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Power and leadership

The role of power in community development

Responding to David Boyle’s essay and timeline on a history of community development, Southwark council community development worker Kevin Dykes draws on his own experiences and asks what role does power play in community development?

You will, by the time you get this far, hopefully have already read David Boyle’s history of community development. Hopefully you’ve also had a chance to think about the fact that when we were born has a powerful influence on what we personally are likely to consider the most important events in the timeline.

I was born in 1961, but my starting year as someone who thought about ‘community power’ and its relation to community development was 1981. During the first half of the 1980s I was studying for an urban planning degree at the Polytechnic of Central London (PCL). Boyle’s timeline reminds me that a lot was happening around us at that time.

Global influence on community development

From the very local, such as the police station turned into a local arts centre in 1981, to the politically influential uprising in Brixton that same year. All of this against a background of mounting economic dislocation, as the old unionised heavy industries started to make way for agile, self-owned small businesses, amidst the start of globalisation.

Looking back, our lives were being shaped by globalisation, and community power at the local level was one of the sites for resistance. Not so different, then, to the landscape in 2021. You could point to both Hartlepool’s election of a ‘levelling up’ conservative politician and Extinction Rebellion’s opposition to new airports as very different examples of the same resistance to the process of globalisation.

I found things like Planning for Real, community planning and local participation great ways to do big things locally, at the human level.

A seat at the table

I learned a lot about community power at PCL. Much thinking then was about getting communities a seat at the table (committee tables mostly), where decisions about planning and regeneration were made. Later, when I started to work with communities in 1985, I found things like Planning for Real, community planning and local participation initiatives great ways to do big things locally, at the human level. After all, better housing supply has to mean real new buildings, in real existing local streets, at prices people can afford.

However exciting this work was, it never really got communities an equal say over what was done to their neighbourhoods. Regardless, we pressed on with it because there was no alternative. I never met Tony Gibson, who invented Planning for Real; but I happily learned from his work. I often used his methods whilst working for Planning Aid for London in the ‘90s, and in various local community groups in London such as Somers Town Area Partnership near King’s Cross.

Explore a history of community development

Politics, power and community development

The power of policy has also been significant. I agree with David Boyle’s assessment that the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) in the mid-1990s, and its innovation of an equal seat at the (committee) table for communities, was a revolution for community power.

This meant final decisions had to be scrutinised by local people. This move saw the Blair/Brown government follow swiftly on from those events. Once they had won the trust of the markets, New Labour spent money on community development, through programmes meant to redistribute wealth and power. A good example of this was the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund (NRF) launched in 2001. It had a bold vision: “Within 10 to 20 years no one should be seriously disadvantaged by where they live.”

Out of this anxiety about the future came the need to prove value, to make sure investments in local communities were making a real difference.

But was that all hot air? After all, 20 years on, what is the legacy of the NRF? It wasn’t intended to be food banks, surely. This was considered at the time and resulted in anxiety and near-panic, nobody was sure that the advances towards community power would last.

Out of this anxiety about the future came the need to prove value; the stress-relief of number counting to make sure investments in local communities were making a real difference (in the immediate financial year too, because who knew if there would be further money in the next).

A framework for measuring success

One of the most-used measurements of value for money in the 2000s was to count the number of people who felt they could influence decisions in their area. But this came with its problems. In 2008 a Community Development Foundation (CDF) report criticised this approach. It said that accurate and valid measuring of community power needed accessible methods. These methods would need to be ‘done with communities not done to communities’ and that there should be an understanding that change takes time and is not biddable by a minister’s need for “results”. That criticism gives us clues as to what went wrong in the years that followed the SRB and NRF; how we wound up with a legacy of food banks rather than widely resourced and empowered communities.

The challenge today is to make sure everyone understands that community power means learning from what has come before.

Yet we can and must also talk about measurements as vital to understanding and progress. Here’s one to think about: “The most deprived neighbourhoods in England have a COVID-19 mortality rate more than twice that of the most affluent. Likewise, people in the lowest paid occupations are twice as likely as those in higher occupational groups, such as professionals and business leaders, to die from COVID-19” (Independent SAGE, November 2020).

With history and that measurement in mind – remembering that everything is inter-dependent – it is somewhat clear what our challenge today is. We must make sure everyone who can help understands that community power means learning. Learning from mass and unnecessary COVID-19 deaths, learning from the magnificent Black Lives Matter movement. We must also remember none of this matters unless climate and biodiversity emergencies are addressed. Add to that mix the housing crisis, precarious employment and the unstoppable rise of AI, global inequalities at a mind-boggling level, and racism, hate crime and misogyny, one might wonder: why does anyone try? The answer is that we have to try, because the alternative is to give up.

This blog is part of a series responding to David Boyle’s essay and timeline on a history of community development. Explore more brilliant insights here.

About the author
Kevin Dykes

Kevin Dykes is still learning every day. As a community development worker at Southwark council, he witnesses communities struggling on a daily basis against racial injustice, for the future of young people, and to put food on the table.

He recommends re-listening to Reasons to be Cheerful by Ian Dury for some uplifting fun; and Dr Lonnie Smith’s new cover of Why Can’t We Live Together for some truth telling.