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Communities on the agenda? Exploring the new Communities Framework

Responding to the new Communities Framework, our CEO Matt Leach points to a range of interesting new approaches being explored by the government – possibly signifying a deeper shift – and finds one Big Local area is already cited as an example others can learn from.

“Whilst leadership contests and Brexit continue to dominate headlines, the last month has seen significant new announcements for those with an interest in the politics of community. I blogged a couple of weeks ago about the launch of the Labour Party’s new Communities Policy. And, over the weekend, the government has published its long awaited Communities Framework.

It’s a fairly short document which mainly serves to pre-announce a Communities White Paper at some point in the future. But it’s well worth a read. Whilst initial media coverage has all been about banning ‘poor doors’ in new developments, and much of what is in the plan is simply a recitation of existing initiatives, there is some encouraging content in it for those looking for a pointer as to where this government’s thinking on communities might be going.

Creating meaningful civic infrastructure

In particular, among all the lists of the usual and familiar stuff – social enterprise, asset transfers, community business, high street funds and pocket parks – there is what feels like a new recognition in several places in the Framework that healthy and viable civic infrastructure is vital to the success of communities, and that there is a need in particular to address this in places that have suffered from both economic decline and the disappearance of civic infrastructure.

This is something Local Trust been consistently focused on as a priority, drawing on our experience supporting 150 Big Local areas over the last seven years, which has repeatedly highlighted the extent to which a lack of places to meet can frustrate and challenge those trying to make things happen in their neighbourhoods. And it is a key finding of our recent research with OCSI on “left behind” areas, which we will be publishing in significantly updated form this autumn.

Transferring community assets

The paper has an understandable focus on asset transfer and refers to the recent (and excellent) joint MHCLG/Power to Change report on community assets launched earlier this week – another document well worth reading. Something that this report makes very clear is that the viability and sustainability of community assets in deprived areas is much lower than in other areas.

Asset transfer and social finance are potentially great ways to acquire and protect community spaces in places with available income streams. But they can be more challenging to sustain in poorer communities or those largely dependent on the state for incoming revenue sources. The hard truth is that many of these places will need long term commitment of at least some level of subsidy to ensure community spaces remain viable in the long term (although this may well be at a far lower cost than having to pick up the social costs caused by letting those assets fall into disrepair/disuse or fail).

To that end, there is an encouraging suggestion that there might be future attempts to coordinate funding from government and beyond to address the funding needs of social infrastructure, although details are sparse. The widespread support for a long term Community Wealth Fund to target funding at our most ‘left behind’ communities suggest that – beyond government at least – there is extensive support for what would be a clear and practical way forward to delivering on that ambition, and this is something that members of the Alliance for Community Wealth will be focusing on as the forthcoming White Paper is developed.

There’s some other good stuff in the Framework – as well as focusing on the social value of civic infrastructure, it also highlights the links between successful civic infrastructure and economic success, something that has been central to the recent Alliance for Community Wealth’s policy submission to government on shared prosperity.

Planning for community

There might also be some interesting possibilities arising from the proposal to issue new planning rules and guidance to ensure developers build successful communities. If this can be extended beyond just ‘poor door’ provisions to requiring new developers to make provision for affordable and accessible community space in any new developments, it could become something quite exciting. This is something I’m sure many in the community sector will want to follow up with officials over coming months.

Finally, the big new initiative in the Framework – a series of pilot Civic Deals – offers a way for a lot of the ideas floated in the paper to be trialled on the ground, and it will be interesting to see how they progress. Will some of them genuinely pass power, resources and decision-making down to communities at a neighbourhood level, or if they get stuck in different models of ‘presentational localism’ focused on dressing up a continuation of local authority top-down control with a bit of asset transfer and outsourcing to social enterprises tacked on?

So, a lot to engage with, and hopefully – even with top level changes to government a platform from which secure some positive outcomes for communities, particularly as the detail of the promised White Paper starts to emerge. If you do read the Framework – and it’s definitely worth it – do check out the excellent Big Local case study as well – well done to Mark Pepper and the rest of the Lawrence Weston team. It’s great to see practical demonstrations of what can happen when communities are trusted and supported to deliver change at a local level on their own terms.

To find out more, you can download the Communities Framework from the Government’s website.