Whoever wins the election, communities will have an important role to play defining their own future, says Matt Leach, chief executive of Local Trust.
The 2017 UK General Election has seen both main political parties place huge emphasis on the role of the state – both national and local – in tackling the major issues challenging the United Kingdom.
From addressing inequality to generating economic prosperity to achieving community cohesion, the two main party manifestos identify action by government as key to addressing the nation’s problems.
What is noticeable is the extent to which community-led solutions are largely absent from both manifestos, something that would have seemed inconceivable at the start of a decade in which the political narrative was – initially – all about the need to decentralize and share power, whether to elected mayors, city regions or local neighbourhoods and communities.
National strategies and community-led solutions
We wait now to see how manifesto provisions are fleshed out in the post-election era. What is very clear is that whatever the election result, the need to engage with place, address the needs of areas that have too often been left behind, tackle deprivation and address concentrations of poverty and social need won’t go away.
And whilst both main parties highlight the important roles of national and local industrial strategies in tackling imbalances in economic performance, there will also be a need post-election to reassert the importance of effective engagement with and involvement of communities themselves in co-designing and delivering solutions capable of turning around our most deprived areas.
Limits on what the state can deliver
We enter a new political cycle at a time when, irrespective of the party in power, the state will continue to face limits on its ability to deliver in ways we have in the past taken for granted. An aging population has seen health care costs soar, squeezing funds available for other purposes; despite pressure on benefits to the poorest, pensions and benefits together now consume more central government resource than delivered services.
The IFS remarked before the election that both main parties’ plans were flawed – one planning cuts that were potentially incompatible with sustaining existing public services; the other promising increases in expenditure which might not be realistically funded by expected tax receipts.
With less available from central and local government, we need a new, shared conversation around what comes next.
A new and inclusive conversation
We need to talk about what we can realistically expect from the state; the extent to which individuals and communities may need to self-provide (something raised and swiftly closed down as a debating point early in the election campaign); and how we can – collectively – create new and sustainable ways of living for all that make up our society. And we need to do so in an inclusive way that recognises and resolves differing needs and expectations honestly and constructively, rather than promoting resource conflict and inflaming intra-community and inter-generational tensions.
Whilst this election has been a contest between the two establishment parties, in the longer term if we fail to address what are shared social and political challenges, the risk of disaffection, alienation, polarisation and the embracing of the simplistic solutions of the extremes will remain higher than at any point in the recent past.
Over the last five years, Local Trust has been working with 150 Big Local areas in England – communities which are often more deprived than other neighbourhoods and have historically failed to benefit from Lottery, government and other investment.
Big Local areas offer useful evidence
We have provided each with £1m of no-strings attached funding to enable local people to build and develop their own solutions to improve their areas. It provides no easy solutions, but has been generating huge evidence of the potential of communities to self-organise, self-fund and self-commission outcomes at a local level in ways which national and local states can sometimes struggle to achieve.
Over the next twelve months, as the post-election landscape resolves itself, we’ll be actively sharing the learning from our work to date and that of Big Local areas, in the hope it may be of value, both in Big Local areas and more widely, as a contribution to consideration of how we collectively create a new and sustainable settlement in what will be very different times.
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This is a version of a presentation given to Big Local areas by Matt Leach at their Spring Events during April and May 2017.