In partnership with

A Labour Vision for Community Power: Participation, prevention and devolution

September 26, 2023   By Cllr Kaya Comer-Schwartz, Cllr Bev Craig, Cllr Tracey Dixon, Cllr Georgia Gould, Cllr Denise Jeffery, Cllr Peter Mason and Cllr Kieron Williams
In partnership with

A Labour Vision for Community Power is an ambitious agenda for action, driven by the principles of participation, prevention and devolution. It sets out how in practice a mission-driven approach to government would redistribute power out of Westminster, across our system and into the hands of communities. Far-reaching proposals would give people more control over their neighbourhoods and shift our system of public services towards prevention, away from high cost reaction in order to support better, more sustainable outcomes.

Even against a challenging backdrop of broken public finances and big global challenges, this report is clear that there is another, better way of doing government. This is one that restores trust in our system and enables communities everywhere to prosper, especially those facing the biggest barriers.

Executive Summary

Giving power to communities without voice or agency is a principle that runs deep within the Labour Party’s Traditions and wider movement of co-operatives and local associations. This radical spirit of grassroots pluralism and energy needs to be renewed for the challenges facing our country into 2024 and beyond. Our communities have been on the frontline coping with the fallout of big national challenges like our ageing society and global phenomena like deindustrialisation. Within our top-heavy governance system, they are all too often on the receiving end of decisions such as austerity made in the abstract in Westminster. Too little regard is given to real life consequences, leaving communities buffeted by forces beyond their control.

A Labour Vision for Community Power is an ambitious agenda for action, driven by the core principles of Prevention, participation and devolution. These would enable the Labour Party to achieve its historic mission, in the context of today’s challenges. By committing to a Take Back Control Act, Keir Starmer has already recognised the urgent need to restore agency from the ground up. This would finally give legislative force to promises broken by the current Government since the EU referendum vote. This case for reform sets out how this can be achieved in practice, for the Labour Party to demonstrate that there is another, better way of doing government. This would give people real agency, underpinned by a system that is more effective and responsive to communities.

Community power is based on the principle that people have insight, experience and capabilities which should play a meaningful role in the big decisions taken by Central government, local government and the wider public sector. Recognising this has big consequences for how decisions are made – both for communities of place based around a geographic area, and for communities of experience based around shared conditions, demographic characteristics or life stages. In our current System, the innate assets and social capital of these communities can often be bypassed by formal organisations. If decision-making was opened up, allowing for the parity of community expertise alongside that of professionals, then better and more sustainable outcomes could be achieved.

The Good Life Camden wellbeing framework has been co-designed with residents and staff to articulate what it means to live a ‘good life’ in Camden.

Residents identified nine themes that are important for living a good life: health, equality and safety, income and affordability, education and lifelong learning, social connections, empowered citizenship, environment and housing. They also explored data and selected signals to articulate the change and the measures that underpin these. The council is now working to develop a data dashboard that will be available publicly, as well as to embed the use of the framework internally and with its community partners.

Camden has also adopted strengths-based practice to shift the culture of frontline services from a default paternalistic, transactional stance to a more relational approach.

In 2018, a participatory research project, Camden Conversations, was led by parents within the Family Advisory Board. This explored child protection practices, engaging with other parents to talk about their experiences and enabling them to participate and influence the system.

One direct change has been the development of peer advocacy, through which parents or carers who have been through the system themselves use their experiences to help others navigate the system, providing support, information, and advocacy on their behalf. This has given parents a stronger voice and helped shift the balance of power in their favour, which in turn has led to more positive outcomes for families, including improved decision-making, better relationships with local authorities, and an increased sense of agency and control.

There are three current and pressing reasons why community power should be renewed as a guiding principle for the Labour Party today:

  1. Public services need to shift towards prevention: Our system of
    support urgently needs to break out of the cycle of treating symptoms and be more able to address root causes to stop problems occurring in the first place or deteriorating if they emerge. Genuine prevention relies on people actively participating in their own health and wellbeing.
  2. The deep challenges we face as a society require active, resilient
    : The depth and complexity of many modern problems from climate change to deindustrialisation or social isolation are beyond the ability of any single institution or actor to resolve. We need to build a new statecraft that recognises how institutions can achieve impact in this context – moving beyond treating
    communities as passive recipients or transactional customers, and recognising their role at the heart of sustainable solutions.
  3. Communities have a basic right to have a say over the system that exists to support them: Traditional representative democracy is creaking, with rising levels of alienation and mistrust of those in power. This matters deeply for Labour as a party which has always believed that the democratic state has a key role in making sure everyone can get on in life, in particular those facing the biggest
    hurdles. Creating new and more varied ways for communities to engage with decisions affecting their lives is thus urgent and will be a litmus test for a successful future government.

Emerging from Covid, South Tyneside Council’s Economic Recovery Plan involved a commitment to rebuild networks that had been affected by the pandemic and nurture inclusive economic growth. A key part of this was the South Tyneside Pledge, a community wealth building project focused on the power of local anchor institutions in the public sector and key private and voluntary sector organisations to help reduce barriers to growth and economic participation.

Through the pledge, more than 200 organisations have signed up to a commitment to spend, recruit from and support the local area, residents and businesses. Launched in January 2022, this is designed for local organisations to be part of a broad consensus and develop their own social responsibility commitments rather than rely on targets or compulsion. It includes a list of suggestions and options for practical action, including advertising recruitment opportunities locally and amongst core groups facing exclusion including care leavers, local procurement and suppliers, school engagement, implementing a climate action plan and supporting healthy lifestyles amongst their workforce.

A wide range of local employers are part of the South Tyneside Pledge, including large local companies Hitachi, Equinor and Ford Aerospace, to big local anchors including Port of Tyne, the NHS Foundation Trust and Tyne Coast College.

A survey of pledgees conducted in partnership with Northumbria University estimated a total of £3m a year has already been added to the South Tyneside economy through commitments in the Pledge. This includes 60 per cent using more local suppliers, 57 per cent taking on local people, 61 per cent having put in place climate measures and 45 per cent providing work experience.

Recognising that communities have a need, a role and a right to be active participants in their own outcomes implies a renewed role for the state, not a reduced one. A Labour vision for community power is based on a proactive state, with power redistributed across it guided by the principle of subsidiarity to take decision-making closer to communities. This involves a new settlement between a more strategic, mission-driven centre and empowered, sustainably resourced local government. In turn this provides a strong, secure foundation for councils and public services locally to work collaboratively together and alongside communities to enable genuine influence and agency over what matters to them.

A Labour vision for community power has three core principles, each supported by a series of recommendations to effect meaningful change from day one of a future Labour government:

1. Building community power in neighbourhoods to take back meaningful control

Too many communities feel overlooked politically, economically and culturally, and need tangible ways in which they can exercise more influence over their areas. Years of Conservative policy have punished communities through austerity. Despite promises of levelling up and localism, there has been no meaningful change.

Focusing on communities of place, the following proposals should form the backbone of Labour’s Take Back Control Act and create a genuine shift in the ability of communities to exercise real control, which would build community-rooted resilience for the future. They rely on corresponding powers for local authorities to be able to respond to community priorities:

  • A series of new rights for communities to own buildings and spaces of community value and to participate in spending decisions that directly affect their neighbourhood, including developer contributions.
  • A range of new powers and legal frameworks for local authorities and the wider public sector to build community wealth and level up the playing field with the private sector locally. This would include a new legal baseline for social value in procurement, permissive rules for new co-operative and locally rooted businesses and more robust place shaping and enforcement powers to curb poor commercial practice in communities.
  • A renewed focus on tackling neighbourhood deprivation with a new Community Wealth Fund that would target “no strings attached” funding to the 10 per cent most deprived communities and a new Neighbourhood Unit to maintain the pace and focus on sustainable change.

Manchester City Council’s approach to early intervention and prevention is based on recognition that traditional service models are not joined up around how people live their lives, the strengths and assets in communities and the types of support that people really need. The council has developed a shift in approach and is forging strong partnership and neighbourhood level working in order to wrap support around the whole person or family, which is securing better outcomes. One significant aspect of this is the Early Help for Children and Families approach.

Manchester has three Early Help hubs that provide different options and levels of support based on need, including intensive support from a key worker where required. Evaluation of this approach has tracked the outcomes of over 10,300 families since 2014/15. Using this evidence to identify the impacts of early help on reducing demand for expensive reactive services has provided the confidence to continue to invest up front despite wider resource pressures. Progress has been achieved across 22 metrics and amounts to a cost-benefit ratio of £1.90 for every £1 invested, including:

  • 96 per cent of families who received an offer of early help had no further interaction with social work teams within 12 months.
  • 83 per cent of children and families who received early help support and were Child in Need had sustained changes a year later and did not need a statutory intervention.
  • 30 per cent of families had children with persistent absence from school (less than 90% attendance) before support, reducing to twelve per cent after, an 60 per cent positive impact.
  • Overall, Manchester has two per cent fewer children in care between 2008 – 2020 compared to a 35 per cent increase nationally, and despite a 28 per cent increase in the population of children and young people over that time.

There have also been wider reductions in demand for police and criminal justice agencies as a result of Early Help for Children and Families. 59 per cent of families had at least one call out before support, reduced to 35 per cent after. 27 per cent of families had at least one police call out relating to domestic violence before support, this has reduced to 10 per cent after.

2. Shifting public services to prioritise prevention by making community power a reality

Following years of austerity which created fragility as we went through the pandemic, our public services are under extreme stress. Yet the challenge is more than one of just funding – demand pressures are rising due to underlying trends such as our ageing population and deepening inequality. On a local level, new ways of working have been pioneered by practitioners and in local government, often Labour councils – which share a focus on working with the assets of people and communities as core to successful prevention approaches.

Lessons from the impact of these approaches inform a set of proposals for wider system change across all public services including health, welfare and the criminal justice system. Communities of experience have valuable insight into how our existing system could be more effective – better preventing problems occurring and more capable of supporting people to thrive:

  • A new community right to shape public services would create a clear expectation that communities should be able to participate in the strategic decision-making and design of support across all public services. This would move beyond traditional consultation and engagement exercises which aren’t capable of drawing in deep community insight. Support for skills development of the public sector workforce and community capacity building will be required to make this right meaningful in practice.
  • A new public sector community impact duty would reflect and strengthen the community right to shape public services, by ensuring the onus isn’t just on communities to organise themselves and respond. This would require all public services, departments and agencies to identify, understand and engage proactively with communities affected by decisions. This change is designed to shift the internal culture of all public services, normalising Participation, deliberation and asset-led approaches.
  • A renewed drive to pool public service budgets locally to invest jointly in community-led prevention. A major barrier to more effective joint working between public services locally in the interests of the communities is that silos created by Whitehall departments are replicated in places. Dire public finances and years of austerity mean it will not be possible for a future Labour government to squeeze out more efficiencies within service silos, so it must pursue more effective allocation of resource across them, where they interact in places and with communities. Adopting principles from the promising Total Place approach at the end of the last Labour administration, more ambitious pooling of public service budgets and joint planning should underpin collaboration and share the risk of upfront investment in community-led prevention.

3. A strategic centre organised around a vision for community power which builds prevention and resilience across the system

Community power is a grassroots phenomenon which can’t be mandated by government but can be bypassed or undermined by it. Labour’s early commitment to pursue mission-driven government is explicit about the limits of an approach that hoards power at the centre and relies on sticking plaster politics which is not capable of responding to the complexity and nature of today’s challenges.

Labour needs to build a new statecraft that is fit for purpose for the challenges facing our society and capable of working alongside the assets that exist in communities. This would reorient our entire system of governance, inverting power concentrated at Westminster and Whitehall, and relocating it in communities. A series of measures would lead this shift in practice:

  • A new settlement between national and local government which clarifies respective roles and embeds long term funding stability, to provide a strong foundation for community power. A key enabler of community power is a good relationship between local government and communities. National government should support this, rather than micromanage or undermine it. A new settlement would involve a guarantee of the political, administrative and financial independence of local government, enshrined in legislation. A mission-driven government would mean a clear national framework which sets broad outcomes, with local areas given the power and accountability to meet these in ways adapted to their context.

    In the immediate term, the first Spending Review of the next Parliament should give councils clarity of funding, informed by local needs, over three to five years. This would provide much-needed stability and support to enable longer-term planning and investment in community-led prevention. Increasing the overall levels of funding for local public services should be a medium-term goal as public finances permit. Alongside this, options for devolving fiscal powers should continue to be explored, which would increase local accountability with a proportion of taxes guaranteed to be spent in the local communities that generate them, alongside robust equalisation between areas.
  • Reform at the centre to embed prevention and enable community power across the system. For prevention strategies to be effective, active communities need to play a core role, supported by an enabling state. There is an enormous amount of money and energy within our current system being directed in the wrong way, at the wrong time and on the wrong things. The status quo is becoming increasingly risky as the traditional levers of government have diminishing returns.

    A set of measures at the centre would begin to bring about a shift in the way our national government does business. A new government should immediately set out to understand the costs of ineffective resource allocation across our current system. This should include an evaluation of the consequences of underfunding preventative and early intervention support in the form of rising demand for crisis provision such as acute healthcare and policing. This should inform the basis for an invest-to-save approach to public service transformation which would recognise value across the system over the longer term, rather than just count short term costs within separate service budget lines. Shared cabinet-level agreement of the priority to shift towards prevention should signal to departmental accounting officers the need to develop collective responsibility. This would be supported by a Cabinet office team to drive a cross-Whitehall approach and the Office for Local Government refocused on driving transformation by supporting learning and insight across national and local tiers.
  • A renewed devolution agenda, which takes a universal approach to redistributing power guided by the principles of subsidiarity, inclusive growth and participation. To date, devolution has been pursued as a single policy initiative on the terms of national government, narrowly focused on technocratic growth objectives. There is an opportunity for a future Labour Government to set out a more universal approach guided by its five core missions. This would establish a framework and objectives through which longer term funding and accountability are devolved.

    Three core principles should guide a renewed approach to devolution. First, subsidiarity would take decision-making to the level closest to those affected and embed a clearer understanding of the appropriate scale for impact across national, regional, local and neighbourhood levels of all domestic policy. Second, the principle of inclusive growth should focus on devolving powers not just to drive growth but also supporting people locally to participate in new opportunities created by growth. Third, the principle of participation and accountability should ensure devolution strengthens democracy so that communities feel a tangible shift in how power is exercised and shared.

The London Borough of Islington experiences acute inequalities, containing some extremely wealthy areas yet over a third of children grow up in poverty.

Tackling inequality is central to the council’s economic and social justice challenge. A core aspect of this is a progressive approach to procurement. When evaluating bids for new contracts, the council scores as a minimum 20 per cent against social value. This means explicit outcomes, particularly more jobs, apprenticeships, and work experience opportunities, in all procurement activity.

There is an explicit aim to increase the capacity of SMEs and the council proactively creates opportunities for their inclusion in the supply chain, including those which are black-owned and black-led. The council’s definition of social value also embraces a response to the climate emergency, embedding targets to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030 across all relevant contracts.

To further expand this work, the council has convened the Islington Anchor Institutions’ Network including local health trusts, universities, colleges, the business improvement district, a major housing association and large businesses such as Arsenal Football Club and the Business Design Centre.

The council has also used section 106 agreements through the planning process to require developers to make available a proportion of floorspace in new office sites for a peppercorn rent. In a UK first, social value is embedded in the contracts, by passing on the full benefits of peppercorn rent to operators in return securing benefit for local people and businesses – whether this is incubation support to under-represented entrepreneurs such as female founders, skills workshops for school pupils, or through community ‘hackathons’ to help local
people solve local problems. The programme has now delivered over £2.2m of social value return in its first four years of operations.

This Labour vision for community power is rightly ambitious and determined to set out a new direction for a future government which inspires hope and optimism that another way of doing government is possible. This would share rather than hoard power, recognising the wealth of assets and capabilities that already exist within our communities. The prize is a country where everyone can reach their potential, where public services have the greatest impact on people’s lives and where public trust in institutions is restored.

September 26, 2023
Authored by

Cllr Kaya Comer-Schwartz, Cllr Bev Craig, Cllr Tracey Dixon, Cllr Georgia Gould, Cllr Denise Jeffery, Cllr Peter Mason and Cllr Kieron Williams
Join our mailing list