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Organising and deciding Power and leadership

Powerful local communities are key to a sustainable future

Strong local communities aren’t just nice to have – they are fundamental to a sustainable future. In this blog, Local Trust’s director of partnerships and learning James Goodman makes the case that setting out the pathways to more powerful communities is one of the most important projects for today’s society.

Community feeling in the UK is strong. In a fast-paced, globalised and digitally mediated world, one might imagine feelings of community would be quickly eroded. But the vast majority of people still feel satisfied with the place where they live, chat to their neighbours frequently and feel that their neighbourhood is a place where people from different backgrounds get on well together and, as last year’s Community Life Survey put it, “pull together to improve the local area”.

This is one area where COVID-19 has had a positive impact. Survey after survey is showing how bonds within communities have strengthened during the pandemic, creating a platform for ‘building back’ our society with stronger communities at its heart (though that is certainly not the case everywhere).

This is important, because powerful communities – where people living in a neighbourhood are willing and able to work together to improve things – are key for creating a better future.

The evidence in favour of stronger communities

The potential for community power has been documented in depth by New Local in their brilliant report Community Power: The Evidence, which cites example after example of community power in action, and sets out the opportunity for a radically different and much more effective way of delivering public services. As the authors write:

“…communities have a wealth of knowledge and assets within themselves, which if understood and nurtured by practitioners and policymakers, has the potential to strengthen resilience and enable prevention-focused public services”.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)’s Environmental Justice Commission sees similar potential in communities. In their report for Local Trust, The Climate Commons, they argue that strong communities are critical for learning to adapt to and shape a resilient net-zero society and economy – and that supporting communities with the resources, skills and power necessary to play that role is crucial for a just transition.

Local community action was critical in distributing food to vulnerable and sheltering people during lockdown.

Powerful communities are a route towards more resilient and sustainable systems in multiple domains across society and the economy. Throughout the pandemic, Local Trust has been working with partners from different sectors, exploring the role that communities have been playing in the response, drawing significantly on the experiences of Big Local partnerships. Our work with the Education Policy Institute explored the importance of a connected, active community in supporting schools and the education of young people, showing how “communities of teachers, businesses, charities and parents have pulled together to fill gaps in resources on a local and national level.”

Our project with Sustain showed how local community action was critical in distributing food to vulnerable and sheltering people, and found that “developing food systems at a more local scale is crucial to ensuring environmental and financial sustainability, thereby benefitting the local land, economy, workers and residents.”

This is increasingly being recognised in the corridors of power. Danny Kruger MP, in his influential report for the prime minister, Levelling Up Our Communities, wrote that:

“What is missing in our current model is community power: the role of local people, acting together spontaneously or through enduring institutions, to design and deliver the kind of neighbourhood they want to be part of. The economic and social model we need for the future has community power, and the civil society that enables it, at its heart. This is the way to level up the country – to make great places ‘from within’ rather than by outside interventions.”

Community power works because people who know and love their communities are more likely to know what is best for them.

This emerging narrative of community power as a new organising principle for the future is not confined to the UK. In the US there is a growing body of evidence showing how supporting community power can help bring people together and heal divisions, as with the example of the Building Healthy Communities initiative in California, where community organising and empowerment has led to significant shifts in schools and parks policy. And the approach is more and more common in the field of international development.

It is fundamental to the Big Local programme. And it is one of the long-term goals of Local Trust to learn from the experience and successes of Big Local, and to be part of a major shift of power to local places, a reformed economy and politics.

Why does community power work?

Community power works in part because people who know and love their communities are more likely to know what is best for them than people people in offices miles away. As research by Local Trust documented, in the crisis following the first COVID-19 lockdown:

“Big Local partnerships were often able to find out and address what people needed before local authorities could mobilise. Partnerships made the most of their networks and relationships, and often took to their streets and neighbourhoods, knocking on doors to find out what was required and where they could add value.”

A powerful community is not simply one that is consulted, engaged or involved in decision-making processes on other people’s terms.

Context and conditions vary widely from place to place, even down to street level. Centralised, top-down systems assume that one size more-or-less fits all, and lead to decisions being made about a place based on broad patterns and assumptions. These often struggle to accommodate the specifics of local culture, history, assets and geography, which all matter so much for determining outcomes.

Challenges also manifest differently in a local community, where people are in close, ongoing relationships. Working through remote institutions often focused on single issues, such as mental health, youth crime, homelessness or air pollution, there is a risk that such issues are seen and treated in isolation, leading to the sort of inefficiencies and service failure documented powerfully in Hillary Cottam’s book, Radical Help.

A community is where problems come together – you can see the connections and interdependencies and are pushed to work with interconnected systems rather than single issues. This leads to longer-lasting, more people-centred solutions.

How is community power developed?

A powerful community is not simply one that is consulted, engaged or involved in decision-making processes on other people’s terms. It is a community that plays a strong role in shaping its own future, on its own terms. For that to happen, a number of factors need to be in place, as we are learning from almost a decade of research about Big Local.

A powerful community harbours a number of people with the confidence, skills and desire to get involved and change things for the better (the sort of things that Local Trust is supporting through our Community Leadership Academy). Those people are willing and able to build meaningful, productive relationships with others. They are also involved in a rich mix of formal and informal organisations and institutions present in the community, which have the capacity to work in partnership together and with the public sector and local government.

Now – perhaps – the time for community power has finally come – as a new, more equitable, resilient and sustainable way of organising.

With that bedrock of confident people and organisations working together, a community is or becomes powerful – able to take control of, or even create, new assets like community centres, pubs or gardens, develop thriving community businesses that generate income and jobs and keep them in the neighbourhood, and organise, mobilise and communicate in pursuit of the support or change they need, both as individual communities and in larger coalitions.

Powerful communities like this exist across the country, but in many places people have been held back or have lacked support, and the conditions are not conducive for participation. Much has rightly been made of the flowering of mutual aid during the COVID-19 pandemic, but this was much more common in areas richer in social infrastructure, human connections and social capital.

Research has shown that neighbourhoods in ‘left behind’ areas were less likely to come together and help each other out – and were also less likely to receive emergency funding. Where a community has been ignored and unsupported for a long time, it could take a long time to build back up. Often this disparity between funding and actual need is a barrier to communities becoming powerful, which is why Big Local –almost unique as a funding programme with its timescales of 10-15 years – is so important.

The past, present and future of community power

Local Trust’s timeline of community development shows how the roles of local communities and efforts to support them have waxed and waned over the decades. We’ve published it to bring a historical perspective to those of us today who are advocating for community power.

In his essay Counterweight, the timeline’s author David Boyle laments the lack of collective memory among the fields of community development and leadership. He notes: “My own experience is that there is a horizon of memory of only about 10 years before the lessons are forgotten and have to be learned all over again”. We want to extend that horizon of memory, and build on what has been learned, rather than blindly invent and reinvent.

Now – perhaps – the time for community power has finally come – as a new, more equitable, resilient and sustainable way of organising.

More and more local authorities are creating the structures and frameworks that allow communities to participate fully in decision-making.

Many factors hamper community power being realised. Community action often depends on a small number of leaders, who often lack support, are poorly paid or not paid at all, and frequently suffer from burnout. Formal and informal community-based organisations struggle to raise core funding. Large institutions that want to work alongside communities find it difficult when internal systems and incentives prevent genuine power sharing to allow communities to lead and shape processes.

Stepping back, as New Local has observed, there is an ‘evidence paradox’ right across society, in which:

“Community power practice, approaches and initiatives are required to demonstrate their own worth according to measures that are not set up to recognise their value. The value of community power is best captured qualitatively, yet the metrics are quantitative.”

A change of mindset and values is necessary.

But the political opportunity for change is real, with the levelling-up agenda dominating political discussion. And as our report, The future is ours, sets out, there are many trends that over time promise to shift economic and political power towards the local neighbourhood. More and more local authorities are taking radical steps and creating the structures and frameworks that allow communities to participate fully in decision-making.

The story of community power is strengthening, and across the Big Local network and countless more places across the country. People are doing amazing things to create positive futures for their communities. Sustaining and accelerating this momentum in the years ahead is one of the most important projects for society today.