The experience of using the Neighbourhood Taskforce approach in Limehouse, 2008 Linking up community silos

Social networks within a community take a long time to establish and are crucial for building social cohesion. Ideally these networks should develop organically in new settlements as residents get to know each other. Where this process does not occur or where social relationships remain constrained within particular isolated social groups, tension may result. There is a role for practitioners to support initiatives that can help break down these social barriers and facilitate greater cross-community communication.

Key Points

  • A method of alleviating low-level community conflict
  • Understanding and improving community relations
The Neighbourhood Taskforce model

The Neighbourhood Taskforce approach is a model designed by the Young Foundation to help communities who are experiencing some form of entrenched local-level conflict. It works by bringing together a group of interested members of the community to develop their own initiative. Pilot projects were set up to test and develop this model in two London communities: one an estate in Haringey, the other in Limehouse. The case of Limehouse presents some relevant lessons for those in the process of creating new communities.

Tensions in Limehouse

Limehouse has a diverse population, and has long attracted newcomers. Historically people settled in the area having found work in the docks. With the closure of the docks, and the building of Canary Wharf in their place, Limehouse has attracted new residents who have settled in recently built apartments which now dominate the stretch along the river bank. Predominately owner-occupiers, many of these more recent arrivals work in white-collar industries in Canary Wharf and the City. However, Limehouse is still home to a more established community, diverse in terms of its ethnic profile and housing tenureGlossary: refers to the ownership status of a household’s property.

Many local people are active in the Limehouse community, through residents' associations, local faith groups and community organisations, all committed to improving life for people in the local area, along with local service providers. However, so focused were these groups on their own passion and endeavour they sometimes missed opportunities to collaborate. There was a tendency for some of these organisations to operate in limited silos, a problem common to many areas.

This limitation was most obvious in the disagreements and mistrust that had arisen amongst residents over the use of the parks and the Thames-side path. Some felt that the young people using these spaces late at night were engaging in noisy and anti-social behaviour which at times bordered on the criminal. Local young people, in contrast, felt that new developments had restricted the public spaces they could use to socialise. As new housing had been built there were fewer public spaces, and the parks that were available only had playgrounds for much younger children. Tensions between some residents and young people had increased to the point where thick black oil had been poured over benches along the canal side. The local neighbourhood manager assumed this had been done to stop people congregating there in the evenings.

Tower Hamlets Partnership's priorities

The Tower Hamlets Partnership (a Local Strategic Partnership) was particularly interested in promoting social connections in Limehouse and in helping young people access employment in the local area. Though young people were doing well academically, they were still not working in Canary Wharf. It was hoped that by facilitating dialogue within the community, young people would have increased access to advice and guidance when making decisions about their future.

The Neighbourhood Taskforce process

The project began with a research phase. Local service providers including local schools, health centres, neighbourhood managementGlossary: is a process of coordinating public service delivery at a local level , youth centres and the local police were approached and asked for their opinions and perspectives on issues affecting the local community. From these initial contacts further interviews were held with a range of community organisations and residents' associations. Focus groups with young people were conducted with the support of several local community organisations that were already providing youth services in the area.

After this initial consultation, a number of people, local residents and representatives of public agencies and community groups, were asked to attend Neighbourhood Taskforce meetings. These took place three times over three months, and involved Taskforce members working together to design and plan an initiative that would help tackle whichever issue they identified as a priority.

The three meetings covered the following issues:

  • meeting one: a chance for people to meet and respond to the research findings and to discuss which issue they most wanted to focus on
  • meeting two: agreement on the priority issue for the group. A discussion about the kinds of initiatives that might be helpful
  • meeting three: a discussion of potential projects and their viability. Agreement on choice of project and final action plan with group members volunteering to work on the project.

At the end of the third meeting the Neighbourhood Taskforce group had drawn up an action plan to arrange a community arts festival at the local youth club, on the theme of 'My Limehouse'. It was intended to take place in the week leading up to the annual summer festival and to provide an opportunity for local residents to come into the youth centre and meet some of the young people who used it. It was hoped that this would encourage the young people to get involved in the festival at the end of the week.

Successful results from using Neighbourhood Taskforces
  • The process used in Limehouse proved successful at getting people from different community groups to talk to each other. It provided a useful space to break down some of the mistrust and misconceptions that existed between the groups. Some of those who took part in the process have since reported that their interactions with representatives from other community groups have become less tense.
  • The meetings also proved useful in connecting some of the work and initiatives of community groups and public agencies. This helps to ensure that residents receive a more coherent experience from service providers.
  • The process has helped to engage committed residents in local decision-making bodies.

Challenges for Neighbourhood Taskforces
  • The Neighbourhood Taskforce model is limited in its scope since it involves only a small group of local people focusing on a single issue.
  • Building social networks, and through them social capitalGlossary: the networks and trust between people that help a community work together towards shared objectives, is an organic process taking a great deal of time. This method can act as a small piece of a bigger jigsaw.
  • The process needs an interested party to kick-start it, someone willing to take responsibility for issues arising in the area and to initiate processes that may alleviate the problem. It also requires someone who can facilitate meetings in a neutral manner.
Transferable lessons for new communities

Most new developments will include a range of tenureGlossary: refers to the ownership status of a household’s property types: social, part-ownership and homes for out-right sale. People moving into these communities are likely to come from a range of socio-economic backgrounds and might also be diverse in terms of their ages and ethnic make-up. Similar conflicts may emerge as the community develops, particularly over residents' use of public space.

The role of design is important. Public space should be integral to the masterplan for a place but care must be taken to ensure that people do not congregate immediately outside individual homes.

Ideally there should be some degree of flexibility built into the design of public space. New settlements may attract a large number of young families. As these children grow up their needs will change. Parks and play areas should evolve as the community develops. This might be an important role for a stewardship organisationGlossary: an organisation, sometime charitable, that has a specific role to manage community assets into the long-term for the benefit of the local population as a whole , for example, a development trust.

Effective community development is an important part of supporting a new community. This will encourage the creation of organisations like residents' associations while helping to avoid those groups working entirely in silos.

Community-wide events or projects, such as a community festival, provide opportunities for smaller community groups and service providers to work together.

There needs to be an individual or organisation, perhaps a neighbourhood manager, who will be able to identify tensions if they emerge and who can act as a catalyst to pull interested parties together to deal with them.

For more information about the Neighbourhood Taskforces model see: the Young Foundation