Don’t underestimate communities – support them to take control

February 24, 2020   By Katy Oglethorpe
A mural in Lawrence Weston, Bristol, where the community and council are working together to improve the local area. With founder Mark Pepper.

Head of Communications Katy Oglethorpe responds to the Centre for Local Economic Strategies’ critique of the Community Paradigm , by arguing that communities – working in partnership with government – are our best hope for sustainable public services and improved wellbeing.

One year after its publication, it’s a source of pride for us that the ideas expressed in NLGN’s Community Paradigm are still catalysing a much-needed debate about the future of public services in the UK. Meanwhile, we’re seeing the blossoming of local power movements, as people increase their influence over the places they live, often in partnership with forward-thinking local authorities.

The impact of this empowerment can be felt in places like Fleetwood, Lancashire, where a rise in community groups – led by a local GP – has correlated with a dramatic drop in visitors to A&E. And in Essex, where residents with first-hand experience are working with the council to begin to lead commissioning all local drug and alcohol services.

Still, there are detractors – the argument that power and resources should be shifted away from central government and towards citizens will be frightening for free-market devotees and state control loyalists alike, as it interrupts the tussle between both and ushers in a new player – the community.

The latest argument from the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) is a practical, rather than ethical, objective to the paradigm. After all, CLES supports community power and helped to spearhead the Community Wealth Building movement that has been a model of neighbourhood-led transformation. Despite framing its response as a provocation, its definition of new municipalism fits easily with the terms of the Community Paradigm.

However, while CLES sees a place for communities in the private sector, it argues that public services, particularly ones degraded by austerity, are unfit for community participation. Namely, that the government would be passing the buck to a population too downbeat and ill-equipped to do anything meaningful with its new powers.

Part of this makes a crucial point – a decade of austerity has degraded public services and put an unacceptable strain on local authorities. It would be idealistic to the point of being irresponsible to expect community members to take immediate sole responsibility for fixing things. Rather, we believe in re-imagining the role of the community – and therefore of national and local government – to achieve a fairer balance of power between state and citizen, to empower public servant and private citizen to work together to build positive change.

What makes this so is different from the Big Society-style arguments that came before are two vital distinctions. First, the Community Paradigm requires the state to cede some of its own power (we live in one of the most over-centralised country in the developed world , after all), and importantly it requires it to match power with resources. As CLES indicates, for any power shift to be sustainable and impactful, it must be properly financed.

A strange side-effect of a decade of cuts has been that many local authorities have been driven to explore new ways of working – to lessen the burden on their public services by finding ways to involve the skills, talent and energy all around them – namely those of their own residents. The success of some of these initiatives, in places from Wigan to Barking, is enough to disprove the idea that community members somehow cannot handle making such important decisions. When people are resourced, informed and trusted, they have not only the capabilities to achieve change, but they want to help improve the services they rely on and the neighbourhood in which they live.

On both sides, there is nothing of what CLES calls “deeply unfortunate” about these new ways of working. From councils in our network, we hear about greater connections with residents, building better services, and a move towards prevention – the benefits of which will only be truly felt as time goes on. At a basic, human level, engaging with other people and feeling a sense of pride and ownership is life-affirming. This applies to professionals and service users alike – or, in short, to all citizens.

So achieving community power should be a partnership. As we point out in the Community Paradigm, the balance of responsibility within that partnership would depend on precise circumstances. Some public services might become independent from the state, while others might keep a more, or less, formal relationship with government. Change in control would be achieved incrementally, with an absolute focus on supporting both communities, and the local councils that are best placed to back local change.

To suggest, as CLES does, that rather than shift power, we should focus our energies on convincing the state to invest more, feels short-sighted. Even if today’s government might invest in public services to the extent that we would like, tomorrow’s might not. And neither might invest in ways that local places actually want and need. A case of, thanks for funding this 10,001st spoon, but I was really after a knife.

While so much power continues to lie at state-level, we cannot ensure positive change that outlives the latest prime minister. It is key to create a sustainable framework for crucial public services that can keep functioning irrespective of one or another government’s whims. People are crying out for a more fundamental shift in how they relate with each other and the place in which they live – whether they’ve heard the term ‘Community Paradigm’ or not.

Nobody said that achieving this kind of radical change would be easy – and NLGN is working building an evidence base, tools, and policy mechanisms to help support those making it happen. But the hardest part of all might be extracting ourselves from the old faith in a higher, more competent power to rescue us – whether that is markets or the state.

This article was originally published in the Local Government Chronicle on 21 February.

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