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NDC: A brief history and critical examination

Geoffrey Bates | 03.12.2008 20:40 | Analysis | Social Struggles

The Neighbourhood Development Company (NDC) is the Nottingham partnership receiving money from the government's New Deal for Communities programme. It has had a controversial history, most recently resulting in the sacking of its entire Board for breaches of the Code of Conduct. This article takes a critical look at the organisation and proposes an alternative model for community development.

I originally wanted to involve people from NDC in this article. I contacted them asking a few fairly straightforward questions. In spite of receiving a very prompt response from a member of staff saying that they would send me their responses I have, a week later, still not received anything from them. I would welcome those working with NDC's comments on this piece.

NDC: A brief history

The Neighbourhood Development Company (NDC) is the Nottingham partnership receiving money from the government's New Deal for Communities programme. NDC has been allocated £55m over 10 years (most of it already spent) to regenerate the Radford area. It is one of 39 such partnerships in the UK which have had approximately £2bn of public money committed to them.

According to the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit (NRU) website, the aim of partnerships is "reviving deprived areas by putting communities in charge of the regeneration of their neighbourhoods." The focus, say NRU, is on "Long-term commitment to deliver real change. Communities [are] at the heart of this"(1). NDC mention several key areas they say they focus on in delivering this change: Business and Employability, Education and Learning, Housing and Environment, Health, Community Safety and Arts, Sport, Leisure and Culture(2).

This is the official line, anyway. In 2002, only 2 years since the start of Nottingham NDC, the Guardian was already reporting that the scheme had "been dogged by community infighting, delays and resentment over government interference in the scheme."(3) In April of that year there was a record low turnout in an election for Nottingham New Deal (7%), indicating a lack of community interest in the decisions the partnership was making. This was followed by the controversial decision to run a later election along racial lines. People could only vote for candidates that were of the same ethnic group as themselves. In 2003, the Vice-Chair of NDC resigned complaining of the "bumbling incompetence" of her colleagues. Chief Executive, Pauline Davies, also stepped down and the following year NDC were rated as 'poor' by the Government for the East Midlands (GOEM).

Under the new Chief Executive, Sam Tarff, NDC managed to raise its rating to 'excellent' over the next four years. However, 2007 was also to be the year that a huge amount went wrong within the organisation. The Independent Review of Corporate Governance released in 2008 catalogued a host of problems including infighting amongst Board members, financial impropriety and personal power struggles that were tearing NDC apart.

The report detailed how, over the period of Sep 2007-Jul 2008 breaches of the Code of Conduct led to one Director being removed from the Board, the Independent Chair being asked to go on 'gardening leave', Sam Tarff being suspended as Chief Exec pending investigation by the partnership, the two public agency directors resigning and the Treasurer becoming bankrupt. Feuding between Sam Tarff and Narinder Sharma, the Independent Chair, were at the root of the power struggles within the organisation. Finally, in the summer of this year, when faced with intervention by the government and the withdrawal of funding, the entire Board stood down. Sam Tarff was later cleared of gross misconduct but did not return to his post.(4)

The Independent Review described the atmosphere at NDC in July 2008 was one of "distrust and entrenched positions, aggravated by insufficient transparency and a lack of shared aims.
"Accusations about conspiracies, personal power struggles, financial motivation and manipulation are common currency, some of it difficult to verify. In addition there has been differing legal advice about whether the Company is acting beyond its legal powers.
"The Company coalesced into factions supporting different individuals. At present working relationships are very fragile and present a real risk to delivery performance. Some of the working relationships key to delivering the excellent performance seem to have been irrevocably damaged... The public funders are having to review the continuation of funding and their own general involvement."(5)

Many of the problems seemed to revolve around the finances of the Company, and improper use of funds. The Independent Review reported "a number of cases of separate and substantial financial dealings between Directors, and Directors and staff. None of these were declared at the time and until later complaints emerged, the Company had no formal knowledge of them."(6) Regarding financial controls "it appears evident that the Board did not have adequate arrangements. The Finance Committee did not meet at all in 2007; the Treasurer was seeking personal loans from staff and fellow directors; decisions were being taken without a clear understanding of financial consequences; at least some Directors were not declaring their conflicting financial interests... [D]ay to day financial controls sometimes seemed absent. One particular example of that is the extensive spend on legal fees, despite the Management & Administration budget being exhausted."(7)

The result of the breakdown in relationships between Board members and the lack of financial control had resulted in a company that was out of control and had lost sight of the community that was meant to be its reason for being. The review concluded that "[i]t is difficult to imagine public funding continuing without immediate and substantial changes taking place, and an unambiguous undertaking to carry out further changes over the coming months. The public funders will then need to consider whether they can be sufficiently reassured by the implementation of these changes. The Company will have to be mindful of the implications for the local community as well as for staff and Directors themselves."(8)

A new Board was elected in September to oversee the spending of the final £12m of the funds. However, it seems the problems did not end there. The interim Chief Executive, Stephen Lord, left NDC before his replacement had been found, and a source close to NDC was quoted as saying his departure was "abrupt." According to the source, those running NDC had no "collectively clear understanding about where the organisation is going".(9)

A critical examination of Neighbourhood Development Companies

So what is the future for this troubled project? NDC is a 'legacy' organisation, intended to extend the benefit to the community after the funding ends in 2010. According to one commentator "[w]hen the NDC resources come to an end several long-term benefits should be left behind: successful partnership structures; confident resident representatives; improved resident-focused service delivery and greater interagency respect and understanding."(10)

NDC seem to have lost sight of residents in their dealings. Brian Davey, a critic of the company, says that, to the average resident of Radford, the people working at NDC are "not their neighbours getting involved out of any personal commitment to neighbours and community... but a leadership of officials swanning around in nice cars, with nice salaries, and then opting out after work, and going home to comfortable places." These are "well off professional people, used to working in large organisations" and "cannot solve poor people's problems. They usually don't understand these problems and their mind set is a large part of the problem."(11)

NDC Directors are part of a management class, often living well away from the poorer inner city areas that they are supposed to have a stake in. In 2006, NDC Chief Executives were being offered a salary of £70k - far, far above the wage of the average Radford resident. Davey suggests lowering the salary to £20k as a solution but is this really going to solve these problems? Perhaps the problem is not how much money a Chief Exec is paid but the fact that Chief Execs are making decisions about millions of pounds of funding that affect a whole community. Wouldn't it be better if the community itself was directing where the money was going?

Davey does make some good suggestions to this effect:
"The New Deal will succeed or fail on whether the people in the area develop their ideas, their talents and their organisations. And for that they can only start from tiny beginnings and build up step by step - at a pace defined by their personal circumstances, not according to the pre-ordained milestones set by someone else." Davey sees "professionals used to working in large organisations" as the obstacle to this development because they "cannot adjust their thinking to the smaller scale and an organic process of development."(12) Again, it is difficult to disagree with this statement but we should not forget why governments, both national and local, are loathe to let people take control of their own lives. Once the people of Radford or any other poor working class area started developing their own communities and stopped their dependence on handouts, the bureaucrats would have no one to pay their salaries and boss about. Management people like managing other people - if no one is willing to be managed anymore they know they will be out of a job.

In a system like that favoured by the NDC, where a board of 'experts' makes the decisions, residents will never become empowered to make decisions to improve their own lives. This system keeps power in the hands of specialists who claim to know what's best. But surely it is the residents themselves who best understand their own needs and problems? The top down style of NDC inhibits the generation of solutions at the grassroots favouring a management from outside.

It is also important to examine the corrupting role of big money in a scheme such as NDC. The most recent scandals that have rocked the organisation have revolved around directors enriching themselves with the money that was meant to be benefiting the community. If these resources were collectively administered everyone would benefit from them, rather than just a few business owners. NDC's pandering to business and a capitalist economic model has helped to preserve the existing skewed economic relations in the area rather than distributing the wealth to where it is needed most. As Ben Tuxworth and Jonathon Porritt point out "[t]he gap in living standards between deprived communities and the rest of society gets ever larger, irrespective of whether you look at it in social or economic terms."(13) Without any attempt to address this trend inequality will continue to create social problems.

The sustainability of regeneration efforts is an important issue. If NDC is to be more than just a sticking plaster for serious deprivation its effects will need to live on after the Board are long gone. Tuxworth and Porritt are sceptical about whether contemporary models of regeneration can achieve this: "[T]here’s plenty of evidence that regeneration can in practice be deeply unsustainable. Conventional models with an emphasis on economic growth, inward investment and major infrastructural schemes often fail to create the promised benefits."(14) According to them, this is because environmental considerations, which are often have knock on effects on the social sphere, are neglected: "We are just waking up to the environmental component of the divide, with the poor more likely to live in areas with high traffic densities, overcrowding and pollution. They also tend to live in housing that is badly insulated and poorly maintained, with little access to decent facilities and services. As a result, their health suffers, with a 5-10 year variation in life expectancy now a postcode lottery." Poor people don't just suffer because they don't have access to the resources they need but also because they live in sick environments. Sustainable regeneration would have to make serious attempts to improve the physical structures in which people live and to challenge polluters.

In short, the change that needs to take place for genuinely sustainable regeneration in cities like Nottingham is much, much bigger than the key areas the current NDC model is supposed to be tackling. A radical vision of how positive change is brought about is required in order to dispense with the parade of well-paid 'experts' in favour of an inclusive and empowering involvement of the whole community. Rather than pouring money into business in the hope that jobs and prosperity will follow, more attention should be focussed on improving people's homes and social spaces and countering the negative impacts of the capitalist economy. Will the government put £2bn into a scheme like this? Not likely. It is more probably that it will come from the bottom up through demands and action from residents themselves, for better lives and stronger communities. That is where the real hope lies.

5) Independent Review of Corporate Governance, Jul 2008, p.2
6) Ibid., p.4
7) Ibid., p.22
8) Ibid., p.25
12) Ibid.
14) Ibid.

Geoffrey Bates


Display the following 6 comments

  1. undemocratic and unaccountable — radford resident
  2. It's an ill wind... — Wigan Pier
  3. Who put up the barricades? — Geoffrey Bates
  4. It's all in the detail — Wigan Pier
  5. Fingers in the pie — Geoffrey Bates
  6. Thinning out the fat cats? — Wigan Pier