Place Leadership Revisited – Phil Barton

Partnerships in Environmental Regeneration in North West England 1980 – 2010: a Practitioner Perspective

There is no longer any doubt that we are facing climate and ecological catastrophe if we fail to change our ways – and quickly.  Scientists are agreed – from IPBES to IPCC , from Sir David Attenborough to Sir David King – that the window for action is short, but also that it is not just government, or business, or civil society who must act, but everyone together as they can; globally, nationally, regionally, locally.

As practitioners in the North West of England between 1980 and 2010, we believe that our experience of a now largely forgotten way of working has much to teach us today.  Between 1970 and 2010, a three hundred year old legacy of industrial pollution of both land and water in the Mersey Basin and East Lancashire was successfully tackled.  And a key element of that success was partnership working – both vertically, from the European and national to the regional and local, and horizontally, across and between sectors and communities locally – to bring about change.

Figure 1

At the heart of these efforts were facilitating and delivery charitable trusts set up for the purpose able to bring partners together, overcome difficulties and make things happen.

In our article in the latest issue of Voluntary Sector Review, Place leadership revisited: partnerships in environmental regeneration in North West England, 1980‐2010: a practitioner perspective, co-authored with John Handley, Peter Wilmers, Richard Sharland and Walter Menzies, to whose memory the article is dedicated, we introduce case studies of Groundwork and the Mersey Basin Campaign.  Both were initiated by Michael Heseltine, who became Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Minister for Merseyside’ following rioting in Toxteth in 1981.

Heseltine had a strong belief in the value of partnership working, of the government, central and local, businesses, voluntary organisations, landowners and others working together to tackle environmental, social and economic dereliction.  Operation Groundwork in St Helens and Knowsley began in 1982, widening out from a county council urban fringe and derelict land reclamation proposal and was spearheaded by a charitable trust whose core members were a central government agency and the local authorities in the area, with a private sector chair, cross sectoral Board and a small staff team charged with making things happen.  A year later, five more Groundwork Trusts were established in the region on the same model, including Rossendale, the subject of the case study.  By 2000, there were fifty trusts throughout the UK outside of Scotland.  Key elements for success was an ethos of partnership with residents, communities, local businesses and so on, and a new approach to landscape remediation, adopting an ecological approach working with nature and using engineering solutions only when absolutely necessary.

Shocked by the state of the River Mersey, Heseltine also initiated the Mersey Basin Campaign in 1985 to clean up the whole catchment within 25 years.  Initially led by a unit within the Government’s North West Regional Office, a Voluntary Sector Network, later the Mersey Basin (charitable) Trust, followed in 1987 and a Business Foundation three years later.  With separate central organisations enabling, co-ordinating and supporting catchment and local action to improve water quality, regenerate the land alongside over 1,080 miles (1,735 km) of rivers in the Basin and to encourage communities and individuals to once again ‘value and cherish’ their waterways.  By 2010 the Campaign had achieved its main objectives and voluntarily disbanded.

In the article we discuss some of the key elements of success, including:

  • Simultaneous vertical and horizontal partnerships
  • The challenge of scale in landscape
  • Achieving sustainable outcomes
  • Responding to institutional change
  • Leadership and partnership working

Before briefly discussing some of the challenges of making the partnerships a success.  We reflect on power, governance and opportunity, drawing on our own experience and some of the academic literature.

As already mentioned, the Mersey Basin Campaign wound down in 2010 and Groundwork, which is successfully supporting environmental social, economic and cultural action to this day, matured and both responded to external changes, for example New Labour’s ‘new managerialism’, the Coalition Government’s withdrawal from regional working and resolute pursuit of austerity, and changes in local government.  Today Groundwork has developed new ways of working, enabling it to grow scale, impact and resilience and evolved other mechanisms to maintain strong local (‘horizontal’) partnerships.

We recognize that in many ways the world has changed in the last 20 years in government, in technology, in society and in the economy.  But there are important lessons to be learnt from the drive to restore the environment of a whole region over three decades we describe.

The challenges of climate change and ecological breakdown can demoralize individuals and place leaders because they seem so unachievable. But Zero Carbon Britain ‘sets out the positive, connected approach we need to overcome them – joining up research and practice across disciplines, borders, sectors and scales’.  We describe models of working – a visionary strategic framework coupled with community-level engagement through vertical and horizontal partnerships – that could be used to make these transitions possible. Does central government still have the vision and confidence in local partnerships to deliver fundamental environmental improvement? A new Mersey Basin Campaign for decarbonising the region, supported by government, and led by local government, business, NGOs, academics and community leaders, could energise and inspire a successful response within 25 years. It has been done before.

It would require a coherent policy framework, but the importance of charitable partnership organisations such as Groundwork or the former Mersey Basin Trust to act as enablers, brokers and champions for local action by all should not be underestimated.  At a time when the Government is poised to commit to 78% de-carbonisation, we invite all stakeholders in this amazing planet we inhabit to come together to demand of Government the resources, leadership and freedom to allow such vertical and horizontal partnerships to be established at all levels; to become truly transformative – and quickly.

Low-Budget Video Production: Visual Communication for Small Charities

Tot Foster

In 2020, Tot Foster was awarded a VSSN Development Opportunity Grant to fund a workshop for charity staff on how to produce videos on a small budget. Here she reflects on the process and sets out how all charities can make use of video, including her new online course.

Telling stories about impact, talking to supporters, reaching out, collaborating with service users – video can do so much for small charities. And in these strange times anything that can help with online communications has got to be good. But there’s a problem – not many small charities are making the most of video. It’s seen as expensive, time-consuming, and technically tricky to make. But it doesn’t need to be.

I worked for many years mentoring and producing videos with charities. I saw a lack of video training that really takes on board working with little time and money, in challenging situations with vulnerable people. So, to cut a long story short, I’m now at the end of a PhD researching and designing a production process to help charities start making their own low or no-budget videos. This is where the VSSN development grant comes in. My research has a very practical application which isn’t going to be realised by my thesis sitting on the shelf. So, with the help of VSSN, in October 2020 I held a day-long online workshop for nine charity staff. They came from organisations working with all sorts of people from refugees to children with learning difficulties. We had fun watching videos, brainstorming in break-out rooms, filming dogs and pianos and tinned soup on our phones. That was followed up by one-to-one mentoring sessions for whoever wanted it, on films they’ve got in mind. Three people went on to make brilliant films in their organisations straight after. You can see one of them here.

But that wasn’t the only good thing to come out of the grant. The plan was always to use this session as a learning opportunity to inform the writing of an online course. The brilliant Sorrel Parsons from Superhighways (who had hosted the workshop and recruited participants) got everyone to fill in detailed evaluations. That feedback helped me better understand changes that needed to be made. Since I applied for the development grant, the Open University funded me to write a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) called ‘Low-budget video production – visual communication for small charities’. It’s now finished and is peppered with lots of low budget videos, some made in my bedroom out of cardboard! The MOOC is now live and available here: The first course starts on 8 March 2021, and then will be made permanently available.

Thanks to the development grant I learned lots of valuable lessons from the workshop that have gone into the MOOC: make it as interactive as possible, include suggestions for specific bits of kit, and do my best to de-mystify the editing process. I also then ran a spin-off workshop on animation you can do in lockdown (getting the cardboard out again) at the Superhighways online conference, Impact Aloud. Thank you so much to VSSN for supporting the dissemination of my work with a development grant, contributing in a small way to digital development in the sector. Thanks too to Superhighways and the Open University.

The MOOC ‘Low-budget video production – visual communication for small charities’ is hosted by Futurelearn, and is now available for registration at It involves 3 hours of learning per week for four weeks and is free.

You can find information on Superhighways at They provide training and advice on all things digital for small and medium voluntary organisations within the London area.