Political reset: Why it’s high time for a Community Power Act
Following the launch of the We’re Right Here campaign, Adam Lent explains why we’ve joined the drive to enshrine the rights of communities in law.
Local communities are routinely ignored, controlled, infantilised and dismissed.
In this hyper-centralised and unequal country of ours, communities have an awful lot done to them but rarely do those with vast political and economic power feel the pressure or obligation to do anything with them.
Think of the way planning law puts power in the hands of developers and officials rather than in the hands of the communities who have to live with the decisions on where and how building-work is completed.
Or how public services that so deeply affect the health and well-being of local communities are shaped and led by people based in Whitehall or Westminster who know literally nothing about the unique characteristics or needs of those communities.
Consider the way decisions taken by the leaders of big businesses can fundamentally alter the prospects for whole places. The way high streets or town centres were first turned into dull, uniform clones by the arrival of the chains and out-of-town supermarkets and are now at risk of disappearing altogether as investors lose interest.
And, most scandalously, how whole communities have been left to sink into deprivation and despair for decades as large employers moved operations overseas in the 1980s and 1990s.
Even the latest attempt to address this, the levelling-up programme, is still about doing to rather than with, with money handed down from on high to fund shiny projects with little meaningful attempt to find out what those communities actually want or need to make their lives better.
The cost of centralisation
This is a disastrous state of affairs. It saps the legitimacy of our democracy leaving the door open for dishonest, self-interested populists to win support. It robs millions of the self-esteem that comes with knowing your community has a future.
And it means decisions are taken at the centre of government by people who cannot possibly understand the enormously complex way they will impact different communities. The result is bad decisions with masses of unforeseen consequences.
This anti-community system is a profound abuse of the democratic ideal, supposedly at the heart of British society, that people should have a say over the decisions that affect their lives.
The centralisation of our politics and economics means that privileged cliques take huge decisions that will never affect them but will profoundly impact thousands of communities.
Consider two momentous announcements in just the last week or so: the rules on financial support for those in need of social care and on transport in the North.
Decisions that will affect the prospects and well-being of communities across the whole country, but those communities were never asked what they thought. They never had a chance to weigh the options. There was never any attempt to build a consensus. Just sudden decisions taken in 10 Downing Street seemingly overnight and then rammed through the House of Commons.
Equally, those who are actually on the ground in communities working to generate positive change find themselves hindered and undermined at every turn.
These people and the community groups they lead should be the vanguard of our nation’s effort to respond to this era of mounting crises. It is they who have the knowledge and drive to build the resilient and vibrant communities we desperately need to meet recurrent public health, economic and environmental challenges. And in the face of those challenges, they are the ones who can keep hope, positivity and even joy alive.
But with so much power and money locked up in Westminster and the City of London and with a top-down, dismissive mind-set still so prevalent in the public sector, they are repeatedly sidelined rather than empowered.
Time for a Community Power Act
Things clearly need to change and fast. We need a major piece of legislation that can reset our failing system, unlock the energies present in our local communities and, most importantly, give those communities the democratic say and involvement that is theirs by right.
- It would enshrine the rights of local communities to self-determination meaning decisions would be taken at the most local level possible.
- It would require councils to develop a ‘community covenant’ – a meaningful plan for how local communities are involved in the decisions and services that affect their lives. In return, major power and funds would be rapidly devolved from Westminster to those councils working closely with their communities.
- It would establish a powerful, independent community power commissioner to make sure the Community Power Act happens and that government departments don’t seek to evade the legislation.
It is well past time for such landmark legislation. For too long local communities have tolerated marginalisation, deprivation and powerlessness. It is a situation that strips communities of their rights and leaves Britain weaker when it needs all the strength it can get.
We’re Right Here and the Community Power Act are the best hope to renew our democracy, revive hope and meet the challenges of the future head on.
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