Renewing Neighbourhood Democracy
The effects of lockdown and the massive strain placed on public services throughout 2020 have led to a renewed focus on local response, on the resilience and ingenuity displayed on a volunteer basis across the country. However, communities in England, particularly those in deprived areas, face a multitude of challenges to and restrictions upon their ability to take control of their own destiny. Weak and weakening social infrastructure, complex bureaucratic structures, poor connectivity and a history of ever-changing, overlapping initiatives all act as barriers to neighbourhood democracy. This is particularly problematic now, at a time where the ability for communities to act with autonomy at the hyperlocal level could not be more important. The pandemic has shone a light on how reliant we are on this social infrastructure locally, and now is the time for communities to be given control over it, as well as local services, and assets.
Decentralisation of power currently held in Westminster is key to both local government and local communities gaining more autonomy. Yet power is more than simply a function of the location of government decision-making – whether local or national. Undoubtedly, government policy must contain provisions that increase the autonomy and participation of communities. But it must also recognise the value that comes from community self-organisation as a good in itself.
The promise of subsidiarity, or double devolution, as a mechanism for giving communities greater power and control over decision-making and resources, has been a promise much vaunted of but largely unfulfilled. There are exceptions, but on the whole, it has been regarded a faded new localist dawn at best. This failure to achieve devolutionary potential must be seen as a risk ahead of the forthcoming Local Recovery and Devolution White Paper. Renewing Neighbourhood Democracy – Creating Powerful Communities looks at initiatives to increase the power of communities and strengthen neighbourhood-level democracy.
With a particular interest in post-pandemic reform to local governance structures in England, through the forthcoming Local Recovery and Devolution White Paper, and how these reforms can open up space for greater community power. The report sets out recommendations which build on the recent ‘Levelling Up Our Communities’ report as well as other solutions proven effective in practice. Chief amongst them is the establishment of a Community Wealth Fund backed by central government, which particularly targets ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods across the country, strengthens local social infrastructure, and resources endeavours to empower communities in a manner which is participatory.
The report looks at recent initiatives in the UK aimed at overcoming previous policy failures and instances from abroad where new models of local governance have been applied. They indicate where there may be opportunities to open up local government reform to double devolution, how this might be done and what pitfalls are to be avoided. From the studies, some key principles for creating powerful communities can be drawn:
A relational approach to governance.
Creating powerful communities requires government, both central and local, to adopt a broad change in mindset – from administrative to relational. An example of putting a relational mindset into practice would be for local authorities to strive towards making their decision-making processes more participatory for communities. An effective start in this regard would be to make all funding of some non-core services subject to participatory budgeting – to begin to give communities a sense of control over council priorities and subsequent allocation of resources. The success of both of these forms of participation can be linked to their direct relationship to tangible results.
Strong networking and communication systems
Creating and sustaining powerful communities is an easier task when community organisation is well connected both to the local authority and to the wider ecosystem of local action. Creating these strong networks requires organisational change from local authorities; the simplification of bureaucracy and a long-term mindset which prevents constant policy reinvention.
Dedication to building capacity
Revenue support for social infrastructure of neighbourhoods; parks, libraries, pubs, hubs and the like is a key priority across our studies. Social infrastructure must be suitably resourced and placed into the hands of communities wherever possible and functionally viable. Beyond financial capacity is that which is built through institutional learning and experience, with some case study councils providing broader advice services to community organisations to help with things like access to wider capital funding and business administration. This helps build up social as well as financial capital.
Work rooted in listening to communities
Improving and upgrading social infrastructure efficiently requires a sustained commitment to linking consultations with tangible outcomes. This requires a long journey of cultural change, one which is traversed through the sharing of perspectives, as enabled through Wigan’s extensive Big Listening Project which helped drive cultural change in the council.
A willingness to cede some power and control and a culture that is engaged and facilitative
Perhaps the most striking elements of our case studies are those where the local state is entirely facilitative, providing resource and advice for communities to act autonomously. This points to a possibility for innovation in the English local government system, to move beyond community power as an extension of power already held in councils into the community, towards locally-specific arrangements where different community groups and organisations take on different roles within the wider social ecosystem. This can be achieved if capacity is built, social infrastructure resourced and, in the first instance, the networks of communication between council and community are strengthened.
- The Local Recovery and Devolution White Paper should codify the role of councils in a facilitative local state by beginning the process of creating clear, statutory pathways to community autonomy.
- The white paper should identify areas of service delivery that could be co-designed, run in partnership or devolved entirely to the neighbourhood-level, particularly if the size of local authorities is to increase with reforms.
- A statutory role should be created in local authorities for managing double devolution and community relations, to act as a single point of contact and information for community groups looking to establish forms of local control.
- Building on previous work from London Councils and Danny Kruger MP, the ‘pop-up parish’ or Community Improvement District model should be extended as a statutory community right alongside the previous rights established in the Localism Act 2011.
- Pathways should be developed for communities to take control of non-core service spending at neighbourhood level through initiatives like the People’s Budget in Frome.
- To enshrine the principle of double devolution and expand upon the Localism Act’s establishment of Community Rights, the Local Recovery and Devolution White Paper should extend these rights to give the community greater power over local assets and social infrastructure.
- All assets that qualify as having community value under the current system should be designated as social infrastructure.
- If a community group decides to take on a community asset, they should be supported, both procedurally and financially, in their endeavours to do so.
- The introduction of localised lockdowns has further emphasised the importance of front-line action from community groups. The government should urgently renew and extend financial support for voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations to respond to the pandemic, particularly as the reintroduction of lockdown measures escalates.
- To ensure fast and targeted response, a fund could be distributed to community organisations by local councils in lockdown areas in a manner similar to the distribution of the pandemic-related Small Business Grant Fund.
- As with the Small Business Grant Fund, the focus should be on rescue at any cost for the sake of national resilience, and the overall fund should be matched to need rather than to a specific cash limit.
- In order to strengthen social infrastructure, and properly resource endeavours to empower communities in a manner that is participatory and gets results, central government should commit to establishing a Community Wealth Fund.
- The fund would specifically target the social and civic infrastructure of ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods across the country. It would be an independent endowment that would be distributed over the course of 10-15 years, include investment at the hyperlocal level, decision-making would be community-led and, as part of the package, support would be provided in order to build and sustain the social capital of communities and their capacity to be involved. Recently, this call for a hyperlocal focused funding of £2bn was echoed by Danny Kruger MP in his proposal for a ‘Levelling Up Communities Fund’.
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Decentralise, Democratise, Deliver is a research programme to complement Localis’ work on the dynamic of central and local government, examining the other side of the localist coin: the relationship between councils and neighbourhood communities. Having produced Local Delivery in May 2020, this report is the second publication of the programme.