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Local economies

From paternalism to participation: Are we seeing a new consensus in the politics of community?

Matt Leach, the chief executive of Local Trust, comments on the launch of the Labour Party’s new policy document on civil society.

Amidst Britain’s increasingly fractured national politics, we may be seeing a quiet consensus growing around the importance of engaging with the politics of community. Over the last six months both the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, and opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, pledged support to tackle “left behind areas”.

Last summer, the government published its Civil Society Strategy, which included a welcome focus on place based, resident-led solutions. And whilst the current Tory leadership contest has been relatively light in its engagement with issues around community, beyond Rory Stewart’s recent commitment to the introduction of a National Citizen Service, it looks likely that there will be a follow-up policy statement on communities emerging at some point over the summer.

At the same time, across the country – we are seeing the emergence of locally-based models seeking to set the frame for future approaches to turning around communities and economies coping with both economic and social challenges. Whether Plymouth’s focus on social enterprise, the Preston model, which itself draws on lessons from pioneering work in Ohio in the US, or Wigan’s commitment to partnership with local civil society – all are driven by a sense that current top-down approaches aren’t working, and a new, community-focused politics is needed to effect change.

Today the Labour Party published the latest contribution to what is now becoming a very active political space – its Strategy on Civil Society, From Paternalism to participation. Whilst at times, policy debates around community can find themselves over-focused on solutions pitched at national or local government level, the paper has a distinctive and welcome focus on community action at the neighbourhood level:

“Civil society is a key part of bringing people together to participate in shaping their area to meet the community’s needs, now and in the future, but to do that we need to support local community-led organisations and make sure there are community-controlled spaces that enable people to come together to act.”

This resonates with much of our experience of delivering the Big Local programme, particularly in the emphasis on the value of civic infrastructure, the importance of providing opportunities for people to participate in the decisions that affect them and to take the lead in making change happen in their own communities.

Something that is likely to be widely welcomed – in particular by the fast growing Community Wealth Fund alliance – is the recognition in the paper of the potential of dormant assets and the role this new source of investment could play in supporting the revitalisation of communities in the form of a what the paper describes as “a new Community Innovation Fund” – the first time a major party has made this sort of large scale commitment to utilising dormant assets in this way.

Our understanding is that the new Fund would be:

  • supported both by dormant assets and philanthropic giving;
  • particularly targeted at those neighbourhoods that have experienced most ‘disinvestment’.

Over the past year, Local Trust has been working with data experts OCSI on defining where those areas might be, and we’ll be publishing more on this in coming months.

So Labour’s proposal reflects to some degree what the Community Wealth alliance proposed back in August last year. The Community Wealth Fund proposal was for the next wave of dormant assets from stocks, shares, bonds, pension and insurance policies to be used to support the CWF, with the private sector providing a match.

However, there are three important questions about the proposed Community Innovation Fund that would benefit from more clarity:

Question 1

Firstly, to what extent will the communities targeted for funding control the spend? The Community Wealth Fund proposal is that funds should be devolved to residents in the neighbourhoods targeted; they should make the spending decisions with appropriate support to build confidence and capacity. It is this aspect of the proposal that has most inspired alliance members and other supporters. And in our view, the extent to which this principle is operationalised will largely determine the Funds success in achieving significant and sustained change.

Question 2

Secondly, will the Fund be an independent trust with a permanent endowment so unlikely to be influenced by political fashion or forced to impose inappropriately rigid targets or short spending cycles. Assuming it is, the Fund could provide much-needed long term support, over 10-15 years, to make a difference in the areas that have found themselves excluded from the benefits of economic growth and suffered most from the loss of social infrastructure.

Question 3

Thirdly, the Fund is badged as an “innovation fund”. To what extent will communities be required to come up with new ideas in order to access funding as opposed to being supported to do what they consider is most needed? The restriction of funding to the new and shiny risks bleeding core civic capacity out of communities rather than enhancing it – there isn’t necessarily anything innovative about a sustainably funded community centre or a financially viable anchor organisation to run it, but both may be critical to a community building the strength and capacity, and creating the long term partnerships and initiatives needed to turn things around. A Fund with an innovation focus also risks favouring already well-resourced communities capable of presenting plans in a way that meets funders’ ideas of what is of value. Communities with the greatest need for investment and support, are often the least well set up to compete for it.

While not perfect, Labour’s Strategy is an extremely positive contribution to an increasingly healthy debate about public policy on community action and how to create the conditions for its flourishing. We look forward to further discussion on how the proposals in the paper might be developed and refined and to continuing to work across political boundaries to gain support for the Community Wealth Fund. And perhaps we might see a consensus on solutions emerging sometime soon.