For many of us, Stronger Things 2020 was the most recent ‘real-life’ event in memory. The last physical opportunity to take a train to Central London, bump into an old colleague, queue for a buffet lunch, or join applause that isn’t outside a front door.
By the time Stronger Things 2021 came around, we’d become well-used to our virtual habitats – their limitations but also their freedoms. Meanwhile, the world around us has been marked irrevocably by COVID-19, creating even more urgency to come together and inspire change.
A chance to come together and generate change was exactly what Stronger Things was about. At the heart of the three-day programme was the idea of ‘community power’ – of people joining up to improve their own lives, places and services.
We celebrated the remarkable things community power can achieve, from citizens assemblies on hate crime in Waltham Forest; to the youth-led Rekindle school in South Manchester; to the transformative wealth-building programme in Cleveland, Ohio.
But we also grappled with how to unlock the potential of community power as we start to dare to look beyond the pandemic.
A recurring message was that those with power – be they in Whitehall, Westminster, a town hall or hospital complex, need to sit up, take notice of the community power movement, and really begin to cede control.
It was a message that came from Andy Burnham in his call for devolution: ‘If you take power out of Whitehall you begin to allow communities to shape their own destiny,’ he said. ‘From the telescope of Whitehall departments, you only see numbers, not names. But the possibilities are endless once you start to see names rather than numbers.’
Across the political divide, MP Danny Kruger argued that community power does not belong to any particular ideology. Instead it’s a universal agenda, which he said should be embraced by the Conservative party and by the Prime Minister.
‘There’s a counter-current to “loss of social fabric” rhetoric,’ he said. ‘New forms of solidarity are taking shape and finding expression. We could – and should – upend the power system so communities are properly in charge.’
There was no finer example of this solidarity than Kim Leadbeater, who discussed her community-building work as part of the More in Common and the Jo Cox Foundation – named for her late sister.
‘We’ve got to work cross-sector, top-down and bottom-up,’ said Kim. ‘We’ve got to accept change takes time, we’ve got to be inclusive, collaborative, not competitive – pulling together and focusing on things that we have in common.’
Another powerful theme was inequality; the viability of the levelling up agenda and the role of community in bridging divides.
‘What’s the opposite of “levelling up”?’ asked social geographer Danny Dorling – presenting data on the UK’s growing gulf in equality since the 1980s. ‘Screwing up – that’s what we have been doing the last 40 years.’
‘It’s not as if the data is difficult to understand – the more equal countries do better,’ he added. ‘That’s why genuine levelling up is so essential.’
Professor Sir Michael Marmot addressed the UK’s stark health inequalities that have continued to grow since his landmark health review 11 years ago. Austerity helped stall a growth in life expectancy – breaking a trend of 100 years, said Marmot. Meanwhile, councils in the most deprived faced the highest proportion of cuts.
‘We have lost a decade,’ he said. ‘And it shows.’
COVID-19 has meanwhile ‘exposed and amplified’ the differences between people.
He praised the determination and tenacity of local government in the face of these challenges.
‘Even with huge funding shortfalls, I don’t see people’s heads drop. There is a sense of: ‘This the hand we’ve been dealt – let’s do the best with what we’ve got.’
While his recommendations for health equity have been set aside by central Government, Prof Marmot emphasised that they have found a place within local authorities. In 2014, Coventry became a ‘Marmot City’, and has since seen improvements in school readiness, health outcomes, life satisfaction, employment and reductions in crime.
Among the 1,000-plus people who tuned into a portion of Stronger Things, there was a palpable sense that the community power agenda was not only wanted – but fiercely needed, both on a societal and individual level.
Closing Prof Marmot’s talk, New Local chair Professor Donna Hall implored public servants everywhere to act ‘with bold humility’.
‘We need to genuinely listen to people,’ she said. ‘Community members are the “stronger things” and if we don’t listen to our stronger things, we’re missing a trick – big style.’
Katy Oglethorpe is director of communications at New Local
Stronger Things was held in partnership with PPL, Futuregov, Coeus, The MJ and The City of London Corporation. Recordings of all the event’s plenary sessions will be available here.