Communities are being failed. It’s time to enshrine their rights.

October 15, 2020   By Adam Lent

The Government’s centralised response and lethal failures on Covid mean it’s time to acknowledge that local communities have rights that should be enshrined in law.

Demands for rights to be respected have nearly always arisen when those rights have been most abused. One of England’s earliest and most iconic rights rebellion – the barons’ uprising that resulted in Magna Carta – was inspired by an overbearing King. The demands for democratic rights in early nineteenth century Britain were, in part, a reaction against the restrictive laws passed by Governments fearful of revolution. Campaigners for women’s and gay rights in the 1960s and 1970s were spurred on by the oppressive social conservatism of the post-war period. And Scotland and Wales’ big push for greater rights to self-determination in the 1990s was inspired by a high-handed Government in Westminster that never enjoyed majority support in those countries.

Now we are in such a moment again – or, at least, we should be. 

Highly centralised and without any concession to engagement, the pandemic response has been a disaster for local communities. Central Government’s determination to control everything has not only led to one of the highest per-capita death rates in the world but has also meant that important differences between local communities have been ignored.

it is now time to recognise that what we are experiencing is not simply weak policy but the systematic abuse of community rights 

Most notably, Covid-19 lockdown and shielding restrictions were initially eased largely uniformly across the country. This was despite the number of cases per thousand population in different towns and cities varying very substantially. The Government’s very gradual recognition of the unavoidable need for a more localised response both to lockdown easing, the reintroduction of restrictions and wider issues of the pandemic response has been confused, grudging and repeatedly prone to bouts of autocratic decision-making from the centre.

The Government’s mishandling of the pandemic response is now widely characterised as the consequence of poor decisions and control freakery. However, the results have been so egregious that it is now time to recognise that what we are experiencing is not simply weak policy but the systematic abuse of community rights. An abuse that is merely a recent accentuation of a lower profile neglect of those rights that has been ongoing for decades in this country.

The term and concept of community rights is not one that is common in the UK. So, just as other notions of rights were developed at the point of their heightened abuse, I want to spend the rest of this piece detailing why community rights is important as an idea and what those rights might look like before returning to the current moment.

We are a deeply social species. We find meaning and fulfillment as part of a group. More fundamentally, we grow, work and play as members of families, teams, associations, clubs and so on. A very great part of this happens locally. Millions work, socialise and age entirely within their own patch. Even those who work away from home or have dispersed families still have deep roots and interdependencies in the area where they live relying on local public services, using local amenities and often involved in local sporting, cultural and voluntary activities.

“when our local communities are disrupted, marginalised or weakened, our very humanity is damaged”

So, unsurprisingly when our local communities are disrupted, marginalised or weakened, our very humanity is damaged. In extreme cases this can lead to generations facing painful turmoil as has happened countless times with indigenous peoples. But even when local communities face less calamitous degradation, the scars can run deep into our human sense of self and agency.

Take, for example, the way numerous places have faced decades of deprivation following the decline of manufacturing in the UK since the 1970s. The consequences of this have been well-charted: rising unemployment, ill-health, crime and family breakdown. This is a blight that has affected millions of people over the years. But the community – not just the individuals who make it up – has also been a victim. Deeply meaningful things have been damaged that can only be found in the complex, multiple linkages between people that define a place. A sense of pride in a home-town. A feeling of a neighbourhood in control of its own destiny. A high street or market square that breathes confidence and hope for the future.

So, if the definition of a right is something inalienable that we are deemed morally and legally to possess by virtue of our humanity then I would argue it is impossible to ignore the various rights of communities that allow those communities to flourish. They are, however, widely ignored. 

We pride ourselves as a liberal democracy on our respect for rights. In particular, we pride ourselves on the protections offered to the rights of the individual in a way that is absent in authoritarian systems. But rights are applied much more widely, incorporating groups as well as individuals. In recent decades, we have accepted that minority groups as a whole, not just their individual members, have a right to be respected, heard and free to pursue their communal life. And a brief look at the list of cases before the UK Supreme Court reveals that many organisations, such as private companies, public sector bodies, charities and government departments are very active in asserting and defending their rights under law. There is even an increasingly influential movement across the world to enshrine the rights of natural phenomena such as species, rivers, mountains and ecosystems in law.

But the local community is the absent guest in this festival of rights. As a result, community has a junior role in our discourse. We think it’s important. We like it as an ideal. We worry about the decline of places and community spirit. But better communities is always an aspiration not a pressing imperative. Unlike those individuals and organisations with rights, local communities don’t get to demand respect, equality and freedom. They literally don’t get their day in court to challenge the rich and powerful with the simple force of that liberal idea: that they possess certain rights that no-one, no matter how influential, should be allowed to undermine.

The chief result of this in the UK is the way power is concentrated in central government and large corporations rather than communities. Matters as fundamental to the flourishing and life of local places such as jobs, education, skills, and healthcare are largely determined by decisions taken outside the communities they affect.

“the local community is the absent guest in this festival of rights”

And with no political language or legal process to challenge this state of affairs, centralisation has only intensified in recent decades as the powers of local government and decision-makers have been transferred to central government, quangos or to private corporations. It is a process still underway. The Government is now transferring significant planning powers from local authorities to central government, actively exploring doing the same with social care provision and, in maybe the most extreme example, will completely override local planning approval or community sentiment to allow major construction projects necessitated by Brexit

These moves in the middle of a pandemic and profound economic crisis speaks to a centralising mania that has gripped Whitehall for decades. Inevitably, the brief attempt to reverse this during the Coalition Government, was conducted in a cumbersome, technocratic and top-down fashion that delivered little by way of significant devolution of powers and predictably stalled after a few years of painfully slow change. New plans for devolution recently floated by the current Government have designed in exactly the same flaws.

But even where some measure of local self-determination remains, the power is exercised with little or no respect for community rights. Decisions are taken by committees buried deep within public and private sector bodies often with no serious engagement with the communities affected by them. Public services are delivered in ways that more often than not suits the mindset and imperatives of the institution rather than the self-identified needs and priorities of a community. 

The result, as we can see, are communities that have been left to languish in deprivation for decades. Communities that have no politically powerful language or legal course available to challenge public and private bodies that damage their environment, degrade their public services, exploit their resources, weaken their local economies or simply deny them some basic measure of self-determination.  

In short, we expect local communities to put up with a subservience and dependence we would never tolerate for ourselves as a nation and which we long ago rejected for many other groups in society.

This raises the question of what the rights of communities actually are. This needs to be the subject of much wider consideration and debate. But at its most basic, I think local communities can be said to possess the right:

  • to a significant degree of self-governance 
  • to a local economy that supports a decent standard of living 
  • to play a central role in the design and delivery of the public services it receives
  • to decide on the use of locally generated wealth and local assets 
  • to a health-sustaining local environment
  • to a vibrant civil society
  • to make decisions in a way that promotes community cohesion and consensus
  • to protect these rights in court.

If a set of rights such as these were codified in law, their potential to revolutionise the way decisions are taken and even our society and economy is structured could well be profound. Most obviously, it would make the centralisation of political power in Westminster and Whitehall unsustainable and subject to legal challenge. But it would also undermine the concentration of decision-making power within local institutions which refuse to engage with the communities they claim to represent. Ultimately, we would see government decisions and public service delivery reshaped over time to place community engagement, community priorities and community collaboration at their heart.

More fundamentally, the legal recognition of community rights would help reframe our society and economy. Instead of domination by the twin forces of the central state and multinational corporations, we would gradually see the assertion of the local and the communal as an important shaper of the world we live in. There is no question of the local community eclipsing the state and business but, over time, we would see a rebalancing, with local communities growing in confidence and power to assert their rights in the face of those two behemoths.  We would hopefully arrive at a place ultimately where partnership between local community and state and business in the shaping of a place ceases to be simply a ‘nice-to-have’  and instead becomes a fundamental feature of the way our society and economy runs. 

As a result, many abuses that are currently run-of-the mill would become impossible. Companies damaging local communities through pollution, poor working conditions and unscrupulous marketing practices. Government policies forcing communities into poverty. Political groups deliberately seeking to promote division and hatred in a local area. 

“empowering communities is about something profound: respecting the fundamentally important human need to live in self-determined and life-sustaining communities and places” 

Other more positive practices would flourish. Local communities leading big public and private sector decisions rather than consulted as an afterthought or cut out entirely. Serious efforts by those in power to defend civil society from its erosion by the market or state and to ensure that the right of every community to decent work is respected rather than merely the stuff of political rhetoric. Properly funded efforts to create the social and environmental conditions that keep communities healthy rather than simply treating them when they get sick.

None of this would happen immediately or straightforwardly. Nor would there be any precise point in the future when we might be able to say that all local communities now have their full complement of rights – as we know from history and the present, there is always more to do to protect and extend rights. But over time, possibly quite a long time, discourse and practices would shift in a way that significantly reduces the neglect, degradation and exploitation of the rights that keep local communities happy, healthy and productive.

Most importantly, however, local communities would simply have the respect and freedom they are due as vitally important determinants of human flourishing. Just as we recognise that individual rights deserve respect even when the outcomes are negative because those rights are fundamental to human dignity and meaning, so we should feel the same about local communities. In short, it would be widely recognised and accepted that communities determining their own future is a right not a privilege that can be granted or removed at whim by powerful state or corporate forces.

Since the publication of New Local’s The Community Paradigm in February 2019, there has been growing discussion and activity within the public sector inspired by the idea of community power – the notion that public services should be increasingly led by and delivered in collaboration with communities. Much of that discussion and activity has happened on the front-line of services and amongst independent groups working with communities and public sector organisations. The idea is also beginning to gain attention from national politicians. 

It seems to me that community rights is both a deepening and broadening of this community power agenda. 

It deepens because while community power has tended to have a utilitarian reasoning behind it – i.e. it will enhance a shift to preventative public services, improve democratic legitimacy etc – community rights reveals that empowering communities is about something even more profound: respecting the fundamentally important human need to live in self-determined and life-sustaining communities and places. 

And it broadens because a community rights perspective shows that community power is about far more than how public services are delivered or how civil society operates – important as those are – it is about a vision of a more balanced society and economy where communities have a right to a meaningful say in their own future and the country’s future alongside the state and business.

A few months ago I wrote about the need for a Community Power Act. For the reasons above, I now believe a piece of legislation that would codify and guarantee community rights and offer communities recourse to the courts should they feel their rights have been abused would be a necessary partner to that original idea. Whereas a community power act would make the shifting of power from institutions to communities a matter of public sector policy, a community rights act would enshrine community power in the discourse, behaviours and legal processes of many different areas of life – private and public – and would ultimately be driven by bottom-up activism as well as top-down shifts in behaviour. 

How distinct would the Government’s response to Covid have been had something like a community rights act been in place and, maybe just as importantly, the concept of community rights was widely accepted and ingrained in our political discourse and culture? My sense is things would have been very different.

From the start, the Coronavirus Act would have been seen for the central government power grab it was, trampling over community rights in the name of responding to a crisis. Instead, it would have been expected that local communities or at least their local institutions would have to have been consulted and engaged in the big decisions. The desperately tragic failures that have been driven by central government ignorance – wilful or otherwise – of issues such as the risks of infection in care homes, the vital role of local expertise in test and trace, the lack of PPE would not have arisen. Equally, the hopeless attempts to impose a nationally uniform easing of lockdown on areas at very different stages of the pandemic mentioned above would be more vigorously resisted not just as terribly poor policy but as a deeply grave attack on community rights.

“The right of communities to decide how they would like to recover as we finally emerge from the pandemic are completely sidelined.”

Recovery plans would also be different. Currently we have to endure big announcements of major economic interventions from the Government designed to secure glory and support for national politicians. The right of communities to decide how they would like to recover and how to ensure their rights to a healthy, sustainable and inclusive place and local economy as we finally emerge from the pandemic are completely sidelined. The huge differential impact multi-billion pound programmes might have in one area compared to another do not seriously interest decision-makers in Downing Street; and those that are interested – local communities themselves – have no power to develop and implement those programmes for themselves. In a world alert to community rights, these nationally designed and imposed recovery plans would be seen for the abuse they are.

Speak to anyone who has been involved in the early stages of a fight for rights and they will tell you that the most important first step is getting the powerless rather than the powerful to recognise their rights. Until the abuse or neglect a person or group faces are seen through the lens of rights, they tend to remain passive in the face of their plight. So much of what the womens, gay and civil rights movements did in the 1960s and 1970s was about making those facing discrimination, marginalisation and control aware that they had rights and that they had to stand up and fight for them – that they did not simply have to accept their lot nor wait for someone else to deliver them from their oppression.

This is precisely the point we are at with community rights. Local communities across the country have been ignored and neglected for decades but most quietly tolerate their mistreatment even if for some that has meant year after grinding year of joblessness and decline. A larger number have simply lived with air pollution, withering town centres, gentrification and a host of other ‘trends’ over which they supposedly have no control. These communities have been inculcated into a worldview that sees such change as inevitable. Our local communities now accept overwhelmingly that change is done to them not by them. 

Even when decentralisation of power is on the agenda, it is done by central government officials talking behind closed doors to local government officials handing down new arrangements from on high to supposedly bring about a local economic renaissance passively accepted by grateful communities.

Covid must be the point when this changes. It must be the catalyst for the flowering of a new awareness of community rights amongst communities themselves. There can be no more auspicious moment than when the neglect and abuse of community rights has led to unnecessary death. There can be no more urgent imperative than when a vision of recovery designed by people in Westminster and Whitehall is being foisted on thousands of communities across the country with no engagement or deliberation. 

It is time for local communities to claim the rights denied them for far too long.

The notion of community rights inevitably raises both questions and objections. Rather than interrupt the flow of the main argument above, I will briefly identify and respond to some of them here.

1.Are local communities defined sufficiently to allow them to possess rights and a legal personality?

Fortunately, this question has already been settled to a considerable extent in English law through the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and the Localism Act 2011. The former provided a process by which local areas could effectively incorporate themselves as ‘neighbourhood forums’ for the purpose of being involved in planning decisions. The latter went further and allowed ‘neighbourhood forums’ to be established in order to claim some ‘rights’ granted to local areas including the right to express an interest in running a local public service and the right to bid to buy a local asset such as a library. Those rights are obviously far more limited than those proposed in this essay but they do provide the legal basis and process by which a local community could place themselves on a firm enough footing to protect their rights in court. 

Of course, the main goal of enshrining community rights in law is not to require every conceivable local community to have to formally incorporate themselves to secure their rights. The desired outcome is a shift in the behaviour of the state, business and other powerful institutions so that respect for community rights is part and parcel of decision-making and the implementation of those decisions. It will be where that respect is breached that incorporated local communities might seek legal redress – a process that should, over time, establish precedent and hopefully chalk up legal victories which will make such breaches a far less regular occurrence.

2. Could community rights exacerbate inequalities?

This question speaks to two separate concerns. 

The first is that local communities will use the discourse, and possibly the legal power afforded them by rights, to implement measures which will deny equal rights to certain individuals or groups within their community. For example, a local community introducing sexist, racist or homophobic measures.

The initial thing to say in response to this concern is that community rights, as conceived in this paper at least, are about ensuring communities have rights to protect themselves against encroachments by larger, more powerful bodies external to the community. They are not about providing communities with rights to control individuals who live within them. In this sense, community rights as detailed here are essentially what Will Kymlicka has called “outward facing” rather than “inward facing” group rights.

However, this formulation while helpful is far from a full resolution. The line between outward facing and inward facing group rights is unclear. What are we to say, for example, to a local community claiming their outward-facing community right to self-governance is being denied if a national government forces them to allow equal marriage between people of the same sex?

Better, I think, to be clear that there are certain fundamental human and civil rights that all communities as well as all individuals and organisations are required to respect and which cannot be trumped by any other right. Just as it is now established in international law that the right to national self-determination does not include the right to oppress a minority group within a nation’s boundaries, so there would be certain rights legislated for at national level that no local community would be able to breach. This is already the case, for example, with all public and private institutions in relation to the Equality Act 2010.

The second concern is that community rights are more likely to be exercised by wealthier communities who have greater financial resources and the professional skills to be able to do so. The outcome of this is that those wealthier communities will then, over time, gain even greater political, economic and social benefits than poorer communities. And, even more worryingly, may secure these benefits at the expense of poorer communities: so, for example, a wealthy community able to resist the location of an undesirable facility such as a waste dump by invoking their community rights would simply displace that facility to a poorer area less able to invoke their rights.

This point is not, in reality, an objection to the principle of community rights but to how it might be implemented. If we genuinely believe in the idea that local communities have a range of rights currently breached then those rights should naturally be respected and the breach remedied. If then one group makes use of those rights more effectively, that is a matter that needs addressing through various means not the wholesale denial of the rights. 

For example, an argument could be made that the growth of women’s rights in recent decades has been of greater advantage to wealthier than poorer women and indeed may have done so at the expense of poorer women who have been forced into low paying, insecure work such as cleaning and childcare roles. However, it would be perverse to argue that on that basis women’s rights as a whole should be rescinded. The solution is clearly to find ways to extend the rights enjoyed by wealthier women to poorer women.

In addition, community rights as conceived here do not extend solely to the ability of communities to exert influence over specific decisions that may affect them. They also place a strong obligation on those with power to respect the rights of communities to a local economy that supports a decent standard of living and to decide on the use of locally generated wealth and local assets. These rights are clearly breached to a far greater extent in poorer than wealthier communities. Should they become part of our political discourse and enshrined in law then it seems highly likely that they would work more actively in favour of greater equality rather than less.

3. Would community rights weaken local institutions?

There clearly is a well-established dislike of local democracy and local institutions within Whitehall. Given this, it is conceivable that a government that was so minded, might turn community rights against councils and other public sector bodies arguing that empowering communities requires the weakening of local institutions.  Under such an approach, an increasing range of responsibilities and resources might flow directly from central government to community groups bypassing councils. However, this would be a gross distortion of a community rights agenda.

Just as with national rights, community rights flourish within the context of strong, democratic institutions. The existence of a democratic space within which communities can take collective decisions and where those decisions can be acted upon is clearly central to the fundamental right of community self-determination. As such, community rights are constantly undermined by the way local councils have been repeatedly stripped of responsibilities not enhanced. 

Thus, the first act to be undertaken by any government that genuinely wants to respect community rights is to launch an ambitious programme of decentralisation and transfer of powers and resources to local councils.  

However, as mentioned in the main body of this essay, the way councils and other public sector bodies operate is often itself disrespectful of community rights with decisions taken and services delivered in a way that marginalises community voice and involvement. The growing interest in community power models has seen some councils embrace new community-led ways of decision-making and delivery which begins to remedy the situation but clearly this needs to become a wave of change rather than the ripple it is today.

Ultimately therefore, a key route to genuine respect for community rights is the significant devolution of power and resource to councils which themselves are transformed and governed by respect for the rights of the communities that constitute the areas they administer.

4. Could community rights make it harder to make decisions?

The concern implied by this question is that decisions which will lead to a community facing a loss – such as the building of a waste facility on green space or the closure of a transport hub – would become extremely difficult as local communities invoke their rights and potentially defend those in court.

This, however, is not an argument against community rights but against the very notion of rights themselves. Rights deliberately make decisions and their implementation by the powerful difficult. The very wide variety of organisational and individual rights currently recognised in the UK require a constant and complex navigation by the powerful to get their way. They do that through persuasion, negotiation and bargaining. Where that does not work, it is often left to the courts or semi-judicial bodies to make a ruling. The alternative to that is, of course, authoritarianism.

The key argument for community rights is that currently in the process of persuasion, negotiation and bargaining resulting from a complex rights framework, local communities are a lesser player because they are not able to press the rights that are justifiably theirs. 

Community rights may well make decisions more difficult but rightly so. It is precisely that greater difficulty that would make decisions more balanced with the rights of the state and of business balanced more effectively by the rights of communities. They would also, over time, make decisions more just. How much less pollution, unemployment and poverty might we have had over the years if those in power had been required to come up with solutions which did not so easily impose pollution, unemployment and poverty on the local communities in their care.

5. Can the benefits of community rights be secured by a stronger assertion of individual rights?

Some might argue that all of the community rights enumerated in the essay could easily be reformulated as individual rights: a right to a job, to a healthy environment, to have a say in decisions and so on. They may then go on to argue that all the benefits associated with community rights could be secured by a stronger assertion of those individual rights.

This argument is, of course, not a purely neutral, technical claim. Those who would argue this, do so because they are suspicious of group rights. In some extreme cases, they would deny that groups can possess any rights at all. 

It is a position that springs from a fundamentally different view of human nature than that which underpins community rights. It sees humans only able to achieve true fulfillment and flourishing as individuals free of the constraints of the collective.

It is a perspective that seems to me fundamentally misconceived. I believe the evidence that humans require a balance of individual agency and collective association to flourish is overwhelming. There also seems to me abundant evidence that individual freedom is only truly secured when communities have the power to protect those freedoms; atomised individuals, ironically, lack the necessary strength and influence to stand up to overbearing institutions such as the state and corporations. Indeed, every individual right has only been secured through intensive collective action at some point in history and is often only defended by further collective action.

So, the notion that community rights could be just as well secured by individual rights fundamentally fails to recognise that community rights are about protecting the flourishing of communities not just individuals because we are, at heart, a social species; and because, without those communities, we are weaker in defence of the very individual rights their proponents so treasure.

Many thanks to the team at New Local for their help in formulating the ideas in this essay and particular thanks to the following for their comments on earlier drafts: Vidhya Alakeson, Tony Armstrong, Simon Kaye, Katy Oglethorpe and Jessica Studdert. The views expressed here are mine alone.

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