This post first appeared at www.labourlist.org
‘Those people on high won’t listen to you. Get them off your back, and you’ll all be better off.’ So runs the mantra of the right, which in 2010 helped to defeat Labour despite the party having delivered 13 years of improved public services and higher standards of living.
For David Cameron, communities would look after themselves splendidly once government support was cut back everywhere. For Boris Johnson, communities would take back control of their own destiny once the UK was out of the EU. In reality, increasingly deprived of external support, communities have ended up with more problems than ever and the hollowness of ‘the Big Society’ is matched by the vacuity of ‘levelling up’.
Labour needs to show the public that communities can indeed achieve a great deal more, provided they are empowered by public bodies in the appropriate way. But what is the appropriate way? This is where the lessons that have been identified by specialists and experienced practitioners over decades must be taken on board. Let us take a brief look at three types of empowerment that should feature on Labour’s policy agenda.
First, communities can be empowered through public investment and organisational support. By making available property, land and other assets on a low-cost basis to communities for legally defined purposes of serving the needs of local people, we get community enterprises that generate their own long-term income to meet diverse needs.
Community land trusts become custodians of genuinely affordable housing that will not disappear through sell-off for private gains. Support can also be provided in the form of advice and seed funding in helping to set up community food growing and distribution schemes, or union co-ops that give workers backing through their own platform technology.
Secondly, communities can be empowered through responsive engagement and partnership working. With every type of public service – healthcare, policing, planning, education etc -it has been well documented that state agencies adopting a deliberative approach in involving the communities concerned get better outcomes. They avoid costly mistakes, attain higher levels of trust and local support in getting the services to the people who need them, and secure greater public satisfaction.
The key is sincerity in listening to what people have to say and a commitment to adapt plans to local circumstances. The same goes for major development and regeneration projects where consensus building, partnership decision making and community-based evaluation are vital to long-term success.
Thirdly, communities can be empowered through facilitating the spread of solidarity networks. Contrary to the lament about fragmenting communities, many areas have attained a much greater sense of togetherness and benefited from notable improvements from collaborative initiatives such as community energy schemes, community healthcare provision, mutual support sustained by time banking and community-based learning.
A key reason for which these initiatives are not taking place in more communities is because the networks underpinning them lack the developmental backing to keep nurturing new teams and building new relationships. Government institutions, nationally and locally, can make a vast difference by providing such backing systematically.
With all three types of approach mentioned above, there is substantial evidence from the UK and other countries to confirm that they bring about a better quality of life and a strong belief in the value of working in partnership with others. The one missing critical ingredient is the political will to make community empowerment a strategic priority.
What should we do? Two things: one is to set up a framework for designing the policy; the other is to practise what we preach by empowering those with the relevant knowledge and experience to shape the policy at the national and local level.
Regarding the framework, one suggestion would be a community development fund (the ‘stronger together fund’?), to be accessed by community-based partnerships dedicated to specific towns, neighbourhoods or cities, to foster activities from one or more of the three categories we have outlined.
The details of how the fund would operate nationally and locally would be worked out by a national panel of experts and experienced practitioners, and each local community partnership, respectively.
There would be no competitive bidding, and the local authority closest to the area covered by the partnership would facilitate agreement about the membership of that partnership. Each partnership could set its own empowerment priorities, but all should ensure local people are effectively informed about and involved in their plans.