Taking back control
Matt Leach, chief executive for Local Trust, reflects on the importance of community and place in the current political climate
With communities secretary James Brokenshire talking about an 'emerging neo-localist agenda' to be kickstarted by the Government’s soon to be published devolution framework, and a strong strand of localism in Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s recent collection of essays on Economics for the Many, it is clear that civil society’s increasing focus on the importance of community and place has now made it into the mainstream of the political debate.
But if either party is serious about localism and devolution, they will need to do more than simply transfer power from Whitehall to Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and local authorities. The hard truth is that, for many in our most peripheral and disconnected places, local government can feel as invisible and disconnected from local communities as the central state; a remote, unaccountable institution, largely irrelevant to day to day community concerns, other than when, perhaps, they exercise their limited coercive powers or announce a further round of centre closures or service withdrawal.
At a recent roundtable to launch an essay Local Trust had commissioned on local economic development and regeneration, the community activists in the room barely mentioned local authorities or LEPs; when it came to transforming neighbourhood-level economies they didn’t appear to be regarded as important players. That isn’t always true – in some Big Local areas, we see great partnerships built between community and local authority, and some of those areas will be sharing lessons learnt from those positive experiences at a roundtable to discuss an important report by NLGN later today.
But perhaps cynicism in communities about the ability of the state to deliver sustainable change isn’t surprising - four or more decades of expensive, state-driven investment in regeneration and renewal programmes (and the endless consultation exercises associated with them) too often aren’t perceived as having done much to change the quality of life for those who live in our poorest and most disconnected places. And as we start to consider how best to deliver what may be a new wave of economic and social change in those communities, at the end of a decade of what feels for many like permanent economic stagnation and seemingly relentless austerity, perhaps it is time to explore new delivery models and approaches.
There are other models out there. Over the last six years, we have seen an evidence base emerge from Big Local areas demonstrating what can be gained from transferring resources and decision making to a neighbourhood level. The value that comes from harnessing the energy and potential of local people to lead and deliver change for themselves. It isn’t easy, and takes time and patience – particularly in communities unused to being given a share of the responsibility for shaping the places in which they live. But, as David Boyle highlights in his essay The Grammar of Change, when it works it can offer benefits well beyond those achievable by traditionally designed, top-down regeneration and renewal programmes. That insight is supported by some evaluations of previous local area regeneration programmes which show that in communities where residents were given genuine power in decision making, resulting change was more sustainable.
This might suggest that a localism aimed at improving outcomes in our most deprived and disconnected communities cannot simply end with the shifting of power between Whitehall and another tier of the state, albeit one slightly more geographically proximate to local areas.There is also a need to recognise the real value that can be realised from sharing power, decision-making, resources and the commissioning of solutions to the lowest possible level, and wherever possible to neighbourhoods and communities themselves, something that NLGN will be looking at with Local Trust in a further research project over the course of 2019.
Of course, this sort of change also requires a radical shift in the way we view traditional approaches to legitimacy and accountability. Moving from seeing them as issues that can be dealt with through periodic visits to the polling station, with much complaining in between, to understanding them as concepts that are capable of being embedded at the heart of the way we deliver change. This requires a recognition of the value of more diverse approaches to governance at a community level, where legitimacy may come from being a long term resident of an area, and accountability from the possibility of being questioned or challenged by your neighbour in the street.
This new willingness to embrace the value of community as more than just a place that people live, but also a way we achieve change might also help us to make sense of our new post-Brexit national identity. Might it enable us to start to define ourselves through a nested set of positive individual, community and institutional identities? Being proud of the neighbourhood we live in and working with our neighbours to shape the decisions and commission the solutions that make it better; loving our towns and cities as a bringing together of the dynamic local communities within their boundaries, with local authorities as enablers and partners; celebrating England as a country defined by its resourceful people and the fantastic places they have created?
There are clearly a set of issues around power, affiliation, trust and identity that would need to be resolved to get there; it’s not just something that can be achieved by a bit of short-term investment in engagement and participation. But as we approach a new decade what is unarguable is that we need to find a new way of making the system work better for the people it is supposed, but has failed, to serve. Perhaps, in doing so, we can help build a new national story, based around connection, collectivism, individual and community agency, radically dispersed power and a renewed sense of shared identity.