Labour’s way forward in office? Community power
Our public finances are in crisis. The next government will need to focus on making better use of existing money if it is to ensure better outcomes for local neighbourhoods. Jessica Studdert introduces A Labour Vision for Community Power – an ambitious agenda for action driven by the principles of participation, prevention and devolution, and dispels some myths standing in its way.
The challenges facing our country are enormous, but our politics can sometimes feel very small in response. While currently in the midst of a long-drawn out pre-election silly season, the next Parliament will have to get serious quick.
Our public services are in crisis, but broken national finances mean there is no more money to spend on them. Big complex challenges like inequality and climate change are proving beyond the ability of any single institution to resolve. And rising levels of alienation and mistrust of those in power make it harder to secure legitimacy for the levels of change we need.
Given this, it might be easy to give up hope. But in a new report published by New Local, a group of Labour council leaders set out a powerful agenda for change. Anchoring their case into the Labour Party’s broad history of mutualism, cooperatives and grassroots activism, they set out how a renewed national statecraft could prove a radical, optimistic agenda for a different way of doing government.
Their approach is based on the principle of community power – the simple notion that communities have insight, experience and capabilities which are meaningful and real. Recognising this fully would have big consequences for how decisions are made, both over the local areas that communities live in and over the services that communities of experience collectively use.
Labour’s vision for community power recognises the umbilical link between councils and communities, which has consequences for how power should be redistributed across our system.
At the heart of the report’s recommendations is a series of new community rights that would give people more power and influence over what matters to them, intended to form part of Labour’s planned Take Back Control Act. A community right to own would strengthen the ability of communities to buy buildings or assets they value, over private purchasers. A community right to participate would open decisions over neighbourhood spending pots such as developer contributions to communities themselves. And a new community right to shape public services would establish a clearer expectation that people who require support have a stronger collective influence over how that support is designed and accessed.
The report is clear that for these rights to be realised in practice, the role and capacity of local government needs to be assured in tandem. It is not possible to empower communities while disempowering councils. For example, the Localism Act set communities up to fail when it promised some weak community rights but in parallel austerity policy eroded the capacity of local government to respond to them. Labour’s vision for community power recognises the umbilical link between councils and communities, which has consequences for how power should be redistributed across our system.
A new series of powers for councils should be geared towards enabling them to respond robustly to community priorities.
Creating existential certainty for local government is vital, ending the policy churn and financial fragility of recent years. The report recommends a new settlement between local and national government, underpinned by a guarantee of the political, administrative and financial independence of local government, enshrined in legislation through the Take Back Control Act. A new series of powers for councils should be geared towards enabling them to respond robustly to community priorities, for example through stronger licencing and enforcement powers to curate high streets and ensuring residents get a better deal from new developments.
Sufficient funding for local government is, of course, essential. While the bleak fiscal outlook makes this hard in the short term, the first Comprehensive Spending Review should commit to ending the begging bowl culture of one-off funding pots and provide longer term funding settlements over 3-5 years which would enable better planning and ensure some level of stability. In the medium to long term, funding levels for local government should be increased when public finances allow and options for fiscal devolution combined with equalisation should continue to be explored.
But the agenda set out by the group of Labour leaders is broader than just local government – our wider approach to public services urgently needs to shift towards prevention. While it isn’t possible to spend more money, the focus should be on spending existing money more effectively for improving outcomes. The co-authors see first-hand how our current system spends a lot of money at the wrong time and on the wrong things. As social care funding is stretched, pressures on hospitals mount. As early intervention provision such as family support and youth services have been pared back, emergency mental health or policing interventions pick up the consequences. We need to shift the balance of how resources are allocated to public services away from high cost reaction and towards prevention.
A renewed Total Place style approach to pooling siloed service budgets across places is the only practical route towards making more effective use of existing spend.
The report sets out how a renewed Total Place style approach to pooling siloed service budgets across places is the only practical route towards making more effective use of existing spend. This would overcome the problematic Whitehall model which treats different aspects of people’s lives separately across departmental domains of health, welfare and criminal justice, for example. A renewed approach to devolution would recognise the different spatial scales for impact nationally, regionally, locally and at neighbourhood level, guided by principles of universalism and subsidiarity. This would turn devolution from a largely technocratic, ad hoc policy under the Conservative Government to a route to redistribute power across the system, which aligns economic and social purpose, in keeping with Labour’s commitment to mission-driven government.
The idea of giving communities more agency and influence relies very clearly on a renewed role for the state, not a reduced one.
In setting out a vision for reform suited to the challenges of the mid 2020s, the report takes on a few shibboleths that can hold back the Labour Party’s approach to devolving power. First, the idea of giving communities more agency and influence relies very clearly on a renewed role for the state, not a reduced one. Memories of the failed Big Society loom large – but that approach viewed the relationship between the state and communities as zero sum. This Labour vision sees they are umbilically linked and empowers communities alongside a more active local state.
Second, the risk of a postcode lottery can often be cited by some on the left as a reason not to pursue anything other than big, one-size-fits all policy. But rigid top down approaches tend to standardise outputs while outcomes for people in our increasingly unequal country increasingly diverge. A more adaptive statecraft which is capable of responding to the different circumstances of places would stand a better chance of closing inequality gaps overall, and building resilience in communities all too often buffeted by forces outside their control.
Third, there can be an assumption that giving power to communities would only really empower those with the sharpest elbows. But this overlooks the powerlessness associated with living in poverty or experiencing inequality or marginalisation, implying that the status quo of decisions taken by others is sufficient. Well resourced, skilled community powered approaches proactively draw in those least heard from voices, and focus on proactively building community capacity through targeted investment. In fact, it is traditional consultation style engagement that is most prone to being dominated by those who have the loudest voices or most significant means.
Taken together, the report combines a compelling vision and a practical routemap to how a future government might go about reforming public services and restoring trust with people, by giving communities more power across the system.
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