Localism commission: power starts with people

Over the past nine months Locality has, alongside Power to Change, supported the Commission on the Future of Localism, chaired by Lord Kerslake, to investigate what is required to reinvigorate local democracy and unleash the power of community.

The culmination of this work is the Commission’s People Power report, which was published this week and argues that we must radically reframe the way we think about power.

We felt compelled to set up the commission because we were concerned that the welcome ambition and drive behind the 2011 localism act were in danger of waning. Following the introduction of the legislation, many of Locality’s members were the first to utilise the new powers it granted, such as the Community Rights, for the good of their communities.

However, the early ambition that underpinned the legislation hasn’t had the transformational effect many hoped it would. Indeed, throughout the commission’s work, we have heard from communities who are unable to affect the change they know their neighbourhood needs because ‘real power resides elsewhere’.

We need a fundamental rethink of the way in which people, power and politics intersect. Much of the recent localism and devolution debate has focused on calls for power to be ‘handed’ from the centre ‘downwards’ to communities. But power doesn’t belong to decision-makers to ‘give away’, and we need a localism agenda which makes the case that power starts with people. That it lies in our communities.

We are calling for a number of measures which we believe will catalyse the capacity of communities up and down the country.

A strengthened ‘power partnership’ between local government and local people is required to unlock the potential of localism. We don’t just need institutional change – we need to unleash the power of community by resetting local relationships, working together to get things done locally.

We also need make it easier for everybody to get involved, and embed the culture of localism in our neighbourhoods. Community organisations are experts in community development, and have long provided people with a good place to live; improved health and wellbeing; and employability, training and volunteering opportunities. Local government needs to embrace this expertise and work in partnership with these locally based organisations. This requires overcoming the perceived ‘risk’ of doing things differently. Practical ways local authorities might do this include the devolution of budgets to neighbourhoods or increasing their use of community asset transfer policies.

As I have highlighted, power begins with people. However, central government also needs to act to set the conditions for localism to flourish by strengthening the localism act and putting localism at the heart of the devolution agenda.

The introduction of a genuine ‘Community Right to Buy’, as is already operating in Scotland, would represent a concrete method for strengthening the localism act. It would give communities the first right of refusal to purchase Assets of Community Value (ACV) that come to market and would provide a 12 month period, once an ACV comes to market, for communities to mobilise, and secure the funding and local support required.

At a big picture level, the devolution agenda of recent years has been a welcome addition to our political debate, as has the emerging cross-party consensus that complex social challenges increasingly require solutions tailored at the local level. However, the deals thrashed out in city halls and their roll-out across city regions in 2017 lack a coherent neighbourhood dimension. New and existing devolution arrangements should be held to account by whether they truly enhance neighbourhood control and strengthen the power of community.

Polling findings
To accompany the launch of the People Power report, we commissioned YouGov to carry out polling of the general population. It shows that 80% of people feel they have not much or no control over the important decisions that affect the country and that despite take back control’ mantra of the EU Referendum campaign, people don’t feel that Brexit is going to improve their sense of control. (70% of people think Brexit will result in either the same, or even less control, over decisions that affect their local area.)

People are demanding a greater say over the way their communities are run. I see this every day through the engagement I have with inspiring Locality member organisations. Now is the time for political leaders – both national and local – to set the conditions for localism to flourish and create an environment for people across our neighbourhoods to thrive.

Tony Armstrong is chief executive of Locality


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