Over the past year or so, I have noted increasing calls for extending localism and empowering communities through community groups, charities and others taking over services from local authorities and other public bodies. Many of those making this case even presume that public bodies can and should withdraw funding for services, on the assumption that charitable funding and/or volunteers will simply ‘step in’ and replace public funding.
My analysis is that the proponents of this paradigm base their advocacy on a variety of grounds, some of which are often contradictory. In some cases, it is about a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and for others it is a cover for further austerity and cuts to local authority and/or other public sector funding. Some genuinely believe that by allowing communities to ‘take control’, community resilience will be enhanced. And for others, it is about resurrecting the Coalition government’s discredited ’Big Society’ policy. Those in local government should be focused on neighbourhoods and seek to empower and involve local communities but there is strong need for caution and a principled approach based on democratic values and equitable collectivism.
Of course, the reality is that in most neighbourhoods and communities, there has always been considerable social activism – whether larger or smaller scale, informal or formal groups, or short/longer-term interventions. Whatever the case, to be truly impactful, such activism almost always requires a strong local and national state.
The problem is that in truth, we are a nation possessed of severe inequalities: inequality of income, health, wealth, educational outcomes, and community assets – where local tax raising potential tends to be least in those places with greatest need. And inevitably, perhaps, investment in physical and social infrastructure has historically always been lower in places with greatest social and economic disadvantage than in more affluent areas. No surprise, then, that to address the latter, central government redistributive capital and revenue allocations are required, as well as targeted interventions at the local level, if these historical patterns are ever to change.
To their credit, local voluntary and community sector (VCS) groups have, for the most part, both bravely and resolutely: risen to the challenges of COVID-19; responded to unmet need; stepped up when public sector services have been withdrawn; and provided advocacy for communities, particularly those most disadvantaged. Indeed, I suggest it is unarguable that communities are invariably stronger, more vibrant, and more resilient because of social activism, social activists, and a tireless VCS.
Community groups and charities have significant roles to play and contributions to make - but not as substitutes for government and the public sector. And most certainly, the VCS cannot ‘fund’ public services, ‘invest’ in infrastructure and ‘redistribute’ resources.
Further, whilst at a community level, many VCS organisations rightly provide voice and advocacy for communities (and even neighbourhoods), they cannot, ever, be a substitute for democratic local government. Rather, their voices and advocacy are best when they complement and challenge the public sector, including elected councillors and mayors at the local level, and government at the national level.
Effective, properly resourced, and empowered parish, town and community councils are vital to our democratic governance system - accountable as they are to their communities and neighbourhoods/villages/towns. Indeed, there is a very strong case for increasing their cover, power and resources across urban and rural areas, and to ensure that they have the resources and powers to operate services, shape their areas and advocate more effectively to other tiers of local government and the wider public sector.
By comparison, whilst some VCS bodies may be representative of their communities (and may even have internal democratic governance systems), they are not equivalent to local authorities in terms of democratic legitimacy. Indeed, it is definitely harmful to the VCS and to local councils to assume such an equivalence, or even potential transfers between them, or a fusion of both.
I am in no doubt whatsoever that genuine community power derives from and requires a strong state and properly funded local government – a reality which the VCS should wholly embrace, whilst critically, never allowing itself to become a surrogate for local government or any other part of the public sector.
I particularly emphasise the above because I foresee a clear danger that the current promotion of the idea of greater community power, which promotes by-passing or marginalising local government, offers an illusion of being quite seductive for many in the VCS (perhaps even also for their national bodies) and for some in local government. The reality, however, is that for many VCS organisations, such an approach could so easily undermine their credibility (even amongst their communities and beneficiaries), curtail their independence, and lead to inappropriate use of charitable funds.
I also fear that for local government, there is a high risk of undermining its own democratic legitimacy and service provider role, which in turn will too easily play into the hands of those in government and elsewhere, who will further underfund it, and still further reduce its powers and political standing in our already over-centralised state.
A better approach must, surely, be to advocate for greater powers and increased funding for local government itself, and introduce double-devolution, based on greater devolution and funding to parish, town, and community councils.
Alongside such an approach local authorities should be focus on promoting and facilitating social enterprises and community groups to set up to trade and compete with other businesses in commercial markets but as public service contractors.
And to more effectively complement this approach, local authorities should ensure that the VCS is respected, and treated as partners, sources of ideas and voice for communities - but not a democratic voice.
My fervent hope is that this argument will resonate across local government, for surely there is a real opportunity for the charity/VCS sector and local government to find common cause.
Such a unified approach can only produce positive benefits for communities – and surely, in the end, that is what the VCS and local government are striving to achieve?
John Tizard is a strategic adviser and commentator