Why councils should back the new call for a community power act

January 17, 2022  

A new campaign seeks support for a route to decentralisation that is more meaningful and radical than the government’s, writes Adam Lent

This article first appeared in the Local Government Chronicle.

Cumbersome, divisive, ineffectual. Everyone knows that devolution has been mostly a flop. The reason is pretty obvious: central government does not really like the idea.

With no hint of irony, Westminster and Whitehall believe they are far more trustworthy guardians of the resources and powers of the state than councils. The result: councils expected to jump through endless, energy-sapping hoops to prove to their overlords that they are good enough to be handed a few morsels of extra responsibility and money. Sadly, the next chapter in this sorry tale, the levelling up white paper, looks very likely to continue this tried, tested and failed approach.

And yet the reasons for a serious shot at devolution have never been stronger. The pandemic has shown how important and effective local councils can be and, by contrast, how ineffective central government often is. Equally, the awesome challenges we face in this new era of seemingly permanent crisis require a resilience, responsiveness and collaborative effort that can only be generated locally.

So it is exciting to see a new grassroots campaign emerge called We’re Right Here demanding decentralisation of powers in the form of a community power act. Backed by a coalition of national organisations but led by community activists, the campaign has the potential to shake up the devolution agenda in two crucial ways.

Mobilising local communities

Firstly, it proposes that a very different quid pro quo is placed at the heart of the devolution process. We’re Right Here calls for powers and funds to be devolved in return for councils developing thoroughgoing plans to become fully community powered organisations. In short, transforming into outward facing, collaborative organisations that use their new powers and funds to mobilise their local communities to address the challenges ahead and build a more resilient, hopeful future.

This is not necessarily an easy transformation to make but it is undoubtedly an impactful one. It dispenses with all the distracting, divisive restructuring that comes with the current approach and instead focuses on shifting organisational cultures and building the trusting, vibrant relationships with communities which an increasing number of councils recognise as the most meaningful route to genuine change. This would also allow for a much more comprehensive devolution settlement with a clear route for all councils to secure greater powers and funds rather than the current byzantine, bespoke deal-making process.

Secondly, We’re Right Here has the potential to fundamentally change the terms of the devolution debate. To date, that debate has been highly technocratic and mostly of interest only to Westminster thinktanks, Whitehall departments and councils themselves. As such, this is a policy space very much controlled by central government.

This new campaign could wrestle that control away and place it on the hands of communities themselves. If successful, that means a far harder-to-resist pressure from below, particularly given that many of the community activists behind the campaign come from the very ‘red wall’ areas that both main parties are so keen to secure at the next election. But it also means devolution as a solution not to technocratic concerns but to the fundamental – and far more inspirational – principle of local communities’ right to have a real say over the decisions that affect their lives. Let’s call it the ‘take back control’ principle!

Local government allies

Of course, We’re Right Here is very new. It has got off to a good start with an impressive array of backers, a powerful set of community leaders directing it, a rapidly growing online presence and an initial launch event that attracted over 200 participants. But the road between campaign launch and parliamentary success is winding and uncertain. Their cause would be vastly strengthened if it were to find allies within local government. And such an alliance makes sense. Councils tired of playing Whitehall’s devolution game that promises so much and delivers so little should get behind the call for a community power act as a far more meaningful and radical route to decentralisation.

What exactly that alliance could look like needs debate. But possibilities could include formally endorsing We’re Right Here, passing a council motion calling for a community power act or even getting ahead of the game and co-producing that community powered plan with local residents and partners.

Whatever its form though, We’re Right Here and its call for a community power act feels timely and worthy of support. It’s early days but as the launch event revealed it seems to be tapping a seam of mounting popular anger and frustration with a centralised system. A new movement for change might just be emerging out of the current perma-crisis and councils would do well to jump aboard.

Find out more about the We’re Right Here campaign

Join our mailing list