoms passed down from Whitehall to town halls are likely to favour already economically successful areas; further polarisation of wealth seems inevitable, and gaps in civil society will widen.

In these circumstances, and with an opportunity to negotiate with central government to devolve more powers locally, councils in London are looking to collaborate more. This is manifest in the increasing prominence of variously named borough groupings (the Tri-boroughs, the Growth Boroughs; the West London Alliance etc) which are looking to share the costs of service delivery and achieve more for less. In trying to harness economic growth which is also socially inclusive, however, these partnerships need to feature prominently both civil society organisations and socially responsible businesses.  The absence of local government, let alone business representatives from the Change Ahead Conference, suggests there is still some way to go to ensure that inclusive, cross-sectoral discussions happen in the context of further devolution and new governance arrangements in London.

  1. Valuing civil society

One way of ensuring government and business take more interest in the potential of civil society is to be more confident of its size and importance, and expressing this in language they understand.  The sheer diversity of the components which make up a civil society means it tends to defy easy measurement.  A recommendation in the Change Ahead report is that the Greater London Authority which, via GLA Economics has long collected data on the size of London’s economy, now extends its remit to include measures of the capital’s civil society.

In the year in which London has assumed the mantle of European  Volunteering Capital, 2016, a robust assessment of the economic value of volunteering offers as good an indicator as any of the significance of civil society.  The Chief Economist of the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, recently argued that because the societal gains from volunteering are not captured by official GDP statistics, its value tends to go unrecognised.  Seeking to rectify this, he estimates that an army of 1.25m people across the UK create an annual economic value of at least £50bn; proportionately, this is likely to be worth £13bn or more per annum to London.

Using Change Ahead to lobby a new Mayor of London to give due prominence to civil society in the capital, the report’s sponsors could do worse than enlist the support of the Bank of England.  Haldane suggests another reason why the full cost-benefit of volunteering is not appreciated is that many organisations which make up the fabric of civil society do not have the skills (or perhaps the time) to assess its value.  Change Ahead is on to something when it calls for funders, and strategic bodies like the GLA, to do more to help measure the true value of civil society in the capital. By also recognising the rising significance of the sharing economy in London (the third biggest creator of sharing economy start ups in the world), a new Mayor has the opportunity to signal a major shift in how we define and measure what constitutes a successful city.

  1. A plurality of funders

London is not short of funders of civil society – charitable trusts, community foundations, statutory agencies, corporate donors and social investors – many of which recognise the importance of investing in infrastructure that supports and sustains the capital’s social fabric. However, in straitened times and with demand rising, it is increasingly incumbent on this plurality of funders to collaborate in order to ensure they are not funding the same thing, but share information and learning in order to maximise the impact of their investments.

Three priorities seem to stand out for funders of London’s civil society, none of which will be easy to meet.

  1. Funders need to have the means to say no. Julian Corner, CEO of Lankelly Chase, told the Change Ahead conference that we have become too accepting of a culture of needs-based funding. Put bluntly, this is a deficit model in which organisations have a vested interest in growing the problem they are set up to tackle.  Funders and support organisations need to be much more confident in being able to distinguish between authentic needs and those which may be systems driven.
  2. Funders need to acknowledge the increasing blurring between the public, private and voluntary sectors, and how each can contribute to a vibrant civil society. This means their being prepared to fund “bridging architecture,” not to shore up the VCS, but to develop a new paradigm of cross-sectoral collaboration.
  3. Funders (and civil society organisations in general) need to create more time and space to be able to collaborate. As Debbie Sorkin of the Leadership Centre suggested, it is important from time to time to “get off the dance floor and onto the balcony.”

One tool which may enable funders’ collaboration is a shared investment plan or road map.  At a time when we are increasingly being asked to question what the European Union has done for us, we can draw some inspiration here from the way the European Structural and Investment Funds for London are co-invested.  A co-investment plan for funding support of London’s civil society would:

  • Set out some over-arching and shared objectives and priorities.
  • Identify a number of potential co-investors in London’s infrastructure whose investment is targeted at meeting one or more of the shared priorities, including central government departments; Big Lottery and the EU itself in the form of its Technical Assistance programmes.
  • Match these sources with funds from London’s “co-investors” – ie the GLA and London Councils (for pan London and sub-regional programming); individual or small groups of boroughs for more local support; trusts and foundations and potentially corporate givers for (additional) specialist and thematic support and/or pilot projects.

The governance arrangements would need to be worked through, but in London Funders there is the makings of a secretariat which already creates space and time for funders to collaborate, and who now need to take forward and implement the recommendations of Change Ahead.


John Griffiths is Director of Rocket Science and a Trustee of London Funders

Change for good?  The increasing role of the private sector in supporting civil society

Change for good? The increasing role of the private sector in supporting civil society

Earlier this year, the Report of the Independent Commission on the future of local infrastructure, Change for Good made a series of recommendations to try to ensure that, despite further cuts in public funding, support for civil society organisations is sustained for the common good.  It recognised, however, that “a call for more money and a return to the previous status quo were out of the question.”  By highlighting the emergence of new forms of infrastructure and resourcing for civil society, the Commission’s Report gave some truth to the maxim that austerity can be the mother of innovation.  The Commission also argued that responsibility for the implementation of Change for Good rested with others who could more easily tailor future infrastructure to the needs of specific places or communities of interest.  Taking up that challenge, a group of London Funders are commissioning a detailed assessment of the future of civil society support in the capital.  Whoever carries out the work is required, not surprisingly, to have a “good understanding of civil society and its existing infrastructure in London” but also, in a clear sign of the times, an understanding of “what the private sector can offer.”

Rocket Science’s recent reviews of VCS infrastructure, both in London and other parts of the country (eg Buckinghamshire, Barnsley,  Sheffield and Knowsley) and the way civil society organisations seek and engage support, show a significant role being played by support services other than Councils for Voluntary Service, including the private sector.  This confirmed a trend we noticed when conducting research for the Big Lottery Fund (“Supporting Change and Impact”) to assess the different sources of external advice and support used by Civil Society Organisations.  In our survey of 300 organisations (2013) we found that whilst around a third (37%) of grant-holders received support from their local Council for Voluntary Service, almost two thirds (63%) opted to source support from a consultancy or freelance.

Change for Good graph
Supporting Change and Impact Evaluation – Big Lottery Fund 2013: Where organisations choose to go for support


Change for Good does comment on the role of the private sector in supporting and investing in civil society.  However, its recommendations to business (eg “work with your local infrastructure bodies to implement your corporate social responsibility strategy” or “deploy the skills of your workforce for the benefit of local charities and communities”) seemed to be a decade or more behind the times.  The report failed, for example, to reflect on the way far-reaching changes to the delivery of public services in the UK have become a significant driver for businesses to engage and interact with certain civil society organisations, albeit for commercial as much as charitable purposes.

A steady blurring of the distinctions that traditionally existed between the public, private and voluntary sectors has been one effect of three decades of opening up of public service contracts to providers irrespective of their legal form.  The process has been given further impetus by the new government’s championing of a bigger stronger society”;  private companies which have benefited from this considerable market, and a relatively low-tax business environment, are  being strongly encouraged by government to reciprocate, not only by demonstrating their corporate social responsibility, but also the additional social value they can bring to the delivery of public services.

The increasing outsourcing of services in employment, criminal justice and now health has had the possibly unintended consequence of developing new sources of support for certain voluntary organisations and charities.  Civil Society Organisations which have been able to work with lead or “prime” private-sector contractors have, to a varying degree, benefited from the latter’s recognising the value of investing in their supply chains, including specialist VCSE providers.

Rocket Science has worked with a number of the prime contractors of both employment services (eg the Work Programme) and criminal justice (eg Transforming Rehabilitation).  Whilst we are aware of different approaches which these companies use to win large public-service contracts by offering to invest in civil society, it would be beneficial as part of any future redesign of infrastructure to ascertain the true scale and value of such investment, whilst also recognising its inherent flaws and weaknesses.  Relying on the business winners in an increasingly cut-throat, public-service market to provide support for selected civil society organisations is risky, potentially divisive and could severely compromise one of the central tenets of the sector, its independence.

Instruments like the Social Value Act, the intention outlined in the Conservative Party’s Manifesto (2015) to encourage more  employee volunteering and the increasing interest in local place-based giving initiatives, are all aspects of an ecology of cross-sector working and different sources of investment which has considerable implications for the way elements of civil society may access support in future.  To this effect, there has been a proliferation of intermediary and brokerage organisations which match private companies with civil society organisations.  For example, in London alone, East London Business Alliance; Heart of the City; City Action and Team London as well as local, borough models like Business and Community Together in Kensington and Chelsea, or Love Kingston pair companies with charities, source employee volunteers and introduce business skills to community organisations. This is a fast maturing market place, but it is no panacea for the cuts to publicly-funded support for civil society.  The potential, but also the limitations and motivations of private sector investment have to be far better understood in any assessment of the future of infrastructure and the need for continued support for Civil Society Organisations.

John Griffiths is a Director of Rocket Science and Trustee of London Funders

Where is the next Frank Field or IDS – the future for welfare

Where is the next Frank Field or IDS – the future for welfare

Following New Labour’s 1997 election victory, a former Director of the Child Poverty Action Group, Frank Field, was appointed Minster of Welfare Reform with a brief to “think the unthinkable.”   Thirteen years later, the self-proclaimed “quiet man,” Iain Duncan Smith, having found his voice at the Centre for Social Justice, became Secretary of State for Work and Pensions with a wide-ranging remit to fix a seemingly ineffective and wasteful welfare system.

In the run up to this General Election, there is no sign of anyone of similar profile or stature stepping forward, from either the Left or the Right, to champion welfare reform.  The binary nature of the arguments over the purpose of welfare (e.g. rebranding the deserving and undeserving poor as “strivers” or “shirkers”) has not made for a healthy or productive public debate, to the extent that any incoming government would find it hard to reverse many of the recent reforms and attempts to cap overall welfare spending.

Rocket Science recently talked to a selection of thinkers in the field of welfare reform.  We found a striking degree of consensus, indicative of the crowded nature of the political middle ground, but also of how the Coalition Government has tapped into public opinion which is more inclined to associate welfare with social failure, than a tool of social and economic integration which can soften the harsher effects of a free market.  Asked to identify “the next Frank Field or an IDS” who might offer new political leadership on the role of welfare, our interviewees tended to throw out a few names.  However, they were just as likely to comment on how there was no one obvious assuming the mantle which, given the size and importance of the challenge, gives many (particularly those on the Left) cause for concern. The Fabian Society’s projections to 2030, for example, consider what happens to welfare in a “do nothing (more) scenario”: increasing polarisation in wealth (i.e. a continuation of the current trend); working-age welfare spending continues to decline as a total share of social security spending; increasing pension poverty as pensions fail to keep pace with expectations and inflation and fewer people able to save for a decent retirement.

The challenges of rolling out the recent waves of welfare reforms, including the work-related assessment regime, the Personal Independence Payment and the hugely ambitious system of Universal Credit, seem to have narrowed the focus of political and public debate on issues of implementation rather than the setting out of a new vision for welfare.  Whilst the former have enormous significance, and have understandably preoccupied many in the voluntary and charity sectors, the comparative vacuum in the debate over a sustainable future for the welfare state is also a threat, at a time when pollsters have reported a noticeable weakening in public support for welfare, particularly among the younger generation.

In this context, it is interesting to reflect on the historical narrative of the UK’s welfare state.  It could increasingly appear to have been a relatively short-lived experiment born of the post-War consensus within a far longer history of self-help, community based charity and local poor relief.  Indeed it is possible to detect signs among other recent government policies promoting localism, voluntarism and a Big Society, that we are reverting to the continuity of past history and that the post-War collective settlement was an unusual period of discontinuity.  If this is the extent of what is at stake (and how we choose to provide for people during dependency says a lot about our society) it is more than surprising that there are not more figures emerging to set out a new social vision for Britain.

Contact John for more information.




Online funding portal – making applications and monitoring easy

Online funding portal – making applications and monitoring easy

As no two grant funds are the same, we customise a Project Management System (PMS) for collecting and analysing management information so that it is appropriate for each fund and proportionate to the size of grant award. In the past, we have relied on a number of tools which we have tended to design and develop using Microsoft Excel in order to organise and maintain up-to-date information on the projects.

With the development of our Rocket Science Grants Management portal grantees can access and download the tools to support them in gathering and recording the required data, and submit their monitoring forms online. Each project can have customised reporting deadlines; submissions are tracked and flagged to the Grant Management team if they are late. Data within monitoring forms is automatically validated against common mistakes (such as mathematical errors using percentages, as we experienced in FreeSport Round 1), with relevant advice provided to help grantees complete accurate returns.

The portal also enables us to export dependable data into bespoke tools which we can use for client-specific needs, such as producing data sets to support the assessment of applications and highly intuitive information packs to support grant panels’ decision making.  We can also build customised progress reports which we export in order to support funders own reporting requirements.

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John Griffiths

John Griffiths

I have spent most of my career in London.  I live in, have represented and written about the East End which has given me an appreciation of the challenges of effecting social change.  Since setting up Rocket Science’s London operation in 2001, I have had the privilege of working with some amazingly talented people and a wide array of clients across the public, private and voluntary sectors.  We have now extended the company’s research and consultancy services to encompass programme and grant management, developing long-term collaborations with different partners, including London Voluntary Service Council, the Black Training and Enterprise Group and Teachers’ Development Trust.

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