Interview: Alison Seabrooke

The Community Development Foundation chief executive says the £280m of funds it has at its disposal will be used to give power over regeneration to local groups

Alison Seabrooke
Alison Seabrooke

Alison Seabrooke has had to steer the Community Development Foundation through a turbulent year. It had operated as a charity and a public body since its formation in 1967, but in March lost its public body status in the government's bonfire of the quangos, lost its grant-in-aid as a result and was forced to make almost half of its 67 staff redundant.

Seabrooke admits that it was a difficult time and she would have preferred the foundation to keep its public body status. "We didn't want to go, because we felt we could have more influence within government," says Seabrooke. "But we'd seen it coming, and done a lot of planning."

So far, the move has not diminished the influence of the CDF much as people had feared. "We've found we have more influence with the Office for Civil Society and the Home Office," she says. "Our independent role is quite attractive to them. We aren't scrabbling around for money. And we've got a greater sense of focus and purpose."

Since becoming an independent entity, it has won the contracts for administering two regeneration programmes: the £200m Big Local Trust, funded by the Big Lottery Fund; and the Office for Civil Society's £80m Community First programme.

The two programmes have many similarities, the most important of which, says Seabrooke, is that they will both give power over regeneration to local groups rather than central or local government. Both programmes also focus on the most deprived areas of the UK, both provide long-term funding, and both use a "ground-up" approach that hands control of the money to local people.

Under the programmes, groups of local people will apply to become the custodians of funds. Once local groups are set up to take stewardship of the money, they will have the responsibility for allocating it themselves, with support from the CDF. The Big Local Trust will make £1m or more available in 150 areas around the UK over the next 10 years. Community First will make available between £17,000 and £200,000 in small grants in 600 areas over the next four years.

However, communities must also attract match-funding in cash or in volunteer time. The programme will also provide a total of £50m in match fund endowments that will support community work.

Seabrooke believes that the previous top-down funding approach for community regeneration has not been successful, and that it is time to try something new. "Previously, national funders have either given out money in a very piecemeal way, or they've decided what they wanted and told someone to do it," she says.

"Now we're looking to the communities themselves to make those decisions. We're trying to push everything down to the grass roots. We're just facilitators. We manage the money."

She admits that there are many unknowns involved in taking a new approach, but says that the risk of failure is the price of innovation.

One problem that the CDF is keen to avoid is that of small cliques, rather than whole communities, determining where money should be spent.

"If you allow communities to appoint their own policy makers, there is a danger the money will end up in the hands of a special-interest group," she says.

"We are allowing people to put themselves forward, and we need to make sure those who do that don't have their own agenda. We've had to push back against a lot of existing voluntary groups who've told us 'You have to work through our network"."

The programme requires a lot of effort setting up local networks to give away relatively small amounts of money. But Seabrooke believes that the work involved will be beneficial to local communities.

"We're hoping this may form part of the learning," she says. "It will build capacity in local areas and help people identify areas where they can solve problems.

"These communities are in the situation they are, partly because they lack strong networks. We're hoping the organisations we help to set up will continue to exist after this programme has finished."

Another difficulty, she says, has been in choosing which areas should be selected.

"The funds have targeted areas where there's relatively little application for funds, because there aren't people with the skills to apply for grants," says Seabrooke. "These are areas where a small amount of money can make a big difference.

"Many people have asked why their area hasn't been chosen. It's because, relatively, there are others where we feel the need is greater."

CV:

2005: Chief executive, Community Development Foundation
2004: Team leader, Home Office and Department for Education and Skills
2000: Chief executive, Riccall Regen
1998: Project officer, Selby College

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