Big Lottery funds UK-wide Your Square Mile digital platform on SocialGo

As part of the announcement of a People Powered Change event this month, the Big Lottery Fund has confirmed that it will be funding the Your Square Mile initiative – currently part of Big Society Network – to build a UK-wide digital platform. It is part of a larger funding package that BIG will splash at the event in Salford on March 25.

The partners page says: “There are 93,000 square miles in the UK. Most of the 62 million UK citizens live in 7,500 to 8,000 of those square miles. These square miles contain identifiable communities – villages or small urban areas – comprising several thousand people each. “Your Square Mile” is about encouraging citizens to identify, claim and then lead change in those neighbourhoods. This is currently being piloted in 16 diverse, challenged communities in the UK.

“The Big Lottery Fund is enabling Your Square Mile to build a digital platform – on PC’s, mobiles and public access screens – that will enable the interchange of ideas, advice, support and benefits to citizens throughout the UK”.

Your Square Mile logo This is a big success for Paul Twivy, who has been working flat-out on the vision for more than a year. You can see an interview with Paul at the launch of Big Society Network and here. Big congratulations to Paul and managing director Jamie Cowen (subject to a slight caveat below).

Over on the Our Society site (where I should declare I’m a co-founder) Cathy Aitchison and others have been trying to find out more about Your Square Mile and promote the idea of Our Square Mile.

From that it has emerged that SocialGo are working with Your Square Mile … also confirmed here. There’s some details about the development programme here on Cooperatives UK. The launch date is given as September 2011 “with a range of member benefits, driving large-scale membership via significant partners ranging from Boots and Asda to the W. I. and Mumsnet to NALC and the  NHS.”

I’m looking forward to the People Powered Change event on March 25, when I’m sure we’ll hear more. The site says:

“Come along on Friday 25 March to find out about People Powered Change communities like yours, to share, learn and celebrate their work; to find out about what we are funding; to have your say and be part of a live grant-making experiment investing thousands of pounds in local community action”.

At present it is difficult to figure out from the invite and q and a on the web site just what People Power Change will amount to, beyond an understandable opportunity for BLF to demonstrate the wide range of very worthwhile projects that they support. Although the Government’s Big Society gets all the coverage (whether good or bad), it is Big Lottery who are funding a lot of small innovative projects on the ground – see for example the £200 million that will be going to 100-150 areas through the Big Local Trust.

Although it means a trip north for me and others based in London, all credit to BIG for moving away from the more usual breakfast launch at NESTA that rightly infuriates people who are faced with an overnight stay or a very costly rail trip. Still not much help, I guess, if you are deep in the west country, but maybe that comes next.

I should declare that I initially found it awkward to write this post on a couple of fronts**. First, as you can see from the above, it is very difficult to find out what is happening. Julian Dobson, another co-founder of Our Society, has written about this, asking Your Square Mile directly to explain more about their plans for a mutual, and urging them to be more transparent and inclusive. No reply so far.

Secondly, I have in the past worked for Paul and Big Society Network, and admire enormously the effort that he has put in … and really don’t wish to appear unfair or get anything wrong.

However, I am a reporter, and with others have lots of questions about the development approach YSM is taking, and how this relates to other networks. As many people have said about Big Society advocacy, there has been a rather arrogant disregard for all the good work that community groups have done in the past, and also conscious policy decisions to cut the funding of networks like CDX that have supported them in the past.

If Your Square Mile is now emerging as the main infrastructure to support local social action – funded by our lottery spend – then I think we need to know a lot more about what is going on.

In general, I suspect the problem is threefold. First, Big Society communications has been so appalling that anyone associated with projects fears a deluge of vitriol if they say anything that could be criticised. Second, this means there is far too little explanation and conversation, and people are in the dark and frustrated. Third, those organisations who do know something of what’s going on daren’t let on in case their tenuous hopes of funding are dashed.

In the case of Your Square Mile I gather Paul has a team of only a few people engaged in a very busy round of workshops, and so is probably cautious about opening up a debate which they can’t adequately handle. I hope they’ll find a moment to acknowledge people’s interest, indicate that they’ll be in touch soon, and offer slides that have been used at various events.

Your Square Mile could be a great project – if there were more engagement and learning from people who work in the field. BLF are very thoughtful funders with huge reach, expertise, and in Peter Wanless a chief executive who is prepared to use a blog to challenge critics.

So, despite, a bit of a grumble here, I’m hopeful that People Powered Change could give us a chance to celebrate the big/our/good society we are all creating, and YSM might be able to provide one channel to tell our stories.

** I posted an earlier version here, and have since confirmed the key points.

Update: I’ve found some village SocialGo sites funded by Big Lottery as part of their excellent VillageSOS programme, and blogged a piece over here because of ease of clipping stuff with Amplify. I’ll consolidate later. The question that’s jumping out at me is whether there will be any support and training for Your Square Mile SocialGo site owners. The VillageSOS sites aren’t very lively … though I guess that could change during the year.

Update: The Big Lottery Fund have now (Thursday 17th) removed the reference to  “enabling Your Square Mile” from the Partners page that I cited above. I’m sure that’s not because of any loss of commitment to funding, just that the original reference was probably a mistake.  I gather those receiving funding have been told that news about the investments is embargoed until the event on the 25th.


  • March 16, 2011 - 11:35 pm | Permalink

    Great post thanks David, and I look forward to your feedback after the event in Manchester.

    Given the rather bleak outlook for neighbourhood based activities in Brighton, which I’m sure are mirrored elsewhere, I’m slightly less generous about what lies behind this idea beyond someone who thinks something needs to be done and has found the ear of people who can help him do it.

    There is a need for constant attention to be paid to social cohesion at a very local level and online networking and better information has a role to play in fostering that. And I agree about the progressive and supportive nature of the Lottery.

    Sadly, however, I fear that this smacks of a technology-driven solution, which reflects nothing about the community development lessons learned the hard way over many years.

    I guess it will work well as a replacement for people who have a hyperlocal blog and want an attractive subsidy for SocialGo [I can’t think of anyone with a YSM-style hyperlocal site who could afford pay $24.99 a month for their ‘Premium’ features].

    It may well attract newbies to set up a site, from community associations to NIMBYs and all points in between. All ready to roll and with a brand new brigade of community organisers ready to offer up a great new space where the local community can get together and discuss stuff of concern to them.

    What was it you taught me, ‘Build it and they shall come?’ No, hang on, maybe not…

    But I can’t see how it will reach people in local neighbourhoods in real need, once it’s mopped up the web-savvy crew who cut their teeth on Talk About Local and the like. They’re not called hard to reach because they haven’t got a website…

    On the other hand maybe the Lottery will realise that to achieve social change it may need to come with funding for highly skilled people who can do the legwork in engaging with and building relationships with hard to reach and vulnerable people. You know, community workers and the like.

    Yours optimistically


  • March 17, 2011 - 7:52 am | Permalink

    Thanks Mark for the perceptive comment based, I know, on your hard-won mix of community and tech development. Part of the problem, I believe, is that we mostly have two tribes … community development people and techies. (I know we can list the brilliant exceptions, but on how many hands?).
    To generalise grossly, the former can be a bit sniffy about the tech because many people they work with don’t use the Internet extensively: and if they don’t, why should we?. And the latter can’t quite believe people aren’t caught up in their passion for the changes in power-relations that social tech can bring.
    Since writing this piece I’ve found a set of existing Lottery-funded village SocialGo sites that may provide some lessons for Your Square Mile – see

  • March 17, 2011 - 8:10 am | Permalink

    Hi David
    Many thanks for this,. It appears that many of those involved in the big society at the centre, and I include these ‘your square mile’ people suffer from a breathtaking arrogance, that they have the answers and no question, they seem to believe they have nothing to learn from anyone. Increasingly it also seems that dissenting voices must be silenced. Hence ending the funding of CDX. From what I have read the YSM people really ought to listen because their processes are nothing less than amateutish. Fine they can function in their little bubble of hubris, whilst others who should say something keep schtum because they might lose their funding But there are plenty of us who will continue to point out the deep flaws of big society, and try and hold people to account. Well done you and well done Our Society.

  • March 17, 2011 - 9:35 am | Permalink

    As you know David our own efforts in ‘placing people at the centre of economic development’ have long been engaged in what’s now called ‘hyperlocal’ action. One of our initiatives for a community development hub in 199 led to application for Big Lottery funding as part of BBC Village SOS. In the application we described our social purpose business model. We’d done likewise to the regional SE agency RISE-SW in 3 years effort to communicate, with no result.

    Big Lottery said that ours was an innovative plan but lacked evidence of sufficient local stakeholder support. Just a few months later we saw what we’d described to both featuring large in a branding promotion for the Social Enterprise Mark. Apparently no local stakeholder support was required in this instance. We cannot go on with this sham of inclusion.

  • March 17, 2011 - 9:37 am | Permalink

    Correction. Above should say a model first applied in 1999 for a local community development hum in 2009.

  • Pingback: Digital local resources – and a bit about Your Square Mile | DavePress

  • March 17, 2011 - 11:32 am | Permalink

    Well written David – you are in a delicate position and your diplomacy is admired 🙂

    As the comments above indicate, there is *loads* of experience in community organisation/activism and the pros and cons of online, which would be best consulted, but we’ve all talked about that before. So just a couple of points from our experience from supporting the blooming Transition Towns movement:

    1. It’s most importantly about face to face – online cannot replace the utterly vital community organisation skills required to handle conflict (for just one example), really it can’t. In our experience, local groups use physical tools to organise themselves and engage eachother (noticeboards, kitchen tables, pens, pencils), the web is always a second priority when it comes to it

    2. There are loads of website tools out there already; the temptation since the first dot com boom has always been to centralise; I’d argue this boils back to organisational psychology, ego, boundaries and other things that are more ‘dark side’ that the technology trap (of more tech, more tech) varnishes over nicely. The focus, which is more challenging, should be on aggregation and evaluation – finding the support tools the groups need *between* their sites rather than stuffing them all on one site…

    3. Technically, centralised platforms make for nice news feeds and management tidyness, easy things to talk about on tele etc. but suffer from never pleasing everyone, and are highly vulnerable to attacks, financial risks etc.

    Finding out that your ‘users’ don’t want more tech, they want more facilitation and conflict resolution training is a good thing for a web co-ordinator like me; it reminds me the web is just a tool 🙂

    Here’s our recent web survey results:

    March 18, 2011 - 1:22 pm | Permalink

    There seems to be a HUGE and rapidly growing amount of cross over with the creation and ‘enhancement’ of new organisations, Charities, think tanks and other VERY costly entities that are all desperate to appeal to the desires of the broad based BIG SOCIETY initiative…… Can anyone actually tell me who is making sure that the nation is benefiting from value for money from all these various activities which are funded by various entities including Lottery, Central and Local Government….. Fundraising.. and others??? I can see huge cross over already and this only serves to erode confidence in government initiatives as all one has to do is say one is going to contribute to big society and bang…… money flows……………… we URGENTLY NEED SOME BROAD BASED MANAGEMENT AND CROSS REFERENCING ON THIS – WHO DO I NEED TO TALK TO? PLEASE GET IN TOUCH WITH ME DIRECTLY AS THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT TO ADDRESS IF WE WANT TO AVOID CHUCKING GOOD MONEY AFTER BAD SO TO SPEAK…. DOES ANYONE ACTUALLY CARE?

    Charles May

  • david wilcox
    March 18, 2011 - 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Charles – you (and anyone else interested) might like to join discussion in the Our Square Mile group on Our Society
    You need to register, but it is very easy and we’ll be glad to help.
    We’ve just discovered that there is now an official Your Square Mile site with a very interesting outline of their plans and we’ll be discussing that soon.

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