Community-powered Conservatism: 3 ideas set to sweep government

October 6, 2021  

Community power hit the political mainstream on Sunday, as Michael Gove used one of his first platforms as Secretary of State to endorse the idea of putting people in charge of local services and social infrastructure.

He was presenting Trusting the People, a new report published by New Local and the New Social Covenant Unit, and co-signed by 10 Tory MPs, all of whom are part of the 2019 intake.

The paper argues that community power needs to be a central part of the government’s levelling up ambitions. It offers examples from Labour and Tory-run areas where locally led initiatives are helping create better places to live, with richer social infrastructure and stronger public services.

Gove said he and others in government were “incredibly enthusiastic” about a community-led approach, reflecting:  “If we look at political thinkers engaging with big questions at the moment – they are all in this territory.”

But as well as rhetoric, Trusting the People holds concrete – and new – ideas of how to unlock community power and reap its benefits.

Here are three of these ideas:  

‘Double devolution’ (with community-power caveats)

“Westminster cannot hope to administer a community-powered future from the centre.”

The paper calls not only for devolution – with power transferred from Whitehall to local government, but for ‘double devolution’, meaning councils would in turn share power with their residents.

Underpinning this would be ‘Community Covenants’, where councils would co-design power-sharing pledges with local communities as a condition for increased powers.  These would be resonant of City Deals, and inspired by approaches like the Wigan Deal.

Whitehall’s job will be to monitor these agreements and ensure that they are being implemented, with funding consequences otherwise. Local people would also have the power to challenge the covenants’ application.

A ‘Community Power Academy’ would help support and upskill local government officers – preparing them for this new way of working. New Local’s events team are primed.

Reward companies that share control

“We need to remodel our economic institutions to put the values of ordinary people, rather than the abstract forces of finance, at the centre of decision making”

Trusting the People puts forward a strong case of why employee-owned and socially-motivated businesses are not only more inclusive – but more profitable and innovative too.

“We need our businesses to act like citizens,” argues the paper. It suggests a reform of the Companies Act to include a “stronger commitment to social and environmental purpose”.

The government should also empower business owners to resist hostile, extractive takeovers, and should consider incentives like lower tax for companies that share wealth and control with their staff.

Hand over purse strings to level up

“We have not made any progress to levelling up through a state-driven approach.”

At the core of community-powered Conservatism is giving people direct control over funding and enabling them to develop the solutions that work for their own places.

This means an end to top-down funding decisions to deliver the up agenda. Instead the MPs call for more use of participatory budgeting, and the improvement of schemes like Community Asset Transfers and the Community Right to Bid – making these more long-term, and empowering communities to access them.

But it’s not just about the money. The paper points to research that the most left-behind areas also have fewer community spaces, cultural assets, sports and leisure facilities and green spaces. The government needs to recognise the value of our shattered social infrastructure, and invest in the local leaders who help sustain it.  

You can read the full Trusting the People: A case for community-powered Conservatism pamphlet here.

New Local is an independent think tank, and this is the first in a series of political papers with all major parties. 

Photo by Mangopear creative on Unsplash

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