Proof in the power: Six benefits of putting communities in charge

February 23, 2021  
Animation by Vivek Bhardwaj

Our new report, Community Power: The Evidence brings together an array of existing evidence to show the impact of handing more power to communities.  

Here are six ways we found community power is having a positive impact for people, communities and public services, and some of the brilliant examples that show this in practice:

1. Community power can improve individual health and wellbeing

From more familiar peer-support groups, to innovative community-led approaches – there are lots of ways people are getting involved in efforts to improve their own health and wellbeing.  

Established peer-support approaches like Alcoholics Anonmymous (AA) have long been using group meetings and mentoring to help people achieve sobriety.  

Approaches like Well Communities, in London, work by getting people to participate to identify and make improvements around their health and wellbeing.  

Local Conversations, a programme run by the People’s Health Trust, supports communities to identify and tackle local challenges to improve their health and wellbeing. For example, in Lozells, Birmingham the community worked with the local authority to tackle littering and dumping issues to improve their local environment.  

2. Community power strengthens community wellbeing and resilience  

Communities can take action to improve their wellbeing and resilience. Involvement in decision-making processes, resources and social infrastructure can help them achieve this. 

Community wellbeing can be shaped by the environment people live in. Community ownership is a way for communities to play an active role in improving their local environment. Like in Sheffield, where Heeley’s People’s Park was transferred to community ownership and reclaimed from vacant land.  

In North and South Ayrshire, an asset-based community development programme helped people connect to one another and set up new activities and initiatives like a bereavement club. People’s social connections improved as did their self-reported health and quality of life.  

3. Community power can enhance democratic participation and boost trust  

Local deliberative and participatory approaches can help communities navigate complex socio-economic challenges. And can help strengthen legitimacy in decision-making. 

In Greater Cambridge a citizens’ assembly helped build understanding and consensus around the tricky issues of congestion, air quality and public transport. Participants were able to recommend a plan of action, including road closures.  

In Camden, participants in a citizens’ assembly on the climate crisis felt they had developed their confidence to discuss climate issues and their understanding of the ways the council could respond to the crisis.  

There are many inspiring examples of deliberation and participation to look to internationally. The OECD has collated a wide range of case-studies to illustrate this – such as a deliberative poll on traffic issues held in La Plata, Argentina. A survey of participants before and after the event showed a substantial shift in beliefs that public officials would listen to their views.  

4. Community power can build community cohesion 

The common understanding and social ties that we need for cohesive communities can’t be imposed in the abstract from the national level. Building togetherness happens from the ground up – as a whole range of community-led initiatives have demonstrated.  

The National Conversation on Immigration’ was an initiative run by British Future and Hope Not Hate. It involved holding citizens’ panels in towns and cities across the UK. It demonstrated the value of face-to-face interactions in helping communities respond to demographic change.  

Edberts House, in Gateshead, is a community space hosting activities which are designed and delivered by local people. Since Edberts House began, there has been improvement in community cohesion in the local High Lanes estate – reducing antisocial behaviour incidents from 14.6 per hundred tenants in 2010 to 0.7 in 2016.  

5. Community power can embed prevention and early intervention in public services  

Pioneering people in communities and the public sector are finding new ways to work together to solve challenges and build sustainable services that stop crises from happening and address underlying issues.

The Wigan Deal has forged new relationships and ways of working between the council, partners and communities – from supporting community groups to citizen-led public health. Since the implementation of the Deal, Wigan has seen some promising improvements particularly around health and social care.

Shared Lives is an approach which draws on the power of supporting people within a home, and often within a family and wider network of friends and people within the community. Data collected from people using the service shows people building their network of friends and social connections, and reporting improvements in both their physical and emotional health. 

6. Community power can generate financial savings 

There is growing evidence that investing in community power approaches can generate greater impact for existing spend and save money in the longer-term.  

The New Deal for Communities and the Whole Place Community Budget pilots are important to point to here. Both are national place-based budget programmes which demonstrate cost savings – with wider relevance for community power approaches.  

Smaller-scale community power initiatives have also demonstrated their value. A cost-benefit analysis of Family Group Conferencing in Leeds found savings made through less time spent in the social care system which were estimated at £755 per family. Using another approach, social return on investment models have shown approximately that for every £1 invested into Local Area Coordination there is a £4 return. 

What these benefits mean 

The examples we explore show evidence of impact in their own right. But taken together, they form a clear evidence base for a new path forward to a more sustainable, prevention-focused public services system which can support communities to thrive. To achieve this, we need to move community power into the mainstream, from ad hoc ‘innovative’ practice to system-wide renewal. 

In the report, we also argue that the current system needs to better recognise and respond to the value of community power, allowing community power initiatives to escape the ‘evidence paradox’ that make it difficult to prove their own worth.

We hope that by bringing together the evidence in one place, our new report can help build the case for this change, and make sure we don’t miss this opportunity to make it happen.