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Power and leadership

Meet Elinor Ostrom – the intellectual hero of community power

New Local’s latest report, Think Big, Act Small, uses the work of Elinor Ostrom and support from Local Trust to make the case for real community rights, re-imagined devolution, and the emergence of a facilitative state. Here, the report’s author, Simon Kaye, explores what it means for communities nationwide.

Elinor Ostrom was a Nobel Prize-winning scholar who disrupted many previously unassailable assumptions about people’s ability to cooperate and solve problems without supervision. It turns out that, given the right conditions and the space and time to develop trusting relationships, communities can establish their own systems and rules, manage their own resources and assets. Very often, they will do so in a more efficient and locally attuned way than the government or a big business.

That communities can and do accomplish this kind of self-governance is Ostrom’s most well-known insight.”

This, of course, would come as little surprise to the many people around the country who already making their neighbourhood a better place to live through the Big Local programme. With programmes that are resident-led over the long term, and communities have real authority over how funds get invested and spent, the Big Local programme provides a series of extraordinary test cases for the arguments that Ostrom made. These are even more important in that they function within the inhospitable context of our heavily over-centralised country.

That communities – every day, all over the world – can and do accomplish this kind of self-governance is Ostrom’s most well-known insight. New Local’s latest report, supported by Local Trust, explores the implications of this work. But Think Big, Act Small also reaches further, to other aspects of Ostrom’s scholarship, to establish her as a crucial intellectual inspiration for the advocates of localism and community power in the UK.

Mobilised communities can innovate, create, and play to the needs of their unique local strengths.”

As well as exploding the myth of community incapability, Ostrom was also a dedicated democrat. She thought politics and decision-making should be smaller-scaled whenever possible, and closer to people, so they would stand a better chance of being citizens and participants rather than clients, customers, or dependents.

Ostrom also argued that the diversity of approaches that can emerge when things are more local, and communities are more involved and autonomous, can produce huge advantages of another kind. Mobilised communities can try new things, in different places, and at different scales. They can innovate, create, and experiment, and they can play to the needs of their particular contexts and unique local strengths. The results can be far more legitimate, meaningful, and better suited and adapted to the challenges in each place.

The Big Local programme demonstrates that communities can make a huge difference to their own local quality of life.”

Think Big, Act Small includes several examples of Big Local projects among its case studies.

In Barrow Island, the community chose to rescue and renovate a single principle local asset, restoring it to life and giving it a crucial role at the heart of the neighbourhood.

In Barrowcliff in Scarborough, the community has slowly expanded the opportunities and services made possible by Big Local funding. This has led to the creation of new green spaces, new offerings for children and young people, job-matching services, community cycling schemes, and many other people-powered ventures.

The challenge now is to bring the autonomy and empowerment afforded by Big Local to every UK community.”

Just as the public response during the pandemic showed that, given time, people will tend to find ways to support each other and offer mutual aid, the Big Local programme demonstrates that, given resources, communities can make a huge difference to their own local quality of life. This is why Think Big, Act Small concludes with, among other things, a call for proper support and funding for both communities and a new generation of civil society projects.

The challenge now is to bring the autonomy and empowerment afforded by the Big Local programme to every UK community that wants it, through an Ostrom-inspired rebalancing of power. We hope Think Big, Act Small can help to bring that radical change about.

Think Big, Act Small was kindly supported by Local Trust, Power to Change, and the Centre for the Study of Governance and Society at King’s College London.