“This is the best opportunity we’ve had for community power”: Claire Hazelgrove

September 11, 2023   By Claire Hazelgrove, Community & Political Engagement Director, TPXimpact

There are signs that community power could be becoming a political reality. But are Westminster and Whitehall culturally or intellectually ready for this shift? And what should councils do to prepare for what could be a huge opportunity around devolution and empowerment? We speak to TPXimpact’s Claire Hazelgrove on the imperative of seizing the moment.

Four months on, what has stuck with you from Stronger Things?

What felt different this year was how real the opportunities and challenges feel in this moment, when it comes to community power. It feels like this agenda – bringing people into decision-making about their place and the issues that matter to them – is at a crossroads. We’re a year or so out from a general election, and we’re seeing the beginnings of what political parties are talking about, or not talking about, in this space.

We need to spell out how community power is helping get better outcomes for people, place and planet.

It feels like the time is now for two things. One, to try to shape that agenda and make it clear that brilliant examples exist all around the country, in all different communities, in all different types of public services and all different types of organisation. We need to spell out how community power is helping get better outcomes for people, place and planet.

The second is that now is the moment when it is particularly valuable for local authorities and others to think about how they embrace the possibility of a community power agenda being actively championed by at least one potential party of government, and what that would look like.

There’s an important and timely question for councils around: where are they at with this agenda right now? Would they be in a place where they could genuinely embrace the opportunities of community power, if more powers are devolved? Or what would they need to do to get ready for that possibility over the next year or so, so that we do not miss possibly the best opportunity we’ve had for community power, participation, engagement and co-production to be at the core of how more decisions are made throughout the country.

If we do not seize the opportunity, I think the agenda risks being misunderstood.

If we do not seize the opportunity, I think the agenda risks being misunderstood. It will be seen as not succeeding, as opposed to there wasn’t the readiness to be able to embrace it. Waiting until the general election has happened feels too late.

There are huge challenges facing local government – not least navigating budget cuts, looming financial crises for some, and the long-term impact of that – and those of course require a lot of headspace.

Linking this agenda to that reality feels really important when we think about what local government in the 2030s and councils’ relationships with their communities could look like – empowering partnerships for local decision-making, place-making and delivery, with services truly shaped with and by the people who use them.

What do councils need to do to make sure that they’re ready to grasp that opportunity?

For councils, it would help to establish a shared foundational knowledge internally on their maturity around and readiness for community power approaches. Often what we find is brilliant ambition, whether that comes from political leaders or officers, but sometimes that outstrips their reality; their experience and the in-house capability to be able to deliver these approaches.

Doing some deep internal work around that readiness, to really understand, where are they currently strong? Where have they got emerging capability? Where are they just getting out of the traps or just beginning to think about it?

Often councils don’t know how to start in this and that is absolutely fine. Having the ambition to embrace community power means you’re halfway there

Having that honest, internal conversation and sharing that, so key stakeholders have a shared foundational understanding, then setting out practical next steps to move all of those indicators up a notch. At TPXimpact we do a lot of work around things like maturity assessments, as well as training and coaching for councillors and officers so that they can build their in-house capability for the long-term and feel confident and able to take on these approaches themselves.

Often councils don’t know how to start in this and that is absolutely fine. Having the ambition to embrace community power means you’re halfway there. It’s not got to be just the most popular approaches out there. Take citizens’ assemblies, they are brilliant for approaching some issues that are complex, where you need a range of information and more intensive deliberation and require clear recommendations or priorities from a representative group of people within your place. But you do not have to start with that level of engagement. Starting small, piloting something, is a great way to begin.

These approaches can often save money, because it means that you’re getting to the right decision for a place more quickly, rather than having to do a whole do-over because the decision was made without incorporating lived experience and understanding of barriers that people face and the priorities they have.

What would a ‘mature’ council look like? And how would we recognise an ‘immature’ council?

I think worst practice is when councils are not truly engaging the people that they serve, and not bringing them into decision making at all. You hear this when someone says, ‘Let’s put out a consultation then’ when they’ve already decided what they want to do. They’re doing a tick-box exercise because they have to be seen to engage. You know when you receive something like that, using your voice is not going to have any impact whatsoever on the thing that is being done to your community – and that’s a really frustrating experience for residents.

When it comes to best practice, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Every place is different. Every issue that’s being looked at is different. But, as an example, I was really fortunate to chair a Stronger Things session with Camden Council.

I spoke to their leader, Georgia Gould, their participation lead, and some of the residents who have taken part in participatory processes. They are a really good example of a highly advanced council, who have a real dedication and clear commitment to doing things differently, to embracing and engaging with their community around complex decisions. What they’ve got is that real shared ambition at the political leadership level and at the officer level, and you can really see how working well together has been integral to the ways that they are doing things.

How confident are you that Westminster and Whitehall will really embrace the community power agenda? 

It will really depend on what different political parties put forward ahead of the next general election. At Stronger Things, we heard from Lisa Nandy about Labour’s agenda, including introducing a ‘Take Back Control’ bill which would push as many powers out to as local level as possible, so that decisions can be made closer to communities. This feels very positive. I hope that we’ll see more of a similar ambition across the political divide – and Michael Gove absolutely could still deliver more in this space – because this shouldn’t be a partisan issue, it should be about, simply: this is the best way of doing things in our country to make sure the best outcomes are achieved with and for people across our communities.

It’s about saying, these are decisions that don’t belong in Whitehall. They’re going to belong somewhere else, closer to home.

I think the difference between what’s being proposed here and what’s come before is that this does come with the next level of devolution. This is something really tangible. It’s about saying, these are decisions that don’t belong in Whitehall. They’re going to belong somewhere else, closer to home.

To succeed with this agenda, you’ve got to do devolution properly, not a sort of half-in-half-out approach, with responsibility devolved without the powers or funding to truly deliver. There’s got to be enough confidence in and support for local authorities and combined authorities for them to succeed for and with the people they serve. And not turn back because things feel different on a new path. Changing how we shape and deliver public services isn’t always easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do to get to better outcomes for people, place and planet.

Political leadership is just as important as organisational and operational leadership for this agenda, and I’d want as many councillors, MPs and candidates as possible – across political parties – to feel more confident in supporting and using community-powered approaches so that this need, opportunity and moment can be met.

What should Westminster and Whitehall do to feel confident and prepare for this shift?

There’s something about building readiness and real understanding. What skills are there across the political leadership? Where are the gaps? Where are the skills and strengths across civil service? Where are the gaps? And having a plan to be able to make sure that those individuals have that confidence and capability that they need to make the decisions and seize the opportunities of this agenda.

Community power approaches are not part of a typical civil service training programme.

Community power approaches are not part of a typical civil service training programme. The departments where powers may be further devolved from, for example DLUHC, should have the time to be able to get to know some of these approaches, to hear from expert practitioners and from members of communities. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. A sensible approach would be: where can we learn best practice? What are those case studies from local government? Where are brilliant examples from regional authorities, combined authorities and devolved national governments who are looking at this agenda? Where is this working well in other countries?

A key area of TPX’s work is around technology. What are your thoughts on the use of AI in local government? What sort of opportunities are out there, and are councils making the most of them?

AI is here, and it is here to stay. I think that within all levels of government and community organisations it is really important to embrace that reality. Trying to stay on top of everything is tough but I think being on the front foot with AI is really important. There are, of course, challenges around it. But there are huge opportunities too. 

This next digital age will hopefully mean that people working in our public services, particularly on the frontline, can spend more time with the people they’re trying to support. It should help remove some bureaucracy, it should mean that paperwork can be done more efficiently, and that record keeping is less of a burden. This should mean that people can go about doing what they love, and what got them into this work in the first place, and get to spend more time helping change lives.

TPX is co-hosting an event with us on the 14th of September as a follow-up to Stronger Things. Could you tell us a bit more about what it will cover and why people should attend?

The event will pick up where this conversation ends, around how to get started with community power, or how to deepen your work. We’ll be sharing more routes to either start or progress these approaches, along with some more case studies and examples from around the country.

Really, it’s about building more capability and confidence. It’s always really great when people are together and sharing their experiences across councils. It’s very much open to everybody at any experience level, you do not need to be an advanced practitioner, and you will meet like-minded people who care about the community power agenda. I’m really looking forward to it.

TPXimpact was a lead partner in delivering Stronger Things 2023. This Thursday, 14th September, they are hosting a follow-up event: Stronger Things: Community Power – Making it Real. Sign up here.

Claire Hazelgrove is Community & Political Engagement Director at TPXimpact. She is also standing as Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Filton and Bradley Stoke at the next election. 

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