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The Community Paradigm: a movement more mainstream than you might think

Matt Leach, CEO at Local Trust, responds to new research by Local Trust and New Local setting out the evidence base behind the Community Paradigm. 

It’s hard to know – mid-pandemic – what you need to focus on most at any point in time.  Dealing with immediate crises – something Big Local areas have stepped up to the mark on heroically across the country; looking to the near future, which for many of us – thankfully – is the imminent prospect of vaccination; or looking to the longer term.

Often the short term can be most pressing and compelling, but over recent months it has been important to ensure that this doesn’t distract from the important longerterm stuff coming down the track. Whilst most daytoday media focus has been on the roll-out of vaccines and road maps out of lockdown, over recent months we have started to see a gradual sketching out of the shape of what Britain might look like after COVID.

Changes to the way in which power and resources are distributed nationally must be accompanied by a commitment to build local communities.”

Over the past six months we have seen white papers and other announcements setting out plans to radically overhaul the NHS and further education; planning reforms have been proposed that may in time change the face of our towns and cities; and more details have emerged about ambitions to tackle regional economic imbalances and level up places that have been left behind.

Some parts of what is proposed reflect last year’s #buildbackbetter campaign – in particular a sharp focus on tackling climate change (the subject of a recent Local Trust online seminar). Other elements of it point to what – over time – might amount to a substantial overhaul of the institutional architecture of the nation, changing it significantly from what has gone before.

But for any of these to be successful, there will be a need to recognise that any significant changes in the ways in which power, resources and decision-making is distributed nationally cannot simply amount to a shuffling of power and resource between Westminster and Town Halls (or local health trusts). They need to be accompanied by a commitment to build the local communities into the heart of that new and emerging settlement.

New ways in which state and communities are working together are gathering speed across the country.”

The good news is that new research commissioned by Local Trust from think tank New Local shows that at the same time as national government is setting out its plans for change, we are seeing at a local level the emergence of new ways in which state and the community sector are working together; and that these new models of working are gathering speed and popularity across the country. 

In pulling together an impressive evidence base for what has become known as the new Community Paradigm, this report shows the emergence of new model of facilitative state which challenges and empowers communities to collaborate in developing and delivering solutions to some of the most complex problems they face.

We have known the value of community power for years; we have seen it in action across the 150 resident-led Big Local areas that we’ve been working with since 2012. Using the £1.1m provided to each of them by the National Lottery Community Fund, Big Local partnerships have stepped up to provide for their communities. 

Often this has required – initially – a slow and patient rebuilding of community confidencethe strengthening of local institutions and growth in civic capacity at a local level – particularly important in places where it has struggled to sustain itself due to the pressures of economic change and social deprivation. But, over time, that investment has borne fruit, helping local people deliver solutions for themselves, but as importantly developing strong and valuable relationships with their local authorities.

With partnership working and collaboration and mutual support and respect replacing transactional or combative and conflict-based relationshipsThis change in relationships was captured in an essay by David Boyle published just before COVID but still relevant now. It showed the ways in which local authorities had come to respect the expertise of local residents and the trust that Big Local partnerships had in their local communities.

Community groups were often first to respond to COVID-19, moving faster and with greater impact than the state.”

During the pandemic, we have seen the challenges facing communities change, with many Big Local partnerships developing new ways of working with their local authority. As our ongoing research with the Third Sector Research Centre has shown, back in March community groups were often first to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, moving faster and with greater impact than the state.

As the pandemic has worn on, however, the work done by local community groups such as Big Local partnerships has increasingly operated in tandem with state efforts to support residents, with local authorities seeking to tap into the networks that Big Local areas have built in order to ensure everyone in the community is kept safe.

In Keighley Valley Big Local, for example, the partnership has been working alongside Bradford Metropolitan Borough Council and the Hainworth Community Centre to ensure that their “Doorstep Support” programme is a success. This programme seeks to provide all residents in the area with the supplies and vital social support that they need. It is only through this partnership working, pooling resources and knowledge, that this programme has been sustained throughout the year.

But at the same time, research by OCSI for the APPG for Left Behind Neighbourhoods showed very early in the COVID crisis how deprived communities with lower levels of pre-existing civic engagement found it harder to mobilise local volunteer effort and lever in external resources to support local residents.

Government must commit to levelling up the civic life of communities alongside its vision of transformed local economies.”

Whilst the new report by New Local shows the value of collaboration between local government and community-level institutionsthere is a risk that without a focus on building community strength in areas where it has become weaker or disappeared we risk the new paradigm opening up another axis of inequality – between those areas able to mobilise and engage at a community level and those that cannot. 

It is for this reason that Local Trust has been working alongside an alliance of over 380 public, private and voluntary sector organisations to call for a Community Wealth Fund. This would use the next wave of dormant assets (funding from orphaned bonds, stocks, shares, insurance and pension policies) to give power directly to residents in the 225 ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, identified in our research published last year, over a 10-15 year period. This would seek directly to support the development of social infrastructure, civic institutions, community activity and engagement in those communities, helping them play their part in the new and emerging paradigm described by New Local.

If government is to embrace the new models of community power emerging at a local level and make them part of its wider vision of a new post-COVID Britain it needs to demonstrate a commitment to levelling up the civic life of our communities alongside its vision of transformed local economies. We’ve been given a road map out of lockdown. It’s time to provide a similarly ambitious and positive vision to transform left behind communities across the country. 

Read the full report