As we respond to the challenge of COVID-19 there are lessons to be learnt about how local government and communities can work together for stronger results, Margaret Bolton, director of policy at Local Trust shares her thoughts
Shortly before the government banned mass gatherings, hundreds of representatives from the UK’s public sector and beyond joined the New Local Government Network (NLGN) at their annual conference – “Stronger Things: unleashing community power”.
This year’s conference theme stemmed from NLGN’s Community Paradigm work, which advocates that solutions to our most pressing challenges can only be found in our local communities, with the public sector, and particularly local authorities, working alongside them. This philosophy is very much at the heart of Local Trust and the work we do to support 150 Big Local areas across England. And, it seems even more pertinent now amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, where we have seen an impressive and rapid response from many local communities, rooted in trust and strong local networks. These groups filled a gap before the public sector was able to organise support on the ground and many are now working with local government to ensure the needs of their most vulnerable and isolated members continue to be met.
The current situation provides an unprecedented opportunity for communities and local authorities to collaborate and coordinate, recognising each other strengths – but it could become the moment where mistrust and imbalances of power become further entrenched. The discussions we had in early March at the NLGN conference seem significant if we are to make sure it’s the former, not the latter.
Local Trust staff, trustees and representatives from two Big Local areas facilitated two workshops at the NLGN event. Each considered the barriers to local authorities transferring more power and control to communities and how they might be overcome, the barriers had been previously identified by local authorities in a survey before the conference. The answers we got were fairly predictable, including concerns about whether communities had the skills and experience, about whether public money would be wasted and about compliance and accountability. Many of the same barriers – perceived or real – are coming to the fore now.
The discussions were structured into debates to help participants probe some of the nuances, for example we asked in one breakout:
If given responsibility for a budget will a local community really waste the money?
Experience from the Big Local programme, which Local Trust administers, and in which resident-led partnerships in neighbourhoods decide how to spend £1m to improve their areas, is that they tend to regard the cash as a really precious resource and are very prudent in how they spend it. Some contrasted this with the waste that is a recurrent feature of many big public sector projects.
Similarly, participants agreed that community groups are best placed to take small scale risks, can more readily work on trust, can make a rapid response, and for many the size and nature of their projects means that heavy compliance burdens would be inappropriate.
When discussing accountability, a point was made that there are different types of accountability. There’s accountability through the ballot box but there’s also accountability to your neighbours. Local democratic accountability is weak and distant when compared to the proximity of the “living on the doorstep accountability” of community members leading local projects.
That is not to say that community groups have all the answers of course. It was acknowledged that this is about working together in ways that properly acknowledge and play to the strengths of councils and those of communities – sharing power, resources and insights as partners and with parity of esteem.
Community collaboration in practice
A recurrent question was how can councils best support community building? The idea of councils acting in ways that help connect, resource, and inspire local community activity was explored:
Connect – some participants gave examples of local authorities connecting people with others in the community working on similar issues, convening and supporting them with their deep knowledge, data insight and experience of the area as a whole, their understanding of the levers for and mechanisms of policy change and of regulatory requirements.
Resource – several participants spoke of the need for long term unrestricted funding to build community capacity and resilience. They described local authorities as helping communities access resources for example, providing rate relief and helping navigate grant application processes.
Inspire – local authorities can inspire by sharing their practice in effectively supporting community groups and transferring decision making power and resources to them.
There was also some discussion of the values that need to underpin such work – bravery (seek forgiveness rather than permission), humility (we don’t know all the answers) and vulnerability (acknowledging that we don’t always get things right first time).
What was clear from these conversations was the genuine commitment on the part of local authorities present to the principle of community power and control twinned with anxiety about how to operationalise it successfully.
Our main key take–away was that both community groups and local authorities should play to their strengths. There’s a time and a place for big projects with a high compliance burden but these should be complementary to neighbourhood-level responses supported and enabled by local authorities.
This approach to community building is essential for improving the most deprived communities and will be vital to any programme of community renewal in the aftermath of COVID-19. It is for this reason that we are part of the Community Wealth Fund Alliance, calling on government to commit the next wave of dormant assets (from bonds, stocks, shares and insurance policies), matched with private sector funding, to a Community Wealth Fund. This Fund would invest in the most deprived neighbourhoods over a long-term period, giving residents power over spending decisions. In this manner, the Fund would build the confidence and capacity of residents, allowing them to work collaboratively with local government to drive change.
We have already seen how many communities have been able to mobilise in response to COVID-19. Now is the time to harness the expertise and passion of local residents to work alongside local authorities to build stronger, resilient communities for the future.
The Community Wealth Fund would help to achieve this. Add your voice to an Alliance of over 200 public, private and voluntary organisations and help to make it a reality.