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Power and leadership

How can neighbourhood governance positively impact communities?

As IPPR North publishes its report on hyper-local neighbourhood governance, Nick Beall, senior policy advisor at Local Trust, explores what the next government must do to ensure devolution succeeds and communities feel encouraged to take back control.

The last decade has seen little cross-party consensus in politics but there is general agreement that the British state is too centralised and that more power should be pushed out of London. 

Whether this is the Conservative ‘levelling up’ agenda or Labour’s plans for a ‘Take Back Control’ bill that apes the slogan used so successfully by the campaign to leave the European Union, both parties have sought to argue that they are the champions of devolving power. 

For the Conservative government this has meant a focus on the creation of swathes of mayoral and county combined authorities. The Levelling Up White Paper promised “that by 2030, every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at, or approaching, the highest level of devolution with a simplified, long-term funding settlement”.

There is clear progress towards this target. After May this year, there will be 12 Metro Mayors as well as the Mayor of London covering approximately half the population of England. 

For its part, Labour has launched plans for a “take back control” bill that would enable councils and combined authorities to get more control over housing and planning, skills, energy and transport allowing local authorities to collaborate on long-term growth plans

Invigorating democracy at the neighbourhood level

What both policy platforms have in common is that they focus primarily on collaboration between local authorities, stopping short of devolving power to communities at the neighbourhood level.  

There is a clear case for tackling local growth or transport at a regional or sub-regional level, but this should not be at the expense of invigorating democracy at the neighbourhood level where people live.

This is backed up by research into the New Deal for Communities, which showed that the more control residents have over decisions affecting their lives, the more likely it is there will be positive impacts. 

We should place our trust and confidence in communities to take the lead on delivering in their areas, providing agency and opportunity for local people to tackle the causes of deep-seated issues based on their unique expertise, knowledge and networks.   

The think tank IPPR North has recently published a new report Handforth in hindsight: The future of hyperlocal government supported by Local Trust, that takes a timely look at the future of hyper-local neighbourhood governance. 

We hope this will re-invigorate the debate about what should happen at the neighbourhood level as part of the thinking around combined authorities.  

Local authorities as allies for community action

We know from our experience of the Big Local programme that supportive and engaged local authorities can be powerful allies for community action on the hyper-local level. 

As the new IPPR report highlights, 91 per cent of England’s landmass is covered by neighbourhoodlevel governance in the form of parish councils but this only accounts for 36 per cent of England’s population, with much of urban England not covered by parishes.  

As Local Trust explored in a report last year, Trusting local people: Putting real power in the hands of communities, this means that many of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country lack the kind of local, democratic structures to take control of essential social infrastructure like parks, public buildings, small community grants, entertainment and art.  

These are the types of responsibilities that can make a vital difference in how a community feels about the place they live.

The Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam recently looked back at the neighbourhood-level interventions of the last Labour government (the New Deal for Communities and Neighbourhood Management Pathfinders). We can see that the most significant positive impacts of these programmes related to people’s feelings about their neighbourhoods, and that there were strong associations between these outcomes and improvements to mental health.

How can we increase coverage of neighbourhood-level governance in England?

IPPR North recognises this in its new report with two practical recommendations setting out how we might increase coverage of neighbourhood-level governance in England:

  1. Local authorities should work in conjunction with residents where there is a desire to have a parish council. This should include establishing a clear framework and set of principles, to support existing community groups at the hyperlocal level to practically transition to a parish council.
  2. Establish a Community Wealth Fund, which disadvantaged neighbourhoods could draw down on to build the confidence and capacity of people to encourage participation at the hyper-local level. This could take the form of supporting initiatives aimed at the development of social capital, seeding new community institutions and enabling people to build skills in community leadership and advocacy.

Among the many important recommendations in the report, this final one is most crucial. If the most ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods (as identified in research by Local Trust and OCSI), experiencing the double disadvantage of high levels of deprivation and community need, are to take advantage of any new powers, they will need longterm capacity building support from a structure like the Community Wealth Fund.  

Without this, and with little existing social infrastructure, these neighbourhoods will struggle to follow any new path towards statutory neighbourhood governance and the benefits it can bring. 

Devolution can only succeed if it combines plans for local authorities to work together on a regional level with parallel steps to devolve powers directly to the neighbourhood level. 

If the next government is to truly make communities feel like they are taking back control, then they must not neglect neighbourhoodlevel governance. 

Read the full report Handforth in hindsight: The future of hyperlocal government from IPPR North.

About the author
Nick Beall

Nick Beall is the senior policy advisor at Local Trust.