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Putting Community at the heart of Economic Development


The first Certificate in Economic Development programme continues and a module on putting community at the heart of economic development took place earlier this month with an expert panel of community development practitioners who offered insight and advice into what community-led development means in practice. 

A big thank you to Dr Fiona Armstrong-Gibbs, Co-Founder of Baltic Creative in Liverpool, Barbara Chalmers, Place Plan Manager for Stranraer, and Rose Murdoch, Development Officer for Kirkconnel & Kelloholm Development Trust for sharing their experience and insight at the session facilitated by IED Directors Dr Jo Leek and Lorna Young.

The following themes emerged during the panel discussion. 

Authentic Engagement Matters 

Barbara: “Grandstanding in a public meeting is something to avoid. So while there’s still some requirement to do big public meetings, it’s good to embrace opportunities to make those events more creative and more interactive. My preference for engagement is one-to-one conversation and ethnography – watching and listing. You learn an enormous amount from going to places and just looking and watching as people interact with their surroundings. The things you learn on the streets of a town are incredible, you see how a place works and functions.”

Putting People First

Fiona: “Human beings are predictably unpredictable. Not everyone will see what you’re trying to do from the same perspective, so building in an ability to understand things from different peoples’ perspectives, different peoples’ lived experience is important. What we’re maybe a bit scared of in engagement activity is people who are coming with some sense of injustice. So think about how you can flip that resistance and harness it in a more positive way.”

Confidence Building 

Rose: “I’m currently working in a very deprived community. It’s a community that has historically had things done to them that have not been successful, so I’m very much in favour of community-led approaches. That’s listening to what people are saying, being non-judgemental. It’s about supporting people and giving them confidence to take greater control over their own destiny. It’s about building trusting relations and knowing your community well because different communities have their own challenges. Community development is a long process.”

Leadership and the Next Generation 

Fiona: “Leadership is a word that’s got quite masculine connotations, so there’s a need for community leaders from a variety of different backgrounds. It’s been shown that where founders and leaders have a really deep understanding of the place and the community they’re embedded in, they’re much more likely to be successful and resilient in the long term. That’s because whatever’s created, its DNA is in the place and the people of that place. We love those stories of the lone, usually heroic, male who has changed the face of a place and has led the place to an achievement, but it’s always so much more complex than that, isn’t it? One of the things that you have to take due care about is expecting people from diverse backgrounds to already know what to do and how to lead. People need a space to learn ‘how’ to be on a board, for example, it’s a journey.”

Bureaucracy is a Barrier 

Rose: “One of the big challenges for communities is navigating funding applications. If we’re looking at community-led approaches then we need to take care to make sure that forms and information is written in a language that communities can understand and complete. There’s still a level of bureaucracy in a lot of funding opportunities that make it very difficult for communities to access resources, and a lot of public sector bodies really struggle with what an enabling approach actually means in practice.”

What Enables Success? 

Fiona: “Love the project that you’re doing. If you know you’re not going to be in love with it, find someone to work with who will love it and be passionate about it. Love it or leave it, that commitment to the long haul is really important.”

Rose: “You need to know your community well, be inclusive, be bold, be ambitious but always be flexible about how you work with a community. People can sense whether you’re passionate or not, passionate about making a difference. Passion is an important part of how you build trust.” 

Barbara: “It’s all about the authentic voice of the community and if you don’t honestly, genuinely like people, don’t do it. Patronising people is the very worst thing. People are so sophisticated, they’ll know if it’s not real for you and if you don’t love this work.”

Thanks to our panel members. You can find out more information about their communities and their work on the links below. 

Stranraer Place Plan

Baltic Creative

Kirkconnel & Kelloholm Development Trust