MyFundingCentral: a funding lifeline for the UK’s vital charities sector

It should go without saying that the charities and voluntary sector makes a valuable contribution to society. In economic terms, NCVO has estimated that the sector accounts for over 950,000 jobs and over £20bn in GDP. The social value of the sector is harder to measure, but there’s no doubt that the thousands of charities and millions of volunteers across the UK deliver vital support in areas such as homelessness, healthcare and education.

The impacts of the pandemic

During the past two years, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the charities and voluntary sector have been profound. The Charities Commission has reported that over 90% of charities have experienced some negative impact from Covid-19, while 60% lost income. At the same time, the voluntary sector has experienced a surge in demand for its services.

The importance of grants

While charities rely heavily on donations from the public for their funding, contracts and grants from trusts, foundations and government generate almost as much of the sector’s income. There are thousands of funders awarding grants to charities for a wide range of causes, from poverty relief and housing to educational and community arts projects. Keeping track of all these funding opportunities is challenging, particularly for smaller charities.

An affordable, essential solution

One solution to ensure that charities are up-to-date with information on grant funding opportunities is MyFundingCentral from software specialists the Idox Group.

Now in its second year of operation, the MyFundingCentral database provides easy access to thousands of grants and social investment opportunities from local, national and international funding sources – all in one place.

The service is available to organisations with an annual income below £1m and is free for organisations whose income is under £30k. Larger charity and voluntary organisations can still access Idox Group’s GrantFinder service which works with organisations with an income over £1 million.

MyFundingCentral is designed for easy use, recognising that smaller charities generally do not have specialist staff focused on finding and applying for funding. Around 3000 small charities use the service every month to find funding to keep existing projects going or to expand their work.

A dedicated team of expert researchers monitor, verify and report daily on thousands of funding sources, including charitable trusts, foundations, councils, national government and corporate sponsors. And because the service comes from the same reliable source as GrantFinder – the leading funding database in the UK and Europe – MyFundingCentral has ready-made relationships with funding administrators and fund managers across a wide range of organisations.

All part of the service

Subscribers to MyFundingCentral have immediate access to a suite of services tailored to meet the needs of the charities and voluntary sector. This means that users of the service can:

  • search the database to identify opportunities that match their project;
  • find niche funding opportunities that other funding searches typically miss;
  • narrow searches to funding available in specific geographic areas;
  • receive alerts about new funding opportunities tailored to their needs direct to their inbox;
  • get the latest news on funding.

The database is easy to use, with key eligibility criteria highlighted, and information on how to apply fully explained. There’s no jargon, and because all of the funding opportunities have been handpicked by MyFundingCentral researchers to be right for the sector, users can be sure that they are current and relevant to their needs.

A lifeline for the future

Over the past two years, the charities and voluntary sector has proved its resilience. Many charities and voluntary organisations have found ways of adapting to the restrictions caused by the pandemic, despite the challenges of increasing demands and falling incomes.

Now, as it emerges from the worst of the restrictions, the sector is facing a still uncertain future. The voluntary sector is a huge, diverse and vital part of our society, and now more than ever it needs funding to continue its work with and for communities.

For many charities, MyFundingCentral is already a lifeline for connecting to funding streams. It offers the sector a reliable and up-to-date resource that can point charities towards the funding they need.

For further information, and to subscribe, visit the MyFundingCentral website.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash


Further reading: more about the charities and voluntary sector on The Knowledge Exchange Blog

NPF4: a new prioritisation of the environment through planning?

The Scottish Government published the fourth National Planning Framework (NPF4) draft for consultation on the 10th November 2021. Titled ‘Scotland 2045’, the eagerly awaited document outlines Scotland’s strategic approach to planning and land use to 2045, coinciding with the government’s ambitious target of transitioning towards a net-zero society by the same year. Now combined with the Local Development Plans (LDPs), it is a critical publication that will inform future planning proposals for Scotland over the next quarter of a century.

A plan of four parts

NPF4 is an extensive planning framework and it is impossible to fully review the 130 page document in a short post. However, it is made up of four key parts:

  • A National Spatial Strategy which sets out the four fundamental overarching themes which future development will aim to reflect and achieve. This is a vision for the creation of sustainable, liveable, productive and distinctive places.
  • 18 National Developments of ‘national importance’ that are proposed to support the delivery of the spatial strategy across the country. These include developments such as a Central Scotland Green Network, Urban Mass/Rapid Transit Network and Island Hubs for Net-Zero
  • 35 National Planning Policies for development and land use to be applied in the preparation of development plans, local place plans and development briefs; and for the determination of planning consents.
  • Delivering the Spatial Strategy through key delivery mechanisms such as aligning resources to targeting investment and an infrastructure first approach.

What does NPF4 include on climate change?

The transition towards a net-zero society through sustainable development is a cornerstone of the draft NPF4. In fact, the wider issues of climate change, decarbonisation, biodiversity loss and nature-based solutions are firmly rooted throughout many of the strategy’s policies.

Policy 2 is dedicated to climate change. It lays out a new requirement for all development proposals to give significant weight to the Global Climate Emergency as planning authorities are to carefully consider every development’s future implications for the climate.

It states that all developments should be designed to minimise emissions in alignment with the national decarbonisation targets and that proposals that do generate significant emissions should not be supported, unless the applicant provides evidence that the level of emissions is the minimum that can be achieved.

Tom Arthur, Minister for Public Finance, Planning and Community Wealth, has highlighted the requirement of giving ‘significant weight’ to climate emissions as a crucial feature within the framework for facilitating future sustainable development.

There is an undoubted sense of prioritisation of the climate emergency within the draft NPF4, as well as recognition of the planning authorities’ role in reducing emissions that was not so evident in previous iterations.

However, the draft concept of ‘significant weight’ remains a loose term that could become open to uncertainty – especially with the wide variety of developments it will apply to in practice. Despite the draft NPF4 illustrating that evidence of minimum emissions is required in certain instances – such as carbon intensive proposals – it remains unclear what this translates to in more typical housing developments, for example.

A host of other policies are also relevant to climate. Policy 19 on green energy states that local development plans should “ensure that an area’s full potential for electricity and heat from renewable sources is achieved”, whilst all forms of renewable energy and low-carbon solutions should also be supported. This includes support for the extension and creation of new wind farms.

Another marked difference from previous iterations of the NPF is the inclusion of ‘20 minute neighbourhoods’ as a viable approach to low-carbon urban living. A key principle of Policy 7 on local living, it is mentioned 18 times throughout NPF4 – making it one of the most prominently used phrases in the document.

Nature and biodiversity loss

As well as acknowledging the climate emergency, the draft NPF4 is clear in its identification of a ‘nature crisis’ in Scotland that is being aggravated by urbanisation:

“Our approach to planning and development will also play a critical role in supporting nature restoration and recovery. Global declines in biodiversity are mirrored here in Scotland with urbanisation recognised as a key pressure. We will need to invest in nature-based solutions to mitigate climate change whilst also addressing biodiversity loss, so we can safeguard the natural systems on which our economy, health and wellbeing depend.“

Policy 3 is dedicated to promoting nature recovery, and again there is a heightened focus on this issue now compared to previous strategies. It states that development proposals should “facilitate biodiversity enhancement, nature recovery and nature restoration“, whilst the potential adverse impacts of development should be minimised as a priority.

Likewise, major development proposals or those where an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is needed should only be approved where it is concluded that the proposal “will conserve and enhance biodiversity, including nature networks within and adjacent to the site, so that they are in a demonstrably better state than without intervention”.

Further areas of importance with regard to nature preservation include the use of ‘nature-based solutions’, which is used in accordance with the spatial strategies, several of the national developments and planning policies.

In some instances, specific examples of nature-based solutions are provided – such as the impressive Central Scotland Green Network national development, which includes a nature-network approach to water management with sustainable drainage solutions in Glasgow and Edinburgh. However, it could be argued that the draft lacks an abundance of smaller scale examples of nature-based solutions, in the practicalities of more routine planning developments.

Moreover, Policy 33 on soils aims to give peatlands greater protection and restoration. The draft states that development upon peatland and carbon rich soils should not be supported unless for meeting essential criteria, whilst “local development plans should actively protect locally, regionally, nationally and internationally valued soils“.

What’s next for NPF4?

The consultation period for NPF4 is well underway, with the Scottish Government inviting feedback and scrutiny on the document until 31st March 2022. The draft is subject to several parliamentary committees engaging with planning stakeholders and the general public.

Committees are encouraging demographic groups who do not typically engage with planning matters – such as young people and the elderly – to take part in NPF4, underlining the desire for more inclusive involvement in planning decision-making.

Following the declaration of a national climate emergency, the announcement of world-leading decarbonisation targets and the hosting of COP26 in Glasgow last November, NPF4 certainly provides a starting vision for how environmental targets will translate into action through planning.


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Guest post | Mixing it up in Midtown Tampa

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Midtown Tampa is the kind of instant city that 20 years ago I would’ve raved about. It’s another great example of The Urban Experiment.

This is a mixed-use, walkable development that has been created out of whole cloth west of downtown, near the airport. It’s a sort of second generation version of these types of projects, and measurably better than the first generation.

Before I describe it further, though, it’s interesting to trace a brief history of apartment communities in the US.

Not long ago, not far away

In America, renting an apartment has been a choice of a minority of households since the New Deal incentivized home ownership. About 1/3 of households today are renters, though early in the twentieth century it was close to 2/3. I won’t comment on if that was good or bad policy. It’s just to note the context, note the incentives and how we’ve changed.

Apartments were most commonly rented in small buildings in that previous era. They were the Missing Middle types so often discussed, and highlighted very well by Dan Parolek of Opticos Design. Yes, there were larger buildings as well, and a wide variety of SROs, apartment hotels and boarding houses. But most of what housed people were ancillary apartments, duplexes, triple-deckers, fourplexes, etc etc. This was very common for middle-class people, virtually all over America.

As we became wealthy, single family ownership became all the rage, egged on by financing incentives and regulatory changes (zoning). At the same time, larger capital flows became more dominant in real estate, and the nature of apartment living began to change. Apartments increasingly were built in larger “complexes” of 100 or 200 units all at one time in one location. In order to make apartment living an attractive alternative to home ownership, and not just for the poor or those without choices, developers began adding “amenities” such as pools and common green spaces. Those were the sorts of things not even contemplated in the “Missing Middle” era. Back then, an apartment was just a place to live in a neighbourhood, no different than the house next door or around the corner. The “amenities” were often in public parks.

As time went on, the arms race for amenities ramped up. Soon were added fitness centres, spas, covered parking, valet services and more. Newer apartment complexes today are often touted as “luxury apartments.” In addition to the amenities, they also tout granite counter-tops, stainless steel appliances and whirlpool tubs in the units. Going after the renter by choice market has necessitated this push to go ever more upscale and out-class the competition. That’s not surprising, it’s just a certain element of markets and competition at work.

The walkability factor

Now enter the 2000s, and the slow but noticeably growing interest in urban living. In some cities, the newly thriving commercial districts, walkable to many apartments, became a new, sexy amenity. Many smaller developers smartly capitalized on this with renovations of historic buildings, loft conversions and some new urban infill. They helped create an urban market that had some of the new amenities renters (and some home owners) were looking for. Their buildings didn’t have pools or covered parking, but they had cool bars and restaurants to walk to, art galleries, lively streets and more things that appeal to a certain part of the population.

The folks who deploy big investment capital naturally noticed this change. And they didn’t want to miss out on the trend. For over a decade, every healthy market has seen an influx of large “luxury apartment” buildings of about 200 units in urban areas, complete with all the amenities they’re used to providing in suburban locations. You guessed it – the pool, the fitness center, covered parking, etc etc.

Again, I’m not passing judgment. This is simply an example of how development happens in modern America. In many cases, these larger entities deploy tens of millions of dollars to buy and upgrade buildings, build new ones and create portfolios of hundreds and hundreds of apartments. It’s very smart business. Some of the end results can be excellent, some very mediocre, but nearly all have been well received in the marketplace. Urbanist snobs like me might ask questions, but clearly the people renting the apartments are responding positively.

Enter Midtown Tampa

Midtown Tampa is simply another in the latest version of this phenomenon. It’s a brand new place, by different accounts, either 12 or 30 years in the making.

The apartments are very well appointed, the amenities are first-class. It also includes fantastic eating and drinking options, some retail, a Whole Foods and new office space. It truly is an “instant city” in the sense it has so much of what someone might need as part of a daily or weekly routine in one compact location. Despite the Florida heat, you can walk from your apartment indoors to the gym, where you can work out in perfect air conditioned comfort. This is the new, 21st century apartment complex.

Midtown has the trendiest new bar in town, and it looks like the kind of place I’d enjoy spending too much time in. It has a “signature scent.” Yes, that’s actually a thing. It’s not a cheap place at all, and not intended to be. The rents are about $3 per square foot. That’s the top of the market in Tampa, and in many similar markets in the US. You can do the math on what a simple, 900 square foot two bedroom apartment costs.

Everything in this development is impeccably managed. They do everything well that our cities do poorly. Trash and cleanliness, security, parking, and public space management are all incredibly well thought-through and executed. It gives people who advocate for privatization of city governance great ammunition.

So again, I’m not saying this is BAD. I think there’s much to admire and like. It’s just that this is another example of how we only produce this kind of development now. It’s either large single-family subdivisions on the edge of the city, or mega-investment “instant cities.” There’s nothing in between. It’s not just that the Missing Middle buildings are often zoned out of existence, it’s that the entire ecosystem of finance, acquisition, construction and more seems to make it virtually impossible to do again.

There’s no space in our system for the kind of change that gave us Chicago, or even my city. The professionalization of everything has created this predicament where the entire system pushes for bigger and more complicated projects and efforts of all kinds. This is not a “find a magic policy” problem. It’s the direct result of decades of policy, all made with good intentions and responding to constituents, but quietly damaging our systems piece by piece.

This isn’t healthy for our cities, and it’s especially not healthy for a democratic society. In this system, there seems to be little opportunity for people to build for themselves, to build wealth for themselves, and create the kinds of “messy” places that urbanists like myself most admire. The only option is to do it “sub-rosa” as Johnny Sanphillipo would say. And he’s right. That’s exactly what happens in the real world, often outside the view of the local authorities.

I have no objection to Midtown Tampa at all. In fact, it’s quite well done in many ways. But this simply cannot be the only solution to the development of our cities. We’ve got to unleash the swarm, as I like to say, or else all the current problems we fret about will only get worse.

Kevin Klinkenberg has worked as an urban designer, architect and planner. His blog – The Messy City – looks at ways to use urban design and development to make people’s lives healthier, wealthier and happier.

Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on urban development

Grey to green: can green spaces create equity and wellbeing in post-COVID cities?

As 2021 draws to an end, much of the world is slowly emerging towards post-pandemic life. Focus is shifting from response to recovery. Governments, activists and academics are arguing for a green recovery – a one-off opportunity to truly incorporate climate change objectives, sustainability and equity into future development.

Cities served as the frontline to the pandemic and will continue to do so in efforts to transition towards a sustainable recovery. Building the cities of the future was the focus of a recent NESTA webinar in conversation with Daisy Narayanan, Senior Manager of Placemaking and Mobility at the City of Edinburgh Council. It highlighted the importance of creating urban environments that put people first for healthy, safe and sustainable communities.

Opportunities for cities

Narayanan argued that positives can be taken from COVID-19, as it inspired collaboration across sectors and communities whilst proving the responsiveness and adaptability of traditional systems. She believes that this mindset should be harnessed going forward to facilitate meaningful changes and progression within our cities for everyone.

Describing herself as a ‘relentless optimist’, she stated, “I think there is something about this moment in time where there is a real kind of desire to move forward, in a way that changes how things used to be, into what things need to be or should be. I think there is a lot of excitement around shaping that together.”

Narayanan went on to talk about the opportunities she sees for transforming our public spaces with collaboration across planning, transport and economic development. She is excited by the potential of concepts such as the ‘20-minute neighbourhood’ and its growing presence within city planning around the world and in her own city of Edinburgh.

More broadly, she is excited that citizens are recognising the importance of living well locally and that community wellbeing should be inherent to placemaking.

The inequality of green space

Whilst positives can be drawn from collaboration during the pandemic, it also magnified how divisive our cities’ environmental issues can be. Pollution, congestion and dwindling green spaces compounded the health and social challenges for many of those living in urban areas.

With most inside amenities forced to close during periods of lockdown, city dwellers turned to parks for exercise and socialising in unprecedented numbers. However, urban green spaces proved to be unequal in distribution. Socioeconomic status is the most likely determinant to green space accessibility and quality, and access is typically limited to the more scenic neighbourhoods with higher average incomes.

The benefits of urban green spaces to an individual’s health and wellbeing are well documented, with associations between the presence of green spaces, greater quality of life and decreased risk of excess mortality. There is growing research suggesting that city populations without the provision of green spaces in the UK had typically higher instances of mental health issues, such as COVID-related anxiety and isolation.

Of course, the provision of green spaces is only one of a number of factors highlighted in discussions around equalities, health and well-being in urban areas. However, the pandemic exposed the barriers to accessing the potential value provided by such spaces which could continue to reinforce inequalities.

Can a green integrated approach to transforming our cities tackle inequality and promote wellness in the post-COVID city?

Lessons from Milan’s green placemaking

During the webinar, Narayanan briefly touched upon how Milan is a commendable example of a city making really big changes to its public spaces for the benefit of its citizens.

The city has impressive commitments for using nature-based solutions to increase resilience towards future environmental and health crises, whilst stimulating an equity-based approach to tackling climate change.

The Mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala, committed his city to green urbanism before the pandemic and has since campaigned for efforts to be increased due to the unequal challenges created in cities.

He stated, “The green and just recovery that is needed to create more sustainable and healthier cities sees urban nature as a key element for building back better I have been clear that any recovery in my city, in Italy and for Europe, must be rooted in these principles of equity and climate action.

Sala aims to plant three million trees across Milan by 2030 to tackle climate change and to halt the trend of deteriorating air quality. At the core of this strategy is the transformation of derelict land in deprived neighbourhoods into 20 high quality urban parks.

The city government is providing for residents to have trees planted in their private gardens and upon flat rooftops, whilst greenery is being incorporated into car parks and on the sides of office blocks.

Integrating green spaces, food supply and equity, the city’s growing number of community gardens and allotments are often situated upon apartment block rooftops. Residents can grow and collect food whilst local restaurants are encouraged to use ingredients from the nearby streets. Locals have also lauded the social spaces that these gardens have become, as users can collaborate and educate each other through gardening.

Perhaps the most symbolic project in Milan’s transition is the Bosco Verticale or ‘Vertical Forest’- two residential apartment blocks which have been almost completely covered with trees, perennials and shrubbery. Designed by architect Stefano Boeri, the 80m and 112m high buildings have the equivalent vegetation of 30,000 square metres worth of woodland upon only 3,000 square metres of concrete.

Consisting of hundreds of plant species of various shapes and colours, the project is a popular, living landmark throughout the year. Not only an appealing addition to the Milan skyline, the urban vegetation has been a remarkable success – lowering temperatures, encouraging 20 new bird species into the area and absorbing 30 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year.

The towers demonstrate the multiple benefits that can be achieved from small-scale integrated approaches to increasing green spaces. The concept is already being replicated in cities around the world.

If successful, it is believed that Milan’s vast increase in vegetation has the potential to absorb an additional five million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, whilst significantly decreasing the presence of pollutant particles in the air associated with cancer and respiratory diseases.

Concluding thoughts

Milan’s transformation is exemplary of a city that is learning from previous vulnerabilities, using urban space to directly promote citizen wellbeing whilst tackling climate change.

As Narayanan argues, all cities now have the opportunity to put people’s needs and wellbeing at the centre of future urban spaces. Whilst citizens and authorities often both want to achieve attractive, sustainable and healthy places, she argues that citizen voices get lost in consultation.

As a step to progressing away from this, she says: “Consultations should be more like conversations. Discussions need to be done respectfully, evidence-based, data-based and using people’s stories and life as the basis for change.”


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‘Culture towns’: how small towns are leading the way

Image Copyright Billy McCrorie via Creative Commons

There has been no shortage of headlines sounding the death knell for our town centres over recent years as they continue to suffer from the effects of growth in online shopping, government policy and now the pandemic. But while concerns over the future of town centres is nothing new, neither are the changes that town centres are experiencing.

Changes that affect industries, technologies and the way land is used – which in turn impact on the economy – have impacted communities for decades, particularly in smaller towns. From the loss of manufacturing to new industries and ways of working, towns have had to adapt to survive. And some small towns have been leading the way in reinventing their economic bases by using other assets to spur on their local economies.

Culture as a catalyst

One such example is Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town. Following the loss of a distillery and a creamery in the 80s and 90s respectively, Wigtown secured its designation as National Book Town in 1998. This acted as a catalyst for regeneration and inspired the creation of the annual Wigtown Book Festival which now attracts more than 20,000 visitors to the area and brings more than £4 million to the local economy.

Other Scottish towns have also been bestowed with cultural accolades. West Kilbride in Ayrshire, a once thriving mill town, is Scotland’s first accredited Craft Town and winner of a Creative Place Award in 2012. Dumfries recently became home to a new National Centre for Children’s Literature and Storytelling which aims to “establish itself as an international visitor attraction contributing to the regeneration of the town and region and providing Scotland with a world class tourism resource”. And Huntly in Aberdeenshire has attracted artists from all over the world for residents thanks to the Deveron Projects initiative set up in 1995 to connect artists, communities and places.

In England, Farnham recently became the country’s first World Craft Town and only the third region in Europe to receive World Craft City status. Recent research estimates that the value of craft to Farnham and the surrounding area is already in excess of £50 million.

With the aim of building on Wigtown’s success, plans are being drawn up for an open competition to create further National Towns of Culture across Scotland as proposed in the SNP’s manifesto. Suggestions include Scotland’s National Live Music Town, Folk and Trad Town, or Scotland’s Visual Art Town.

Numerous towns could be in the running to become a musical town. It has been suggested that Ullapool could be a frontrunner, after playing host to the Loopallu festival for 15 years, as could Stornoway, the host of the international Hebridean Celtic Festival (HebCelt). And of course, being home to Jimmy Shand and The Proclaimers, Auchtermuchty could equally be in with a shout.

Making the most of local assets

Now may be the ideal time for small towns to make the most of their local assets, whether that is cultural or otherwise.  Research has shown that some smaller towns have actually fared much better than larger cities during the pandemic as the importance of local has been emphasised. They have experienced fewer reductions in overall footfall and there has been an increase in footfall in some small towns as consumers look to stay local and avoid using public transport.

A report from Sustrans has recommended capitalising on the increased use of smaller high streets as a way to economic recovery. It highlights that this presents an opportunity to invest in other elements unique to these areas, arguing that “re-establishing the role of a high street as a hub for social connection and reinforcing and celebrating its roots and unique character could go a long way to encourage people to stay local and spend their money where they live.”

Lessons from the US

Research from the US has also shown how small towns can succeed by reinventing themselves through emphasising their existing assets and distinctive resources. Following the loss of various industries, these communities have moved away from trying to attract major employers as a way of attracting talent. Many have moved towards investment in creative infrastructure rather than physical infrastructure to make their communities more attractive to residents and businesses.  

Following increased suburbanisation and growth in out of town retail, Paducah in Kentucky, for example, changed its approach to economic development by focusing on developing and retaining the historic integrity of the Renaissance Area, which includes the LowerTown Arts District, the historic downtown, and the riverfront. Paducah’s approach aimed to develop a cohesive identity around its core assets: art, the Ohio River, and history. In 2013, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Paducah the world’s seventh City of Crafts and Folk Art.

While all the case study towns in this research drew on different assets, several successful tactics were identified that other communities can use:

  • Identify and build on existing assets
  • Engage all members of the community to plan for the future
  • Take advantage of outside funding
  • Create incentives for redevelopment, and encourage investment in the community
  • Encourage cooperation within the community and across the region
  • Support a clean and healthy environment.

Small towns leading the way?

All these small towns are exemplars of community-led regeneration and illustrate how drawing on unique local assets can be a real catalyst for growth. Perhaps the bigger towns and cities should be looking to their smaller counterparts for lessons on how to succeed in an ever changing world.


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Rethinking and rebuilding the voluntary sector post-pandemic

By Andrew Hogg

From crisis comes opportunity. COVID-19 has had an unprecedented effect on the voluntary sector, but it has also given us an opportunity to rebuild for the better.

With this in mind, the speakers attending the recent ‘Rethink Rebuild’ webinar (organised by NPC) gave their thoughts on how the voluntary sector can move forward to face the challenges and inequalities laid bare by COVID-19 and to create a more equitable society.

COVID-19 has highlighted key systemic inequalities at the heart of our economic system. A recent report from Imperial College London has shown that ethnic minority groups have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic. When age and sociodemographic factors are accounted for, people from these communities are almost twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than their white peers.

Kaneez Shaid, Head of Community Engagement at Rethink Mental Illness, highlighted the direct impact the pandemic has had on people with mental health issues, such as the erosion of support frameworks and statutory services, loss of communal spaces and increased demands for accommodation. NPC have linked COVID-19 with a rise in domestic violence cases, with increased demand for services and donations from voluntary sector organisations, alongside a reduction of charity fundraising efforts:

In many communities it has been the not-for-dividends sector that has provided cohesion, that has provided people with food, with economic viability, access to vaccines, and social infrastructure stopping people falling through the net…the question for me becomes how we make this more visible politically. – Lord Victor Adebowale, current Chair of the NHS Confederation

Seth Reynolds, Principal Consultant for Systems Change at NPC, argued that the pandemic has created a ‘liminal space’ wherein we can pause and reflect on the systemic drivers and fundamental patterns of behaviour that created the inequalities the pandemic has laid bare.

This is a chance to fundamentally and systemically change the way our economy works for the better. There is no going back to normal, so how can the sector provide leadership to face the new challenges going forward?

Collaborative and system leadership

A recurring theme during the webinar was the need for a collaborative leadership approach to accommodate systemic change. Lord Adebowale talked about the need for system leadership, the adoption of which would enable voluntary sector organisations to align their missions and operations towards a common goal. This would set sector-wide objectives and generate a cooperative atmosphere whilst facilitating conditions within which others can make progress toward social change. This means leading beyond the boundaries of one’s own organisational needs to achieve aggregate, cross-sector outcomes.

This would involve understanding the interdependence of the voluntary sector, and decision-making that may go against the immediate concerns of the organisation to achieve collective outcomes. It also entails the acceptance of diversity as not only a good in and of itself, but as Lord Adebowale observed, as an “essential, economical, and operational good”, to include a broad remit of local, grassroots organisations.

A collaborative approach to leadership would also make best use of resources and help align funding to where it is needed. Juliet Mountain, the Director of Shaw Trust, argued that a competitive funding environment means that charities tend towards mission drift and invariably must follow the funding, rather than the needs of those who use their services. She argued that shared intelligence, not just of hard data but of expertise, resources, tools, and decision making, would enable lower capacity groups to easily access and understand generated data. This would enable the triangulation of funding and a coordinated decision-making process – what Lord Adebowale called “process matching intention”.

Power with, not power over

Collaborative and system leadership would also entail a shift towards localism – services either co-produced or fully produced by the communities who receive them – and relationships based on trust, power sharing and diversity. Kaneez Shaid talked of devolving hierarchical relationships between charities and local communities and creating new structures of shared power and co-production, such as integrated care systems and place-based activities embedded into local communities. Leah Davies and Seth Reynolds of NPC similarly argued for local partners and grassroots organisations to be embedded into social recovery plans to co-create structures that are built and maintained by the people using them.

Power sharing can go further than this. Even small, day-to-day changes can help to address power imbalances, such as adapting a more inclusive vocabulary when it comes to working partnerships. Both Kaneez Shaid and Juliet Mountain argued that a shift in language can facilitate a more cooperative mindset and be more inclusive of smaller, grassroots organisations. For instance, using ‘participant’ instead of ‘client’ or ‘colleague’ instead of ‘co-worker’ would create a more inclusive taxonomy and equitable relational partnerships. This in turn would engender collective decision-making and create added value for participants.   

Grant-making

One of the few things to directly result from COVID-19 that has been openly welcomed across the voluntary sector is the increased access to unrestricted funding. In November 2020 over 150 funders made a pledge towards flexible grant-making and trust-based relationships with charities.

Many participants in the webinar who shared their opinions in breakout rooms after the talks also agreed that the temporary suspension of funding restrictions and flexible approaches to grant-making during the pandemic had been hugely beneficial and at times necessary to keep smaller charities open.

Flexible grant making could also involve simplifying and standardising application processes, such as what is asked for from the grantee or the technical vocabulary used in the application. This would mean charities would not have to spend more time than necessary filling out forms and could use templates to increase their application output.

However, as Leah Davies and Seth Reynolds noted, to continue to understand the value of flexible funding and to know where future funding should be allocated, proportionate impact measurement is needed. It is important for funders to be able to keep demand light and proportional whilst having access to a funding feedback loop.

Concluding thoughts

This webinar revealed some key sticking points: cross-sector collaboration, system leadership, and the adoption of new models of power sharing that encourage localism, co-production, shared system analysis, and collective decision-making are needed to dynamically respond to funding needs. Similarly, the collective utilization of resources would allow for greater triangulation of funding and level the playing field for smaller, grassroots groups.

Organisations must come back from the pandemic with a renewed emphasis on community engagement, decentralised and devolved forms of organisation, and embrace the mentality of ‘power with, not power over’. Organisational models and processes, such as affiliate frameworks and decentralised partnerships, should be adopted to encourage power-sharing and to create structures with genuine value to the people using them.

Grant-making has trended towards flexible funding and trust-based arrangements, which is undoubtedly a good thing and grant-makers should continue to provide flexible and unrestricted funds. However, suitable impact measurement is needed to properly determine allocation and value, and that those who need funding the most will get it.

Simply put, we cannot go back to normal. The pandemic has exposed the deep systemic vulnerabilities at the heart of our economic model, and the voluntary sector must adapt to address these vulnerabilities and create a more equitable society.


Further reading: more on the voluntary sector on The Knowledge Exchange blog

Guest post: One-minute cities could put the world on your doorstep

Image: Lundberg Design

The concept of a 15-minute city, where everything you need for daily life is within a quarter of an hour walk of your front door, was already giving city planners something to think about before COVID-19 . But as neighbourhoods, and the people living in them, grappled with multiple lockdowns throughout 2020, the idea really gained traction.

Nowhere more so than in Paris, where the mayor, Anne Hidalgo, made it the centrepiece of her successful 2020 re-election campaign. Hidalgo’s aim was to create self-sufficient communities throughout the city, where everything is a short walk or bike ride away.

In Sweden, they are tightening the time frame even further. A one-minute city pilot called Street Moves aims to “reclaim the streets” from cars by creating numerous pop-up public amenities, with the overall intention of giving the public a say in what’s on their doorstep.

It is hoped the government-backed initiative will be picked up by municipalities across the whole country, but can such a hyper-local proposition really work on a national scale?

For Street Moves project manager, Daniel Byström, who works for ArkDes – the architecture and design think-tank leading the project – the pilot is trying to inspire new ways of approaching urban development rather than attempting to offer instant wholesale change.

“The ambition is to get a spread [of streets across Sweden], with different municipalities being able to make their own intervention,” says Byström. “However, I think many of the municipalities in Sweden are not ready to do it themselves, so for me the central part of the project is not the physical outcome by itself, but more to showcase an approach for how we can work with urban planning, urban development and street development.”

Image: StreetMoves / Daniel Byström

Under the plans, a kit of modular wooden street furniture has been designed, which can be slotted into an area the size of a car parking space. These kits have been designed to be flexible depending on the needs of the area – an important point in terms of scaling up the initiative, since it’s not claiming to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Rather it aims to add genuine value to an area.

Five streets have been piloted since the project’s launch last September, including three in Stockholm and one in both Helsingborg and Gothenburg, with more on the way.

So far, they have created new bench space, picnic tables, planters and e-scooter parking but Byström says this is just the beginning. In the next step, we will look for more sophisticated solutions [based] around smart cities, such as infrastructure for charging electric cars and scooters.”

He says the one-minute city initiative – which has been funded by Vinnova, the Swedish government’s innovation agency – is also about giving the public more ownership over their streets, with residents being involved early on in the design process.

This resident involvement is getting positive results so far, with ArkDes claiming that 70% people surveyed about the Stockholm projects were positive. They also saw a 400% increase in the movement of people on the streets around each unit.

When coupled with the aftermath of COVID-19, this offers an exciting proposition to “reactivate” Sweden’s streets and make cities more resilient and adaptable to change, Byström adds.

“One of the things that you can see, for example, with growing digitalisation and people working from everywhere, is open-air shared office space, so it could be anything and that is the beauty of this initiative.”

The flexibility of the scheme could prove crucial when considering if this could be scaled up on a national level. Cities across Sweden will be looking for ways to bounce back in new and innovative ways after the pandemic and this could play an important role in that process. One-minute cities could also prove to be a crucial pillar in the success of Sweden’s goal for 2030 that “every street in Sweden is healthy, sustainable and vibrant.”

Our thanks to RICS for permission to republish this article which first appeared in Modus in July 2021.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on urban areas

Levelling up: can charities get a piece of the action?

The UK is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world. It ranks near the top of the league table on most measures of regional economic inequality. Fixing this is a priority for a government elected in 2019 on a pledge to address inequalities in former industrial regions, and in coastal and isolated rural areas.

So far, over £8bn has been put aside by the government for additional investment in so-called ‘left behind’ areas. The policy also appears to enjoy public support. The recent success of the Conservative candidate in the Hartlepool by-election, and the election of mayors in Teesside and West Yorkshire show that voters will back politicians with strong levelling up messages.

Local authorities and businesses are eager to bid for the first pots of levelling up funding that are coming onstream. But is there room for charities to get involved, and is there still time for them to shape the levelling up agenda?

This was the focus of a webinar organised by NPC, the think tank and consultancy for the charity sector.

Defining levelling up

There are different views about what the phase ‘levelling up’ actually means. But Tom Collinge, policy manager at NPC explained that this has become clearer now that various initiatives under the government’s levelling up agenda have got under way:

The Levelling Up Fund is a £4.8bn fund to invest in infrastructure that will regenerate town centres, upgrade local transport and invest in cultural and heritage assets.

The Towns Fund is a £3.6bn fund to support the regeneration of towns.

The UK Community Renewal Fund will provide £220 million additional funding to help places across the UK prepare for the introduction of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (the UK’s replacement for structural funding from the European Union).

The Community Ownership Fund will provide £150 million to help community groups buy or take over local community assets at risk of being lost.

Levelling up funds: making the case for charities

Looking at this funding from a voluntary sector perspective, Tom acknowledged that charities may find it hard to see how they can fit into the kind of work that is eligible for funding. A lot of the focus is on capital spending – transport infrastructure, repairing buildings and creating new parks. An NPC analysis of the levelling up funds found that as much as 87% could go on capital investment. This could be challenging for charities whose work involves delivering services in areas such as youth provision, addiction or homelessness.

Even so, Tom suggested that charities shouldn’t write off their chances of accessing these funds. He explained that a lot of the language used in the funding documents is ambiguous – there are repeated  references to ‘community’ and ‘community assets’ without making clear what they mean. This ambiguity could work in charities’ favour. At the same time, many charities work under the banners of skills, employment, heritage and culture. It’s up to charities, therefore, to identify elements in the funding that match what they can offer.

Deadlines are tight: bids for the first funds must be submitted by June 18. So, the time has come, said Tom, for charities to be vocal and make an economic case for levelling up funding.  Collaboration with local authorities and metro mayors is likely to be crucial, and Tom suggested that charities with already good relations with local stakeholders are more likely to succeed in their bids.

Levelling up : the local perspective

Kim Shutler, Chair of Bradford District Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) Assembly agreed that collaboration with local councils is key for charities looking to bid for levelling up funds. But although Bradford’s VCS has a strong relationship with local government, Kim explained that making the voluntary sector’s voice heard can be challenging.

While Kim has experience of partnering with statutory services in delivering mental health support to adults, bids for levelling up funds are handled differently. She was critical of the lack of clarity in how charities can influence the levelling up agenda in meaningful and sustainable ways, and suggested that the top-down nature of the process is detrimental to grass-roots charities.

Where charities can succeed, she suggested, is to demonstrate to local authorities and other partners that the voluntary sector has a compelling story to tell. Learning the language of the people with the money, making a good business case and articulating what charities can bring to the table means the voluntary sector can find a way into the levelling up process.

Shaping the levelling up agenda

As corporate director of children’s services at Barnardo’s, Lynn Perry is well placed to talk about levelling up. Much of what the charity does involves working at the heart of communities, in partnership with local agencies, young people and families. 

Charities like Barnardo’s have a unique understanding of the challenges facing the country’s poorest communities. Lynn believes that this perspective strengthens the voluntary sector’s offer, not just in terms of service delivery, but in designing policies and thinking about community assets.

Looking at the bias towards capital projects in the levelling up funds, Lynn argued that a broader definition of infrastructure is needed. Support for families, care for the elderly and improving the lives of disabled people is every bit as important as 5G and better transport. And with the right social infrastructure, young people who get early and continued support can grow up to be the nurses, engineers and climate scientists we’ll need in the years to come.

Lynn observed that this is a unique moment to recognise the value charities can bring to the levelling up agenda. During the pandemic, the voluntary sector has played a vital role in supporting communities in ways that some public services could not. She believes that the future of the levelling up agenda should be shaped by working with communities and the charities that support them. And, along with Kim Shulter, she stressed the need to make better use of the insights and social data collected by charities to demonstrate the real value of the voluntary sector.

Tom Collinge supported this, and suggested that while it might be too late for charities to influence the existing levelling up funds, they should be looking towards the Shared Prosperity Fund. The delay in its introduction may be beneficial, giving the voluntary sector time to think about making the case for revenue funding.

Raising the voice of the voluntary sector

The UK has a long road to follow before it can say the work of levelling up is done. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has observed,

“The differences between regions are rooted in history going back decades, even centuries. Having fundamental effects on them will require reallocating capital spending for sure, and a whole lot more — investment in skills, in health, in early years, and a coherent and long-term industrial strategy.”

Working with local stakeholders, charities can bring their insights, skills and experience to this process, both in terms of accessing funds and influencing future programmes. It’s now time for the voluntary sector to speak up on levelling up.


Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange on community development and regeneration

Britain’s town centres: down, but not out

Image: Mayfield development, Manchester (U+I plc)

Town centres have taken a battering in the past year, with many shops and services forced to close during lockdowns and growing numbers of stores going out of business.

But even before Covid-19, UK high streets were already under pressure. Economic recessions, rising business rates, higher rents, the growth of online shopping and development out-of-town retail parks have left Britain’s town centres struggling to survive.

Last month, Planning magazine brought together a panel of experts to discuss the future of town centres. Among the issues considered were trends affecting town centres, how demand for town centre property is changing post-pandemic and how developers are responding to changes in market demand and planning laws.

The bigger picture: online shopping and working from home

Jennet Siebrits, head of CBRE UK’s research team, gave a helpful overview of two key trends affecting town centres.

In the past decade, e-commerce has seen a dramatic increase in activity. Since 2011, the value of online shopping has mushroomed from £23 billion to £58 billion –a 158% increase. But in 2020, even that figure was eclipsed, with the value of e-commerce rising to £84 billion – a 44% increase in just one year. The evidence from the first national lockdown suggests that this step change is here to stay.

The impact of this, along with the Covid-19 restrictions, has been grim for town centre stores. Over 11,000 shops closed in 2020, and while not all of those closures were due to online shopping, it’s clear that e-commerce has been a real driver of this.

Jennet suggested that, as the restrictions ease, it’s likely that supermarkets, along with in-store health and beauty and DIY stores will continue to attract customers. But other sectors will have to come up with innovative ways to lure consumers off their iPads.

Jennet also highlighted the increased move towards home working. Once people return to their workplaces, it’s likely that many will ask to continue working from home, at least for part of the working week.

The rise in home working may also affect demand for residential property, with more people moving further away from city centres. This could have a knock-on effect for ancillary services like coffee kiosks and sandwich bars, with local town centres capitalising on the losses experienced by city centres.

The legal perspective: changes to planning laws

David Mathias, a specialist planning solicitor at Shoosmiths law firm described some recent planning law changes that have particular relevance to town centres.

Since the demise of Woolworths in 2008, more and more UK department stores have been closing down, leaving big gaps on the high street. In future, it’s likely that many property developers will want to convert from retail to residential.

Until recently, permitted development rights for conversion to residential only applied in a limited set of commercial uses. But the UK government has announced new permitted development rights in England enabling greater flexibility on conversions without the need for planning permission. These will go ahead in August, subject to certain conditions.

In addition, further legislation on expansion of permitted development rights introduced last summer allows the construction of an additional storey on freestanding blocks and buildings on a terrace to create additional housing, and the demolition of buildings built before 1990 and construction of new dwellings in their place.

The government has argued that these changes will help to revive town centres, although others believe easing planning rules for developers will have the opposite effect. 

The developer’s perspective: re-imagining Manchester

Martyn Evans from the U+I Group offered his view of how developers are responding to changes in market demand and planning. He did so using U+I’s development at Mayfield in Manchester.

Located next to Piccadilly railway station, in the centre of the city, this 24 acre-site is being redeveloped from derelict railway land. A consortium of Manchester City Council, Transport for Greater Manchester and London & Continental Railways (LCR), along with U+I, has been working to regenerate the area, with the first buildings due for completion next year.

Right from the start, the consortium focused on the importance of creating a place where people want to live, work, rest and relax. One important feature of the development is a seven-acre park. Although it was planned into the scheme years ago, this green space has become all the more significant in the past year.

Image: Mayfield development, Manchester (U+I plc)

The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of green space as a vital part of city living, both for physical health and mental wellbeing. Such spaces not only attract workers, residents and visitors, they also increase the value of developments. And because decisions about commercial property are increasingly being taken by HR teams rather than finance departments, the wellbeing benefits of workers’ surroundings are being taken more seriously. In short, understanding quality of place gives developers more of a competitive edge. 

The local authority perspective: managing change

To conclude, Michael Kiely from the Planning Officers Society looked at what local planning authorities can do to help sustain town centres.

Michael described some of the planning tools local authorities can use, including strategic planning, masterplanning and local plans. But with recent changes in planning laws, including the use classes order, Michael argued that policies such as Town Centre First may be ineffective.

However, local authorities can still make a difference, through partnerships with other stakeholders, such as land owners and Business Improvement Districts (BIDS), and the use of intervention and compulsory purchase powers.

In closing, Michael suggested the need for a licensing or permitting regime to manage and curate activities so that they do not cause harm and town centres can thrive.

Future perspectives: rethinking town centres

A £150m project to revamp London’s Oxford Street signals that high streets are already re-imagining themselves as leisure-focused and “experiential shopping” centres. And the Mayfield site in Manchester has the potential to transform a part of the city centre that has been underused for decades.

These are just two examples of the planning community working together to help sustain town centres. Britain’s high streets face substantial challenges, but this interesting discussion suggested there are good reasons to optimistic about the future.

A recording of The Future of Our Town Centres discussion is available to watch on-demand at the Planning magazine website.


Further reading: more on town centres from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Are ‘dark stores’ bringing some much needed light to the high street?

As we pass the first anniversary of the initial lockdown and look towards opening things up again, will we see a change in footfall trends in favour of the high street as people yearn to get out again, or will it continue to experience a downward trend?

Judging by pre-pandemic trends, it would seem that high street businesses will need to do more than just open back up to entice people back to the high street. Indeed, there were signs of diversification on the high street before the pandemic in response to declining footfall. And the pandemic has led to many more innovating to survive the current challenges, such as creating pop-up ecommerce centres. Perhaps such moves could help save the high street, albeit not as we know it.

A downward trajectory

The recent news of permanent closures of big-named high street stores such as Debenhams, Laura Ashley, Top Shop and Dorothy Perkins after the collapse of Arcadia Group, and the closures of more John Lewis outlets, suggest a bleak outlook for the high street. And the pandemic has spurred the worst decline on record.

Recent figures from PwC reveal that an average of 48 stores, restaurants and other leisure and hospitality venues closed every day in 2020 – a total of more than 17,500 outlets.

This may be the worst decline on record but it is also a continuation of the downward trajectory that the traditional high street was already on. And it has been argued that this is actually a reflection of things that happened pre-pandemic, with its full impact ‘yet to be felt’.

In its quarterly footfall monitor, the British Retail Consortium highlighted in May 2019 that high street footfall had fallen by 1% year-on-year and that vacancy rates on local high-streets had risen to 10.2%, equivalent to one in ten shops having succumbed to the high street crisis. This was the highest vacancy rate in four years and it continued to increase in the next quarter.

Support through a crisis

It has become clear that trends before the pandemic have just been accelerated by it. The continued growth in online shopping and the impact of government policy costs such as business rates are just a couple of the causes of the decline in high streets over the years that see little sign of abating. But the urgency of the current situation has seen a huge increase in government support across the board which has helped many businesses stay afloat as they try and wait out the storm.

In December 2020, the UK government announced it would invest up to £830 million from the Future High Streets Fund in local high streets across England to help them recover from the pandemic and drive long-term growth.

In September 2020, funding was secured for England’s historic high streets through the £95 million government-funded High Streets Heritage Action Zone (HSHAZ) programme, which is delivered by Historic England. The aim of this is to help transform and restore disused and dilapidated buildings into new homes, shops, work places and community spaces, restoring local historic character and improving public realm.

And just this month, the government has announced a series of new measures to support a safe and successful reopening of high streets and seaside resorts, including a £56 million Welcome Back Fund to help councils boost tourism, improve green spaces and provide more outdoor seating areas, markets and food stall pop-ups. This builds on the £50 million Reopening High Streets Safely Fund announced in May 2020. Similar support schemes have been introduced by the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Of course, this hasn’t been enough to save the high street stores that have announced closures. But it brings to the fore once more that high streets are about more than just shops as each funding programme highlights the aim of transforming high streets into vibrant mixed-use places where consumers can enjoy social experiences.

Adapting to survive – dark stores bringing light to the high street

As the PwC study suggests, it is really about keeping up with consumer behaviours that is the challenge for retail, perhaps even more so in times of crisis. And there have been many examples of high street retailers adapting to survive.

With the huge increase in online shopping during the pandemic, many manufacturing and distribution centres were operating at maximum capacity which led to some retailers unlocking the potential of their local high street stores to provide local distribution hubs, known as ‘dark stores’.

Lush is one company that changed the way they used their retail space so they could continue to use it while their stores were closed. It created Lush Local, a pop-up e-commerce centre which used the shop as a local distribution centre so they could fulfil local orders and not let their current stock go to waste.

Some businesses have also partnered with others to make use of local unused space such as Crosstown Doughnuts which have been trialling the use of dark stores in Cambridge and Walthamstow, partnering with independent operators so it can provide on-demand deliveries and collections to customers.

As ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers try to adapt to support their online capability, providing efficient local deliveries, at the same time as utilising their physical retail space, the ‘dark store’ trend may be here to stay. Pre-pandemic, it was reported that using dark stores and offering click and collect can reduce delivery costs and increase profit margins. Analysis showed that if deliveries from dark stores increase by 50%, profit margins could grow by 7% as a result of lower delivery costs and higher delivery throughput compared to conventional stores (while also not affecting store operations).

And it has been suggested that this model can be further adapted to provide ‘hybrid stores’ as shops re-open. These hybrid stores enable local stores to combine space for their fulfilment centre with their physical shop so consumers can still benefit from the tangible experience offered in store that can’t be replicated online.

Final thoughts

Only time will tell if recent innovations will have the desired effect. What is clear is that the rate of change cannot continue at the pace it was before the pandemic if high streets are to have a fighting chance. Dark and hybrid stores could be part of the answer. But much more is needed.

The most successful high streets, it is argued, will offer a mix of retail, entertainment, culture and wellbeing as they focus on the experiential side of things, because, in the words of retail guru Mary Portas, “vibrant, innovative, socially dynamic high streets will help this country not just heal, but thrive.”


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