Building possibility: A new deal between community and state

Steve ClarecroppedWe’re on the cusp of a historic change in Britain. The post-war welfare state model – based on an expanding economy, ever growing tax revenues and an increasing spend on public services – is broken. It’s certainly not coming back in the next decade and probably we’ll never see it again. Instead, fundamental questions are being asked about the respective roles and responsibilities of the state and the citizen. Who is best placed to do what? Who should do what?

Much of this debate is welcomed by Locality. We’ve argued for years that many decisions are best taken at the community level, that many services could be better – and more efficiently and more economically – delivered by and with local communities. However, not all communities are equal, not all communities have the same resources, the same knowledge and skills, the same social capital and this means many of our most disadvantaged communities could fall even further behind – while the private sector circles in the background like a shark waiting to prey on those who sink rather than swim.

So where is the solution to come from? It won’t come from big government. It doesn’t have the money or indeed the legitimacy within many disadvantaged communities. It won’t come from the mainstream political parties either – does anyone trust politicians nowadays? The simple truth is that the starting point for overcoming many of the entrenched problems we face as a nation must be at the neighbourhood level.

It’s at the neighbourhood level that you can mobilise local people and harness the talents of the many. It’s at the neighbourhood level that you can find people driven by a sense of social justice and a spirit of community. It’s at the neighbourhood level that we can build problem-solving ventures with public and private allies. It’s at the neighbourhood level that we can provide community stewardship of land, buildings and services. It’s at the neighbourhood level that we can build community pride and self-determination. Community-led organisations may seem small in the overall scheme of things but it is a mistake to underestimate their potential to change the world – one neighbourhood at a time.

Today, civic entrepreneurs – armed with innovative thinking and a willingness to tackle some of our most challenging problems – are tapping into a powerful energy and sense of purpose. They’re shattering traditional policy approaches and replacing them with creative solutions and unique partnerships to produce dramatic results – and this transformation is driven by the power of networking: of people, of communities, of ideas, many facilitated through the internet and social media.

There are, of course, huge obstacles to overcome. How do radical new approaches best flourish in a system that is top-down, inflexible and ineffective? How should we respond to prescriptive government funding and the vested interests that conspire to resist or slow down change?

The answer lies in mobilising communities – in individual neighbourhoods, yes, but also through linking and connecting neighbourhoods across cities, regions, countries, even continents. Across the world, people are starting to exercise their power in new and exciting ways. In Brazil we see participatory budgeting where local people identify, discuss, and prioritise public spending, giving them the power to make real decisions about how money is spent. In Seoul in South Korea we see the world’s first ‘social enterprise city’. In Amsterdam and Helsinki we see digital technologies being used to involve citizens both in responding to municipal policies and in proposing new solutions. And, of course, in the UK we see innovation everywhere – often led by members of Locality.

These initiatives all have something in common: the more local the theme, the more level the playing field becomes. We all understand and have something to offer about our neighbourhoods, our open spaces and our high streets. People care about where they live. It’s at this local level that genuine ‘collective intelligence’ can be generated – achieving outcomes beyond what can be realised by individuals or the local state.

How should we respond in the UK to austerity policies? Shout from the sidelines, stand by as services are dismantled, salvage what we can from the wreckage, manage down expectations, or look for more positive and more fundamental alternatives? Barry Quirk, former chief executive of Lewisham Council, talks of a journey for local government, progressing from designing services, to solving problems, to building possibility. Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, says that ‘seeing citizens as sources of innovation and co-producers of services, rather than just consumers, opens new possibilities for a more productive government.’ Either way, the future has to lie in a fundamentally different relationship between the state, community and individual citizens. A shift in power and control, mobilisation of the many, harnessing resources that otherwise go to waste.

Locality’s Symposium in London on 18th June will be debating what “building possibility” might look like, and how councils, community organisations, housing associations and others can best rise to the challenge – and change the world one neighbourhood at a time. Do please join us!



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Mike Riddell
Mike Riddell
10 years ago

In the whole of your piece you don’t once mention the role of business or brands have to play in persuading people to do things differently. You simply cannot ignore their importance in people’s lives.

Matthew Taylor may well offer his advice on how he thinks we in communities should think and do. But how informed is he really, when the shoulders he rubs are those of government and big business?

If he’d done his time in community then I might give more weight to his views but from where I come from people want brands and people trust business more than they trust government. Which isn’t a lot, but it’s more than you’d think.


Steve Clare
Steve Clare
10 years ago

Hi Mike
I’m not sure if I agree with you or not – it depends on what you mean by ‘business’. I certainly agree that SMEs are an important part of any community and I would include them within the generic term ‘community’. Classic examples would be village shops, pubs, post offices etc. I’d be much more cynical about big business/multi-nationals which often have little real commitment to an area. There may be exceptions but how many times have we seen big business close factories/depots/shops because it suits their balance sheet – often moving abroad to where they can finder cheaper and/or non-union labour or more ‘beneficial’ tax regimes.

I certainly don’t agree with you re ‘brands’. How many battles have been fought to stop the big supermarkets opening stores where they will undercut and ultimately destroy much of the local retail sector. In my experience, people don’t want where they live to be ‘just like everywhere else’ – they want somewhere unique, different and local. Of course, many people are attracted by what they perceive to be lower prices and better value – but without recognising the wider social and economic impact on their communities (which includes local farmers, producers etc as well as other local businesses). And if you think people ‘trust’ the big brands like the utility companies (like Thames Water), retailers (like Amazon and Starbucks) and other big businesses (like Barclays, NatWest, Lloyds), then you must move in very different circles (communities), read very different newspapers and watch very different TV programmes to those I experience.

I also think you’re a little unfair to pick on the quote from Matthew Taylor: he was in fact commenting on how government could work better and I doubt many people would disagree about that (including you). So I’d repeat a paragraph from my blog: ‘Where is the solution to come from? It won’t come from big government. It doesn’t have the money or indeed the legitimacy within many disadvantaged communities. It won’t come from the mainstream political parties either – does anyone trust politicians nowadays? The simple truth is that the starting point for overcoming many of the entrenched problems we face as a nation must be at the neighbourhood level.’

Mike Riddell
Mike Riddell
10 years ago

Steve hello

I think it is a mistake to think that it’s possible to make the world a better place without brands and business getting involved. People trust brands and business more than government. We all know that, whether we like it or not. In fairness, neither of them have a particularly good reputation and that is something they both need to work harder on if they are to remain relevant to us as consumers of their goods and services.

Good reputation opens doors, brings attention, shows the expertise the business may have, creates influence and eases access to resources. A good reputation makes life easier for business, the government and for us as citizens. Everyone is increasingly demanding a more transparent. ethical and independent means to judge reputation – whether it’s our own, a businesses or the governments. We might be prepared in principle, to allow big-businesses to take on responsibilities once relegated to the state, but the condition for doing so is that the outcome is fair and ethical, and good for everyone.

All signs point to consumers wanting a lot more from brands and businesses than the delivery of appealing products and services. They want evidence that businesses are behaving more ethically, advancing societal interests whilst also taking care to cause no harm – to our shared environment, to employees and other stakeholders, and to the broader community. Increasingly they want businesses to understand that one man’s waste is another man’s wage, and that everything must be recycled.

And on the other side of the coin, brands and big businesses are under immense pressure to perform in a world with reducing disposable income and increasing costs that can’t be passed on to consumers. They need to grow their businesses in a sustainable manner, and are being forced by the markets to identify what waste streams can be converted into new revenue opportunities. (For example transport networks are very inefficient – lots of unsold seats = value perished). If we could see our communities as a whole, then one man’s waste could be another man’s wage. Waste could be recycled into rewards so that the underused resources within a community could be matched with the community’s unmet needs. Community currency systems are being designed to do just that.

I want big business in general and brands in particular to play a major role in driving change and to work toward the greater good rather than acting solely in the interests of their own selfish agendas. If they are willing to do this, and prove that they’ve done it, then I don’t see what the problem is. People want brands. People in communities want brands. I want brands. I want brands that stand for something other than their own vested interests. It’s time they changed, and it’s time they proved it.

My two and a half years at WiganPlus taught me that to engage people properly and change their consumption behaviour, we need not be aloof and out of touch and instead take them as they are now, which is keen on discounts and deals on branded products. You are damn right that we need to fix our neighbourhoods and communities, and that is precisely what big business and big brands should be doing.

In fact I’d go further – THEY WANT TO DO IT but don’t know how. Help them, I say. All they need is the help to know what to do it and how to do it – and that’s where infrastructure organisations like yours could be doing so much more.

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