Where now for community empowerment?

As Hazel Blears, the communities secretary and empowerment champion, battled for her political life this week, her community empowerment bill was quietly dropped by Parliament.

In answer to a question in the House of Lords, Baroness Andrews said that no further proposals from the Communities in Control white paper, published in July 2008, would be taken forward.

Many of its proposals – such as a new duty on local authorities to promote democracy – will be included in the local democracy bill currently before Parliament.

Some reforms, such as plans to change council governance arrangements, will be discussed with stakeholders. Others, including providing incentives to vote in local elections, have been dropped.

The empowerment agenda, has, it seems, run out of steam. Or money.

In an increasingly trim public sector, incentivising voters with ipods and finding extra funds to boost representation looks excessive.

And yet, as the Balance of Power report showed this week, the need for improved local democracy and popular participation has never been greater. The DCLG select committee – which produced the report – uncovered evidence of a movement towards greater centralisation of government in the last ten years, while government pays ‘rhetorical lip service to the decentralisation of power’.

Strong local democracy and popular participation are intrinsically linked to strong and accountable national governments, it says.

If the recent expenses scandal has not sent an urgent message to parliament of the need for reform, then June’s local and European elections will surely alert politicians of all hues to the bankruptcy at the heart of our democratic structures.

Perhaps those calling for radical reform of our politics could focus their attention on reviving grassroots and local democracy, which was looking painfully bereft even before the Community Empowerment Bill was abandoned.

In June’s edition of New Start we will report on the demise of the community empowerment networks (CENs). The biggest experiment in recent times in shifting power to the people, these government-funded networks allowed marginalised groups for the first time to have a say in what happened in their local communities. As one former CEN chair said: ‘They were beginning to empower the man and woman on the street.’

The few remaining CENs are struggling for their lives amid a general downgrading of those working to truly empower communities at a local level. DCLG’s Community Empowerment Bill was viewed by many in the sector as a shift away from true collective empowerment of the people. As it bites the dust, maybe now is the time for fresh ideas to revive the collective voice and rebuild politics from the grassroots up.

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Clare Goff

Clare Goff is editor of New Start magazine

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