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Neighbourhoods and communities
Deep poverty and destitution

Policy can support solutions from the ground up

Communities are working tirelessly to solve the problems holding people in poverty’s grip, but they need government policy to back them up.

Written by:
Ed Wallis
Date published:
Reading time:
5 minutes

What the residents on this estate did was band together and say this isn’t good enough. No one else is going to help us. No one else is bothered. We’ve got to do it ourselves. Let’s not talk about it, let’s do it.

Stuart Spandler, Former Chair Goodwin Development Trust

These words, about the formation of Goodwin Development Trust in Hull in the early 1990s, capture the shared origin story of many local community organisations. Right across the country, in places where the market has failed and the state has been unable to turn things around, local people have come together to take control of their destinies.

When communities own physical assets

Community ownership often sits at the heart of this. When communities take ownership of physical assets, it gives them real power. They are less dependent on other people’s decisions, whether that’s politicians or funders. With a physical presence at the heart of their community, they can earn their own income, generate wealth and retain that wealth in their neighbourhoods. They can operate at sufficient scale to collaborate effectively with the public sector, providing a huge range of different services and activities, and filling the gaps between various services and systems.

This community power can provide us all with precisely the hope we need in these difficult times, the hope that the daunting challenges we face might actually be surmountable. At Locality, we see it every day. The community organisations we support across the country are leading local economic development, providing services that prevent problems before they strike, and creating places and spaces for everyone. Instead of growing hardship, they are the building blocks of thriving neighbourhoods.

Policy needs to recognise the power of communities

Public policy has recognised this in fits and starts. Way back in 2004, the Labour government’s Firm Foundations strategy prioritised developing ‘strong, sustainable community anchor organisations’ as a ‘crucial focus’ of ‘development and change in their neighbourhood’. In 2007, the Third Sector Review affirmed that community anchor organisations were key partners for the government in achieving social justice goals, and backed them with strategic funding to support asset development.

The Coalition government took a more bottom-up approach, with the 2011 Localism Act creating a set of community rights, with new powers over services, planning and local assets. And in 2021 the Community Ownership Fund was established as a plank of Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ agenda.

However, all too often, the incredible work community organisations are doing to drive their neighbourhoods forward is still happening in spite of public policy, rather than because of it. Successive governments have refused to loosen the grip of Britain’s entrenched centralisation, or commit to the deep structural shifts needed to unlock real community power.

Restore a proper safety net

So how to change that? For a start, we need to fix specific problems created by austerity, and wider policy changes over the last decade. These have begun to alter the fundamental role played by community organisations. Traditionally they added to state provision, community development work proceeded on the basis that it was underlain by a reliable government safety net. But this has now frayed to such an extent that community organisations are having to fix gaping holes in it, providing basic, subsistence-level services. To restore the room for something more creative, we need to restore a proper safety net, which is why at Locality we are so supportive of JRF’s ‘Guarantee our Essentials’ campaign.

Super charge community power

Then, more positively, we can push on with the sort of community power revolution that tames systemic disadvantage and the hardship it entrenches. We need a total rewire of policy, so as to supercharge community power, rather than breaking the circuit.

We should start with a Community Power Act, to make real the decisive shift in the balance of power politicians have often promised, but never delivered. The new law would create powerful new community rights, extending real control over local spaces, services and spending. It would also establish Community Covenants across the country, power-sharing agreements between councils and communities which would devolve authority to the neighbourhood-level.

Community ownership and local economic development

Then we need a step-change in community ownership. The Community Ownership Fund has been a great start, demonstrating the demand from local people to save the spaces they love and take control of their neighbourhoods. We now need to go much further, with a new National Community Ownership Strategy that is hardwired into all areas of policy.

Local economic development is another opportunity. Here we could proactively support the development of sustainable community anchor organisations to lead regeneration in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. We should give residents more control over such spending as the Shared Prosperity Fund, and at the same time support community organisations to provide tailored and personalised employment support for their community.

Collaboration, not competition

We also need bold public service reform, making collaboration, not competition, the guiding principle. At present, interventions like the Social Value Act have sought to graft social elements onto a fundamentally unsocial system. The next government should think differently, and replace the competitive tendering paradigm with a system which supports enduring partnerships between the public sector and local communities. This will help unlock more preventative approaches.

Local people are the solution

Finally, rather than seeing local people as the problem in housing and planning, we must understand them as the solution. There are huge opportunities to grow community-led housing, small-scale housing projects that are designed, developed and managed according to local priorities. Meanwhile, ramping up neighbourhood planning could help them meaningfully reshape their areas.

These are all big ideas that can play their part in a community power revolution. They embody the missing ingredient in so much of today’s political debate, hope. Solutions to the big challenges we face are already quietly growing from the ground up; imagine what we could do if government as a whole got behind them.

About the author

Ed Wallis is the Director of Policy and Engagement at Locality.

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