Now is the moment for councils to share power with their communities

June 8, 2020   By Bonnie Hewson, Programme Manager Power to Change

Tomorrow, Power to Change will be hosting the next NLGN Innovation Exchange focusing on using deliberative forums to engage and mobilise communities. When we first discussed this topic in 2019 the paradigm in which we are all living was quite different than it is today. Since then, the Covid-19 pandemic has tinted, shaped and transformed the framing of every topic of discussion, as it is likely to do for months and years to come.

Councils have understood the importance of mutual support networks in addressing local needs, and the necessity of making decisions hand-in-hand with their communities. But for many this is new territory. and the question that comes up again and again seems to be ‘how’? Clearly, communities respond with energy to immediate and visceral crises, but how can this level of engagement and collaboration be harnessed and maintained during the longer economic crisis to come? There is a sense that community power is on the rise: at a local level trust and cohesion is growing, confidence is building, and people have more of a sense of being citizens (rather than mere consumers of products or subjects of support). How can this be nurtured?

At Power to Change we are focused on the need to sustain community spirit beyond Covid-19. Our CEO, Vidhya Alakeson, recently published an essay examining how community-owned businesses, which we support, can play a key role in perpetuating the social solidarity and goodwill that have been unleashed. We believe local people are the best people to shape services that will benefit the whole area. By harnessing the combined forces of all the players in an area, we believe that community businesses can start up, thrive and achieve positive change for their neighbourhoods, helping to reduce the inequalities felt by many communities across England.

“Community spirit is everywhere. When it is properly resourced and organised, it becomes the key not just to tackling COVID-19 but also to unlocking better social outcomes and more resilient local economies in the future.”
Vidhya Alakeson & Will Brett – Local Heroes, May 2020

One way we propose is for there to be community representation on the governing committees of all agencies involved with the recovery: Local Enterprise Partnerships, Integrated Care Systems, Town Boards and Health and Wellbeing Boards. Whether it’s town centre revival or rebuilding local employment, the expertise of locally rooted organisations who know their communities deeply must be part of the solution – there should be no artificial split between those considered to have expertise on ‘community’ matters and ‘economic’ matters. The two are inextricably intertwined.

In addition, we feel that community organisations should take greater responsibility for public budgets at the neighbourhood level. If community organisations can demonstrate significant local support, they should be able to take on the budget for managing parks, playgrounds, local sports clubs, markets, local museums, community centres and civic spaces. Community organisations should be able to play a pivotal role in how local amenities like these and other services are managed. With the support of legislation and the trust of their local councils, community organisations can positively shape the experience of living in a place and bring their community together.

Just as local government wants to be trusted more by central government, so communities need the trust of their local authorities. During lockdown some local councils have stepped back and facilitated rather than taking control, but when a new normality returns will these new ways of working become buried under new power structures?

“I am positive that we can build on this renewed recognition and realisation that, regardless of whether we are public, private or community owned, we are (mostly) striving for the same outcomes. The post COVID-19 recovery should be built on the community networks and spirit seen during the lockdown period. The local economy we create should [put]…local knowledge at the heart of neighbourhood based networks, possibly using a Local Area Coordination approach (see the work of Community Catalysts), that empowers local groups of people to build meaningful support and community-led services”
Paul Gutherson, Centre4, Grimsby

The programme I work on at Power to Change is called Empowering Places – it works with six community anchor organisations in some of the most deprived places in England to help test out the role they can play in making places better to live. In truth we are not ‘empowering’ anyone, but we are helping to build confidence, capabilities, skills, relationships, trust, resources and assets. Through working on this programme and being constantly checked for slipping comfortably into the grant-maker/grantee power dynamic; I have learned that how we talk about what we want to achieve often dictates the path we take to get there.

Often I see phrases in perfectly forward-thinking articles that make assumptions that get in the way of achieving the outcome of better community-council collaboration. For instance, if you ask how you can unlock community power, or galvanise residents, or how you encourage communities to co-own partnerships that you lead then you are already missing a big piece of the picture. This is because, simultaneously, communities are asking how they can encourage more dynamism within their councils, more action where they see inaction, how they can get their plans to transform their places accepted by councils, before decisions are made without them.

In many, many places communities already have power, and understanding, and answers – they are trying to be part of a bigger solution to what they see as unequal and broken in the system. They are visionary. They don’t need their power to be ‘unlocked’ by councils, they need it to be ‘unblocked’. They need their councils to act as their co-conspirators, with as much courage and imagination and verve to change things for the better as they themselves have. And where places aren’t yet ready to take the lead they still need trust, because they also know what they need to build their skills and confidence.

It takes courage, respect, fairness and self-reflection to share power. Councils can help to ensure this moment of community power does not fade away but instead shapes the post-coronavirus social and economic settlement by giving greater power to community organisations to shape their local areas, and critically the resources to do so. Because make no mistake: sustaining today’s community spirit holds the key to creating a stronger, fairer and more resilient society in the wake of the crisis.

Power to Change partnering with NLGN for our Innovation Exchange: Using Deliberative Forums to Engage and Mobilise Your Communities, on 10 June.

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