Alison Seabrooke: ‘This isn’t the end for local activism’ | David Brindle

The head of the axed Community Development Foundation on how local organisations already hit by cuts will have to pick up the slack

For someone closing down an organisation they have run for more than a decade, Alison Seabrooke is surprisingly chipper. For someone so steeped in community development to be closing down the lead organisation in the sector, she is astonishingly upbeat.

With an unlikely background in fashion design, Seabrooke has forged a remarkable second career along a path from kitchen-table activism in North Yorkshire’s former Selby coalfield to advising ministers in Whitehall and, since 2005, heading the Community Development Foundation (CDF). Just before Christmas 2015, she stunned the sector by announcing that CDF was to wind itself up in good order and transfer its remaining assets to other bodies – a process she is now concluding.

While CDF will go down as one of the most high-profile casualties of austerity in the public sphere, the considered manner of its closure offers both an illuminating contrast to other organisations, such as Kids Company, that have crashed and burned, and real hope that it will leave a lasting legacy of further work. Hence Seabrooke’s mixed emotions.

“It is hugely sad and a lot of people have been rocked by the decision,” she says. “I have had so many emails from people in the sector – community organisations, national organisations – who have drawn on us for many years. But there is a recognition, at least among the national organisations, that this is a strategic decision and they have been very complimentary about the way we have gone about it.

“We know from the responses we have received that not only will CDF be remembered, but we might – just might – seed community development approaches in other organisations.”

Set up in 1967 as the Young Volunteer Force Foundation, CDF was a quango or non-departmental public body (NDPB) until five years ago. It was renamed the Community Projects Foundation in 1977 and then CDF in 1989, reflecting the breadth of its work.

After Seabrooke’s arrival as chief executive, she set about streamlining what had become a sprawling network with offices scattered across Britain. This turned out to be prescient, putting the organisation in far better shape to withstand the shock that was to come in 2010 when the coalition government lit the so-called “bonfire of the quangos”, withdrawing CDF’s £1.5m annual grant and forcing it to become an independent social enterprise in 2011.

Following the banking crisis three years earlier, Seabrooke had begun scenario planning with organisation development experts at Sheffield Hallam University, where she was studying part-time. The worst of four potential outcomes they plotted was precisely what occurred – sudden loss of NDPB status and grant – so she was already braced for the second pruning of the organisation this sudden change entailed, shedding half its then 67 staff and curtailing several of its work programmes. It was chosen by the Big Lottery Fund in the same year to lead the consortium overseeing its biggest single endowment, of £200m, to fund community engagement in 150 Big Local areas across England. The programme, under which each area gets at least £1m for local people to spend on improvements to their community, ranging from new facilities and housing to employment training, was initially set for 10 years but is now extended to 2027. Additionally, CDF was commissioned by government to run Community First, an £80m programme that backed 18,000 community groups.

Taken together, these roles bought CDF five more years. But the writing was on the wall, says Seabrooke, and discussions about what she calls “solvent liquidation” began within the organisation a year ago – other options of merger or further reconfiguration were considered but were eventually rejected on cost grounds. CDF has more than £600,000 to bequeath. The bulk of this is going to Local Trust, which was set up to manage the Big Local programme. Most of the balance is going to organisations taking on CDF’s work on community investment, its quality mark for community projects, and its Just Act online information resource for community activists. A sum of £20,000, already matched by one unidentified donor, will go to establish a CDF legacy project – to be hosted by Local Trust – with the aim of identifying possible ways forward for community development.

On the ground, more and more communities are getting organised to plug gaps in the austerity-ravaged welfare state: taking over the running of libraries, planting civic flower beds, supporting older neighbours.

“People are having to do it,” says Seabrooke. “But they rely on small amounts of public funds to pay essential direct costs and with the demise of centrally coordinated programmes, there is no mechanism in place to ensure that resources flow equitably across the country to support these activities.

“The fate of these community organisations may soon depend entirely on arbitrary decisions by local public bodies. The most enlightened of them will see that true devolution is a route to effective community partnerships, in both power and resources, with services designed around individuals and the potential for better customer outcomes, satisfaction and savings.”

Seabrooke knows all about organising from scratch. When she moved to the Selby coalfield with her then husband, a Nottinghamshire miner, she found the village where they settled, Riccall, was sorely lacking community facilities for its burgeoning population. With no experience of community engagement, she set about fundraising for, and then getting built, what was to become the multi-award-winning Riccall Regen Centre, a multi-purpose community hub, which opened in 2000 and which she led for five years. In 2002, the centre was where UK Coal announced the closure of the coalfield. Seabrooke, by then supremely well connected in the area and beyond, was headhunted by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust to lead its work, on secondment, on finding new futures for more than 2,000 miners. From that stemmed her subsequent jobs in government ministries and the role at CDF. She confesses to feeling “terribly guilty” about leaving Riccall.

The orderly closure of CDF has enabled many of its 16 remaining staff to get other jobs. Seabrooke herself will leave later this month. A new role could, she says, involve helping public and private bodies develop community engagement strategies, or it could be something in the field of mental health – a recent concern through direct family experience.

She insists that she sympathises with the thousands of local community groups that are now looking with anxiety at the loss of their national infrastructure bodies and may not appreciate the reasoning behind CDF’s strategic wind-down. “It is quite distressing for people working in these organisations on the ground,” she admits. “What we have tried to do over the last couple of years is give them the tools to make the case for why they, as community organisations or active communities, are so important.”

Curriculum vitae

Age 52.

Lives York.

Status Partner, four children, two grandchildren.

Education Higham Lane high school, Nuneaton; King Edward VI college, Nuneaton; North Warwickshire college of technology and art, Nuneaton (art foundation diploma); Birmingham Polytechnic (BA fashion and textiles); Sheffield Hallam University (organisation development diploma).

Career 2005-2016: chief executive, Community Development Foundation; 2004-05: team leader, community engagement, Home Office and Department for Education and Skills; 1999-2004: chief executive, Regen Centre, Riccall, North Yorkshire; 2002-03: Selby coalfield closure coordinator, Coalfields Regeneration Trust (secondment); 1998-2000: European project officer, Selby college; 1991-95: lecturer, York college and Hull college; 1986-89: design manager, Coats Viyella.

Interests Swimming.


David Brindle

The GuardianTramp

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