A nation cannot hope to recover or enjoy peace if its citizens are overwhelmed by anxiety and feelings of helplessness. This is the clear and overwhelming learning from lockdown. Another issue to be firmly and immediately grasped is that when it comes to protecting the vulnerable and generating hope in our areas, the local and the communal must be mobilised and prioritised above the central, the top down and the anonymous.
But how to do this? There is an opportunity with the eventual publication of the Local Recovery and Devolution White Paper. And with this firmly in our mind, Localis has been looking at how we can strengthen our communities.
The policy ask is how we encourage ordinary people to self-empower. We have already seen how through countless instances local people responding to the COVID-19 challenge by banding together, united in a shared commitment to protecting the vulnerable, often using their own or shared assets. So we know it is possible.
This makes it a crucial moment for providing local communities with the support to develop greater genuine autonomy and assume fuller control over their own place destinies.
Empowering and encouraging communities to take on social assets and infrastructure and deliver crucial local services should now come centre stage as an oven-baked concept and desired universal outcome for policymakers. This must be accompanied with an investment in the social capital within communities, building the institutions, skills, trust and networks to capture and build upon the moment.
In this context, a greater awareness of the importance of subsidiarity and the value of double devolution must be embedded in the heart of the Recovery and Devolution White Paper.
Localis’s report Renewing Neighbourhood Democracy, Creating Powerful Communities details false dawns from New Labour to the Big Society. In preparing for the white paper, we’d be wise to learn from not so distant history and previous botched or stalled attempts to push down power to community level that were bedevilled by obtuse bureaucracy and high bars to entry and participation.
To succeed, this white paper must offer a route map to community power that does not make the mistakes of previous community policy and leave behind those communities without capacity.
Whatever ambitions remain vested in the potential of the Levelling Up agenda and the billions to be imminently assigned on infrastructure ‘grand projects’ to connect and mobilise, will come to naught if they don’t improve the amenities and the lived experience of ordinary people. In ‘left behind’ areas which are still playing catch up from the structural shifts of four decades ago, this is doubly the case if a parallel course of social infrastructure is not laid in parallel with the economic.
This is not the moment to unveil tick-box, Potemkin village, cornflake box cardboard communitarianism. The promise of double devolution must be realised through a form of flatpack approach which capable people everywhere can seize hold of. Subsidiarity must not be buried in a welter of administrative complexity and unreasonable expectations of time, money and expertise from those communities that would most benefit from empowerment.
The White Paper can and should take heed from not just good domestic practice and successful initiatives but also successful international examples. From our international survey of Spain, Canada and South America, to homegrown examples in Barking, Frome and Wigan, some key principles for effective community empowerment become evident:
- the interaction between local authorities and communities can be most fruitful in the co-design or devolution of local services if it is relational, rather than administrative.
- strong networking systems, with clear points of contact, are vital to advancing successful community involvement.
- capacity must be built, both in terms of financing and social capital, for proper local participation of any kind.
- communities in deprived or ‘left behind’ areas are not always best served by all funding and initiatives being cascaded to them through local government; in fact local government can benefit from the strengthening of local institutions in communities able to access resources of their own
The Local Recovery and Devolution White Paper is our best and most immediate chance to restore the golden thread of community solidarity, to retie the bonds between people, place and identity. This is an opportunity to advance on progress made since the passing of the 2011 Localism Act by shoring up the rights and responsibilities of communities and by ensuring we properly resource them.
Something vital is at stake here. Without considering how the foundations for strong and empowered communities should be laid, the Local Recovery and Devolution White Paper risks providing recovery without resilience and devolution without localism. We can, shall and must build back better than this.
Jonathan Werran is chief executive, Localis