The SEZ in the Forest Gate and Plaistow areas of Newham was established six years ago with the aim of helping community services along similar lines to Business Enterprise Zones, where designated areas are freed from rules and regulations thought to be obstructing local economic growth.
A support service assisting claimants to fill in benefit claim forms at four local JobCentres was tested using trained volunteers who were out of work themselves. In two years, more than 1,800 people were helped and problems with incorrectly completed forms were almost entirely eliminated. Queries about late payments or non-payments were reduced by 80 per cent and an estimated 1,277 hours were saved by JobCentre staff not having to fill out forms on behalf of claimants. Newham's JobCentres now have the highest proportion of clients entering work in the country. The positive results have fed into a national scheme, announced in April last year by Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, for JobCentres to help people from minority ethnic communities find work.
'What if' exercises highlighted issues concerning people who work informally for cash without declaring their income to the benefit or tax authorities. The Inland Revenue seconded a senior policy official to the SEZ for four months to gain a better understanding of the barriers faced by those who want to move from informal to formal work, or start their own business. The seconded official now heads a unit that is preparing proposals for the Inland Revenue Board on better ways of dealing with the 'informal economy'.
An Incapacity Benefit freephone helpline was established after 'What if?' discussions with claimants revealed that many did not understand the rules and were afraid that an approach to the Benefits Agency would trigger an investigation into their entitlements. The confidential line led to an increase in claimants taking up volunteering and therapeutic job opportunities. A Neighbourhood Renewal Fund grant of£60,000 was later obtained to set up an advice line and home visiting service for Newham, building on the experience of the helpline.
The report, by Matthew Smerdon and David Robinson of Community Links - the organisation running the SEZ - notes that more than 1,000 service users and front-line workers have been involved in consultations since the zone was created in 1998. Many of the ideas to emerge have not only helped local residents, but also proved advantageous to government in meeting its Public Service Agreement targets for better service delivery.
But while some proposed changes to regulations, working methods and policies have been readily accepted by government, there are other areas where the SEZ has found it harder to get departments and agencies to acknowledge problems. Similarly, while some senior officials have responded positively to ideas emerging from local consultations, others have tended to treat new ideas as unwelcome criticism.
Matthew Smerdon, community work director at Community Links, said: 'The SEZ has engaged local residents and front-line workers in designing and testing new solutions to local problems and has influenced national policy in the process. It has also gained considerable insight into the challenge of harnessing mainstream resources and using them more effectively at the local level, which remains an elusive goal for government.
'The government's current emphasis on evidence-based policy making offers hope that it will become more interested in adapting and tailoring its mainstream spending programmes to fit a growing understanding of 'what works' in local circumstances.
'However, decisions about what constitutes compelling 'evidence' are still being taken centrally and there seems to be continuing scepticism over the real value of involving people with practical experience of services in the process of designing policy.'
The report concludes that mainstream government budgets could make a far stronger contribution to tackling local deprivation if they were planned in collaboration with the people they are intended to help and based on locally generated evidence. It argues that local evidence should be given equal status in the planning process with research from universities and government departments.
It also recommends that Whitehall senior managers take part in more 'back to the floor' schemes to reconnect with frontline staff and service users. The authors call for service users to be actively involved in monitoring the delivery of services and for local agency managers to be given delegated control over part of their budget to be spent on the basis of local needs.
Enduring change: The experience of the Community Links Social Enterprise Zone: Lessons learnt and next steps by Matthew Smerdon and David Robinson is published for the Foundation by The Policy Press and available from Marston Book Services, PO Box 269, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4YN (01235 465500), price£11.95 plus£2.75 p&p.
The report and findings summary are available here.