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Creating powerful communities means doubling down on devolution

Now is the time for communities to be given control over local services and assets, writes the chief executive of Localis, Jonathan Werran. 

The effects of lockdown and the massive strain placed on public services throughout 2020 have led to a renewed focus on local response, on the resilience and ingenuity displayed on a volunteer basis across the country.

However, communities in England, particularly those in deprived areas, face a multitude of challenges to and restrictions upon their ability to take control of their own destiny. Weak and weakening social infrastructure, complex bureaucratic structures, poor connectivity and a history of ever-changing, overlapping initiatives all act as barriers to neighbourhood democracy.

The pandemic has shone a light on how reliant we are on this social infrastructure locally, and now is the time for communities to be given control over it, as well as local services, and assets.

Decentralisation of power currently held in Westminster is key to both local government and local communities gaining more autonomy. Yet power is more than simply a function of the location of government decision-making – whether local or national. Undoubtedly, government policy must contain provisions that increase the autonomy and participation of communities. But it must also recognise the value that comes from community self-organisation as a good in itself.

With a particular interest in post-pandemic reform to local governance structures in England, through the forthcoming local recovery and devolution white paper, and how these reforms can open up space for greater community power.

The report sets out recommendations which build on the recent ‘Levelling Up Our Communities’ report as well as other solutions proven effective in practice. Chief amongst them is the establishment of a Community Wealth Fund backed by central government, which particularly targets ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods across the country, strengthens local social infrastructure, and resources endeavours to empower communities in a manner which is participatory.

The report looks at recent initiatives in the UK aimed at overcoming previous policy failures and instances from abroad where new models of local governance have been applied. They indicate where there may be opportunities to open up local government reform to double devolution, how this might be done and what pitfalls are to be avoided. From the studies, some key principles for creating powerful communities can be drawn:

 A relational approach to governance

Creating powerful communities requires government, both central and local, to adopt a broad change in mindset – from administrative to relational.   An example of putting a relational mindset into practice would be for local authorities to strive towards making their decision-making processes more participatory for communities. An effective start in this regard would be to make all funding of some non-core services subject to participatory budgeting – to begin to give communities a sense of control over council priorities and subsequent allocation of resources. The success of both of these forms of participation can be linked to their direct relationship to tangible results.

 Strong networking and communication systems

Creating and sustaining powerful communities is an easier task when community organisation is well connected both to the local authority and to the wider ecosystem of local action.  Creating these strong networks requires organisational change from local authorities; the simplification of bureaucracy and a long-term mindset which prevents constant policy reinvention.

 Dedication to building capacity

Revenue support for social infrastructure of neighbourhoods; parks, libraries, pubs, hubs and the like is a key priority across our studies. Social infrastructure must be suitably resourced and placed into the hands of communities wherever possible and functionally viable. Beyond financial capacity is that which is built through institutional learning and experience, with some case study councils providing broader advice services to community organisations to help with things like access to wider capital funding and business administration. This helps build up social as well as financial capital.

 Work rooted in listening to communities

Improving and upgrading social infrastructure efficiently requires a sustained commitment to linking consultations with tangible outcomes. This requires a long journey of cultural change, one which is traversed through the sharing of perspectives, as enabled through Wigan’s extensive Big Listening Project which helped drive cultural change in the council.

 A willingness to cede some power and control and a culture that is engaged and facilitative

Perhaps the most striking elements of our case studies are those where the local state is entirely facilitative, providing resource and advice for communities to act autonomously.  This points to a possibility for innovation in the English local government system, to move beyond community power as an extension of power already held in councils into the community, towards locally-specific arrangements where different community groups and organisations take on different roles within the wider social ecosystem.  This can be achieved if capacity is built, social infrastructure resourced and, in the first instance, the networks of communication between council and community are strengthened.

So if this is to be a teachable moment, then we must place greater trust in our communities to provide the impetus for social renewal and economic recovery.  This must mean a genuine commitment from government for double devolution under which communities receive full powers and support to develop greater genuine autonomy and assume control for scripting their own local destinies.


Jonathan Werran is chief executive, Localis

The report is available here.

Photo Credit – Rob Dmyt (Pixabay)

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