What is Community Power? FAQs, answered

June 28, 2022  

Community power is growing as idea and a movement. But what does it mean in practice? What are its implications for policy? And what’s next for this new paradigm? New Local Chief Executive Adam Lent tackles some of the biggest questions.

What is community power?

Community Power is the idea that local communities should have much greater influence and control over the plans, decisions, and public services that affect their lives. It is seen as an alternative to the status quo where big business and the state have the greatest power over the lives of communities rather than communities themselves. 

Unlike existing approaches which emphasise the importance of the state or the market, Community Power is not about imposing an ideology from above as a panacea to all problems but about empowering communities to develop their own solutions to the challenges they face. In that sense, it is an approach that is always evolving and adapting in response to changing circumstances.

What are the arguments for community power?

Community Power is not a monolithic ideology. Different supporters of the idea will emphasise one or more of the arguments listed here, and may even disagree with the others, but the points below hopefully cover most views.

1. Communities’ fundamental rights should be respected

Local communities have a right to much greater say and involvement in the decisions and services that affect their lives and the places they live.

This is, in part, because having influence over decisions that directly affect your life is a core democratic ideal but also because communities have greater insight into their own needs than those imposing decisions from outside. Systems that place too much power in the hands of central government, state officials or big business undermine these basic principles. 

2. Public services would be stronger – and sustainable

Public services are under unmanageable pressure from rapidly rising demand. A community-powered approach to service delivery offers the best route to a preventative model in which services and communities work together to stop people getting into health or other crises in the first place.

3. Empowered communities flourish more and are happier and healthier

Being part of strong, confident, connected communities is extremely good for individuals’ physical and mental health and well-being.

4. Community Power is key to greater equality

We will never ‘level up’, or achieve a more equal economy and society unless communities, particularly the most excluded communities, have the power to shape the decisions and services that affect their futures. Power should reside with them, rather than with distant elites who do not understand what is best for those communities.

5. Community Power builds resilience to the environmental and other crises

The environmental crisis is having numerous local effects as extreme weather events and the economic consequences intensify. Other issues like the cost of living crisis and international conflict are also creating profound challenges.Communities need to be confident, resourced and empowered enough to respond to these crises and thus ensure wider national and global resilience.

What is meant by a ‘community’?

New Local’s Community Paradigm defines a community as: “any network of individuals collaborating more or less formally to achieve a shared socially beneficial goal”. 

Such a community can operate geographically (for example across a neighbourhood) or around a specific interest or need (such as supporting victims of crime) or both. As an approach, community power needs to take account of the very diverse variety of size, goals and working styles of different communities in different areas.  Defining the notion of ‘community’ too precisely would disempower many communities and make it harder for them to improve their lives.

What does community power mean for public services?

Public services have been heavily shaped over the last seven decades either by the principle that experts and officials who work for the public sector know best how to design and deliver services; or by the principle that services need to operate like a market and involve business more in their delivery. 

Community power takes a fundamentally different approach arguing that communities should have much more involvement in the design and delivery of public services. In practice, this means much wider community involvement in decision-making and the day-to-day delivery of services and, maybe most importantly, a big shift in the culture of public service workforces away from a paternalistic mind-set to one that respects and collaborates with communities as equal partners.

Read More: The Community Paradigm: why public services need radical change and how it can be achieved

What does community power mean for politics?

Current politics in the UK suffers from two major flaws. 

  1. It is highly centralised with vast amounts of decision-making power and control over money located in Westminster. 
  2. It is still largely shaped by the conflict between a right-wing view that sees business and the market as providing solutions to the country’s problems; and a left wing view that places greater emphasis on the power of the state. 

Community power is not a party-political agenda. It seeks to both radically decentralise power while simultaneously placing much greater emphasis on the role that local communities – rather than just business or the state – should play in shaping how that power is used. This is the principle behind the Community Power Act for which the campaign We’re Right Here is campaigning.

What does community power mean for business and the economy?

The decisions taken by large businesses have a huge influence over communities affecting employment, local environment, town centres and a wide range of other issues.

These decisions are usually taken by company boards and investors who have no connection with those communities. In addition, those businesses often extract wealth from communities and invest it elsewhere.

As such, community power wants to see local communities have much greater say over the decisions taken by big business. It also wants a shift in economic policy so that it encourages and supports smaller local businesses and ‘sticky wealth’ that stays within communities.

Read More: A Community Powered Economy: Three Principles

What does community power mean for the environment?

Community Power is increasingly seen as an important element in the response to climate change and the wider environmental crisis. There is growing recognition that local communities have a big role to play in taking action to reduce environmental damage particularly given the failure of measures at international and national level.

And as the environmental crisis hits home, it is clear that communities have a vital part to play in adaptation: including helping with support and recovery following extreme weather events . Public services and local government are increasingly aware that the scale and relentlessness of environmental impacts mean that they cannot respond without significant help from confident and empowered communities.

Read more: Communities vs Climate Change: the power of local action

What does community power look like in practice?

There are very many examples of communities taking control of their own futures and of the public sector and government shifting to a more community powered approach.

Three particularly strong UK examples are provided below but many more can be found in the publications and comment sections of the New Local website.

Ambition Lawrence Weston – a ‘left-behind’ community on the outskirts of Bristol that has mobilised to improve access to affordable food, better housing, improved transport, decent jobs and green energy amongst many other challenges.

Healthier Fleetwood choir

Healthier Fleetwood – a very successful and energetic initiative launched by the local GP but led by the community to improve mental and physical health across Fleetwood.

East Ayrshire Council – a local authority that has shifted very significantly towards a community powered approach.

Why is there growing interest in community power?

There are four main reasons for the growing interest in Community Power. 

  1. The traditional political approaches to change which emphasise either the role of business or the state as a source of solutions feel increasingly tired, lacking in ideas and favour institutions which have very significantly lost their popular legitimacy in recent years. 
  2. The unsustainability of the current public service model is increasingly undeniable.  The need to move towards a more preventative model based on closer and more equal collaboration between public services and communities is thus growing in popularity.
  3. The evidence, both practical and academic, that strong and active local communities are key to human health and wellbeing has grown significantly in strength in recent years.
  4. The Covid pandemic revealed how important active communities are to responding rapidly and effectively to crises in the short-term and how important they are to building resilience in the longer term. Given growing concerns about future pandemics as well as the environmental crisis, this observation has become increasingly influential.

Is community power a new idea?

No. When New Local published the landmark report The Community Paradigm in 2019, we were drawing on real-life examples from our network, and ideas that have long influenced public service practice and efforts to generate positive change. The ideas have also been developed over many years by thinkers, most notably Elinor Ostrom, Ivan Illich and E.F. Schumacher.

Elinor Ostrom
Elinor Ostrom

What is new, however, are the stronger imperatives to shift to community power approaches given the growing public service, environmental and other crises, and the weakness of mainstream political ideologies based on state or business-led solutions.

How can we make community power a reality? 

Many are making community power a reality by mobilising their own communities to generate positive change in their area while demanding a much greater say over the decisions and services that affect their lives.

There are shifts occurring within the public sector itself led by those who see that community power offers the only meaningful way forward for the NHS, local government and other services.

These efforts tend to focus broadly on three areas:

  • Allowing communities to have much greater say over the decision that affect their lives
  • Actively working with communities to support those in need of help or care and to address local challenges
  • Shifting the culture of their organisation away from the top-down, ‘we know best’ mindset to one that recognises the best solutions are to be found in communities not institutions.

And there are those working to persuade national decision-makers to place community power at the heart of their agendas for change.

New Local works closely with councils, NHS Trusts and others to help bring community power to their organisations. Find out more about our practice work.

Who supports community power?

Community power is a movement made up of a wide variety of individuals and organisations. An increasing number of public sector bodies are moving towards a community-powered approach.

Many formal and informal groups that have been working to improve their communities for many years and are increasingly seeing themselves as part of a wider community power movement. Organisations like Power to ChangeLocal Trust and New Local aim to support multiple community power initiatives across the country.

We’re Right Here community leaders

The new national, grassroots-led campaign We’re Right Here is actively working to promote community power at national and local level. There is also growing interest amongst Westminster politicians across the spectrum in community power as a new way forward for the country. For example, 10 Conservative back-bench MPs published a paper calling for community-led places and services, the Levelling-Up White Paper initiated community power pilots, Keir Starmer has made the case for a community-powered NHS and Angela Rayner has spoken passionately about the need to empower local communities.

Is community power a vote winner?

In May 2022, New Local commissioned focus groups and polling to find out whether the idea of community power would be attractive to voters.

The answer was a resounding ‘yes’. While we found trust in national politicians at a catastrophic low, there was a warmth and appetite for community-led solutions, with large proportions in favour of devolving power away from central government and towards local people.

Some key findings:

  • 79% agreed with the statement: “Westminster and Whitehall are making decisions about people and places they know little about”
  • 75% agreed with: “Allowing communities to have more say in decisions that affect their area would be the most effective use of public investment”
  • 72% would vote for a national politician who backed community power

What are the obstacles to community power?

Community power is a significant change in the way our politics, economy and society works, and so inevitably faces increasing opposition as the idea gains momentum.  So, there are inevitably many obstacles:

  • Community power challenges the power and wealth of central government and of big business. Although there is growing interest amongst national politicians, there is still a strong tendency to defend existing power structures by falling back on established views that puts trust either in business or the state as the source of every solution to the problems we face.
  • A strong culture of paternalism that shapes a great deal of what the state and public services do is still widespread and very hard to shift.
  • The fear of the risks associated with doing things differently even though most agree that the status quo is unsustainable remains a powerful force in politics and public services. 

How do I show support for community power? 

If you want to generate change within your community, there are a number of organisations that provide resources and support. Check out: Power to Change, Local Trust and Locality.

If you work for a public or voluntary sector body and want to encourage it to become more community powered, there is plenty of ideas, resources and information available on the New Local website or you can contact us at info@newlocal.org.uk or visit our practice page for one-on-one advice.

Or you could support We’re Right Here – the campaign for a Community Power Act.

Further reading 

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