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Whether you’re co-op or Big Society – involving communities is key

Rapid change is happening all around us and for those working on the ground in local communities the only current certainty is uncertainty.

‘It’s like a tsunami with everything collapsing around our ears,’ as one delegate put it during discussions at Locality’s recent symposium event on Transforming Communities.

At New Start’s Think Time event on the future of public services in the same week, a council officer expressed similar feelings: ‘Before we followed the rule book, now we’re on our own trying to find the way forward.’

Whether or not we believe we are in the middle of a 120-year cyclical crisis in which our entire economy will be reorganised, or a more minor shock to the system, maintaining the status quo is not an option. Restructuring is occurring at the local level and decisions made in the coming years will determine whether communities and local economies sink or swim.

So overwhelming is the scale and speed of change that for those tasked with making such decisions the temptation is to bury their heads in the sand, deny that change is occurring and carry on as before. Feelings of helplessness and denial are common as the certainties of the past disappear.

But others are lifting their heads above the parapet and setting out ambitious plans for institutional and community-level change. This month’s cover story in New Start highlights the plans of the 13 co-operative councils, led by Lambeth, who are introducing a new framework of co-operation with their communities.

They hope to turn the idea of a local council on its head, bringing in a new era of local democracy. Elsewhere there are proposals for how collective models of housing can rescue and transform former housing market renewal areas.

Transformative change isn’t easy or quick, as speakers at Locality’s symposium admitted. It took Creation Development Trust in the Welsh valleys ten years to mobilise and transform its community but its success in doing so shows the wealth that can be unleashed from tapping into the latent potential of individuals.

Calderdale Council leader Janet Battye told the audience of the authority’s decision to open up its doors to the public, inviting new ideas and relationships and extending its ambitious asset transfer programme. Indy Johar, co-founder of Zero Zero, shared ideas on addressing the pressing need to build indigenous local, social businesses and scale them up.

The symposium attempted to pin down the magic ingredients for transformation. Having a bold unifying vision, putting a plan for transition in place and taking small steps towards it were some of the key themes that came out of the discussion. But the key element that was returned to again and again was ownership.

The new contracts and visions for the futures of our communities and economies rely on the people living there playing a much greater role than previously. They will be offering their time, helping design and run services, setting up local social enterprises and running community buildings.

Whether it’s called the Big Society, the co-operative approach or the civic economy, it will be those areas that are able to animate and involve their local communities and bring them with them through this period of change that will stand a chance of achieving the level of transformation that is needed. For as Janet Battye said: ‘At the heart of it all are people.’

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