This seminar series explores a diverse set of issues associated with working at the neighbourhood working. Neighbourhood working has been a focus for policy and academic attention since at least the 1970s.  Recent innovations which provide a background for this seminar series lies in the introduction of Localism Act 2011 in England. As David Cameron put it in a 2010 speech on the Big Society: “We need to create communities with oomph – neighbourhoods who are in charge of their own destiny, who feel if they club together and get involved they can shape the world around them”. Under this version of localism, neighbourhoods are said to be empowered to “shape their place”.

In many ways these new initiatives build on previous policies to address community development and place-based disadvantage.  Previous initiatives were generously funded and were targeted at the most deprived neighbourhoods to narrow the gap in outcomes. The current formulation of neighbourhood interventions in England, which some have termed ‘austerity localism’, does not provide such extensive funding and is generally not so targeted at the neighbourhoods most in need. It is accessible to all places. For instance, the funding  made available to support neighbourhood planning initiatives  is available to any neighbourhood or parish council with some additional resources to support urban and deprived communities. So far, the first wave of   communities who have used this support and  professional help available to work with their community, drawing up their neighbourhood plan, are often seen as communities that are relatively well-networked and socially-resourced.

While there are  concerns about neighbourhood working and localism, there is also optimism. There are also opportunities for communities to use this framework for neighbourhoods to develop new initiatives, co-produce local services or promote self-build schemes on publicly owned land. The seminar series also engages with local perceptions of neighbourhood and issues surrounding representation.  Arts-based initiatives in communities have, for example, found ways to build resilience and promote community engagement in less formal ways, bringing in less vocal participants. This series of seminars will explore both the criticisms and the opportunities offered by neighbourhood ways of working.

How will the seminars work?

While academics have written widely and trenchantly about place and understandings of locality, policy developments in planning and community engagement often move so fast that there are limited opportunities to provide timely engagement, providing informed and grounded perspectives and advice to policy-makers in the moment. Yet although adminstrations change, the fundamental policy questions stay largely the same, and academics do engage with these debates over time, often reformulating and reframing certain key questions: How can neighbourhood capital be developed? How can superdiverse and/or disadvantaged communities contribute to making healthy, vibrant places? Who is represented, and how? Is the creation of a unitary legal neighbourhood unit (with one representative forum and one boundary map) a useful mechanism to achieve this, or are looser, informal arrangements more appropriate? How can land use measures contribute to economic development? Can we create just places? How can housing needs be met?

This seminar series explicitly sets out to bring academics and practitioners together. It will also enable us to explore how these practices of engagement can be usefully developed. In particular it will focus on methods of “translation”. How do we draw on the resources of the Academy to inform policy-making on neighbourhoods? Our networks here provide not only a means of dissemination but also, a sounding board, asking how we can take academic findings into everyday practice in policymaking. Specifically, we are drawing on our diverse disciplinary backgrounds to ask how we can be ‘of use’.

This series aims to fill the gap between disciplines, particularly economics, law, planning and arts and humanities as well as engaging directly with user groups throughout the programme. Putting neighbourhoods – their ways of working and of knowing – at the heart of this series, and bringing diverse disciplinary approaches and epistemologies to bear corresponds with the ways in which our user groups work. They too start with the social and spatial site. In order to ensure that our findings are fully comprehensible and to transmit impressions, which cannot always be conveyed in text, we will commission an audio-visual production for dissemination. Pahl and DCLG have already shared findings in films in this way; we are experienced in delivering these engaging, albeit less conventional, outputs.

The organisation and structuring of the seminars enables the series to bring together researchers from different disciplines, sectors, locations and theoretical traditions to generate debate around emergent horizons in neighbourhood research, to develop relevant and generalisable knowledge for research users.

This inter-disciplinary ESRC Seminar Series is led by Professor Antonia Layard, working with Dr Sue Brownill, Dr Kate Pahl, Professor Craig Watkins, Professor Simin Davoudi and Dr Helen Graham; working with Robert Rutherfoord from the Department of Communities and Local Government. The conference co-ordinator working with the academics and team at DCLG is Colin Lorne.


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