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Power and leadership

Stronger Things heeds the call for powerful communities

Local Trust’s CEO Matt Leach reflects on New Local’s 2024 Stronger Things conference – and why we need to support communities to build power for themselves. 

It was great to be able to spend time at the Stronger Things conference this Tuesday – a brilliant day orchestrated by New Local focused on community power, and chock full of amazing people and inspiring energy. 

Speakers and attendees ranged from grassroots changemakers like the fantastic ‘Shape Shifters’ from Northwood Together Big Local in Kirby – who came together as a weight loss club but have become a dynamic force for good across their whole community – to a legion of council officers and leaders, busy reinventing what a local authority might look like if it embraced the power and potential of local people. 

In lots of ways, it felt like the coming together of a new tribe, one less bothered by old concepts of boundaries between sectors, unconstrained by existing assumptions about traditional models of organisation or funding, and much more interested in how we can – collectively – build and sustain better places for people to live their lives. One that places local people and communities at its heart. 

Creating new sources of community power and resource

Too often in the past when we have talked about community power, discussions have hinged on devolution, democratic involvement, co-production, perhaps deliberation, or diverted into already well-trodden discussions about where responsibility for service delivery might lie between the state and the voluntary sector. 

Important though these debates are, they can portray power as zero sum, owned by the state which can choose to share it or transfer it to others. One of the most obvious limits to this paradigm is that we are currently operating in a system which – when it comes to power and resources – is already operating at a deficit.

Whatever the outcome of next month’s election, demographics and economics are placing constraints on what the state is capable of delivering. And whilst involving local people in decision-making and design can undoubtedly result in more efficient, effective and better targeted service delivery, it isn’t and can never be enough

Where power is neglected and allowed to run down, it can be incredibly difficult to get it back.”

Instead, we need to think deeply about how we support the creation of new sources of power and resource within communities, with a laser focus on the places where it is at its weakest – a source of double disadvantage for many of our most deprived neighbourhoods. 

Building communities that are powerful in their own right

The new tribe that assembled at Stronger Things earlier this week was notable in that it recognises that power isn’t just something that is rationed or transferred. 

It can also be created, most importantly through people coming together, building the civic and social networks – both formal and informal – that provide identity, connection and trust. Where they exist, we see communities that are not simply reliant on getting a share of the power of others, but ones that are powerful in their own right. 

But what can be created can also be destroyed, and where power is neglected and allowed to run down, it can be incredibly difficult to get it back

The data backs this up, particularly in relation to people’s experience of life in relation to poverty and deprivation. 

We can see down to a neighbourhood level that the communities with the worst outcomes across the full range of socio-economic measures are those that are both highly deprived and lack – or, more often, have lost – the social infrastructure that bound them together. Often these places are the epicentre of many of the challenges, whether health, education, opportunity or crime, that will confront any incoming government in four weeks’ time. 

Many of the places most affected are communities that were once rich in civic assets, but have over recent decades, seen them disappear. Shared workplaces, trade unions, workers institutes and assembly rooms; pubs, clubs and community centres; these institutions catalysed the inherent power that local people created and enabled the power created by association.

The private sector retreated and then, too often, this was followed by the austerity-driven retreat of the local state, delivering a double blow to the social fabric of those communities, compounding the economic challenges they faced. 

Meanwhile, at a national level, the neighbourhood programmes that might in the past have addressed those losses were largely abandoned at the end of the noughties and have been notable by their absence since, from both Labour and Conservative policy platforms. 

It is not as if these programmes didn’t work – evaluations of the New Deal for Communities showed that it was value for money and hit most of its targets – a rare feat these days for any government policy. Indeed, for many years there was a cross-party consensus that this was important and needed leadership and investment at a national level, whether it was badged as Neighbourhood Renewal or the Single Regeneration Budget. 

The overwhelming message from Stronger Things was of a shared determination to look hard at how we support communities – particularly the most deprived – to build power for themselves.”

But the one new national policy initiative in this space in the last decade – the dormant asset funded (though not yet launched) Community Wealth Fund – was the result of a sustained cross sectoral campaign, rather than something initiated from within the government itself. 

The cost of failing to act

The overwhelming message from Stronger Things was of a shared determination to look hard at how we support communities – particularly the most deprived – to build power for themselves.  

It can be done. Local Trust’s experience of delivering the Big Local programme provides a model of how it can be achieved, but there are other models that can be drawn on too. 

Over the coming months, we will be looking to assemble research on the effectiveness of a broader range of neighbourhood level policy interventions and their ability to make a difference.

What is common to them all is that they are not expensive when compared to the costs that arise from failing to act. But, however you approach it, rebuilding community power where it has been lost does take time, patience and commitment. 

Local Trust will shortly be publishing recommendations for the next government. At their heart will be a call for a greater recognition, across parties, of the importance of neighbourhoods as a focus for national policy priorities. And alongside this, a highlighting of the shared challenge we face in rebuilding the social fabric of our most disadvantaged and neglected neighbourhoods. 

About the author
Matt Leach

Matt Leach is the CEO of Local Trust