In the communities I’ve been working in over the past year it feels like it’s never been harder to do things in a community-led or participatory way. Even when communities show leadership, the past 12 months has shown that our legal frameworks, funding, and support are not enough to prevent the loss of high-profile community assets, such as the Ancoats Dispensary in Manchester that has been set aside for redevelopment despite years of activism and hard-won local ownership, or Hastings Pier in Sussex falling into private hands only months after winning a RIBA award for its community-led restoration and transformation. We have also continued to see a fall in the social infrastructure that creates community and connection, with Locality’s Save our Spaces campaign showing that an average of 4,000 publicly owned buildings and spaces in England are being sold off each year. Meanwhile, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s UK Poverty 2018 report, published in November, showed that four million workers are living in poverty – a rise of more than half a million over five years. It’s hard to take responsibility for your community and feel in control of very much at all when you don’t have the places to meet or even the basic means to live.
So far, so depressing. Perhaps all this talk of community leadership and changes in the power dynamic is hot air. I fear it will be if we continue to assume that simply designing structures or processes for participation and involvement will result in local communities stepping up in numbers to change the balance of it all. The bottom line is that too often the outcomes of our work – endless consultations, surveys, community panels - amount to little more than finding ways to legitimise institutional structures that are at the root of the problems we are trying to address. Instead, we need to grasp opportunities to help define the terms of a renegotiation between the state, business, and local communities. I believe we still have a chance and, indeed, now at our lowest ebb might just be our best ever chance.
Community leadership is, though, part of the mainstream political debate again. Central Government’s Civil Society Strategy in August 2018 set aims to give people a sense of control over the their future and community; to create places where local communities are empowered and take responsibility for where they live. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s recent collection of essays, Economics for the Many, says that, ‘we are seeking nothing less than to build a society that is radically fairer, more democratic, and more sustainable.’
The two-year Inquiry into Civil Society launched its findings in November 2018 and focused on four key themes in a pact: Power, Accountability, Collaboration, and Trust. Meanwhile, across social media and conference agendas in all sectors, from government to civil society, from academia to business, we can’t fail to notice the ever-rising rhetoric on movement building, distributed leadership, systems change, and inclusive growth. All of this can easily be dismissed as noise, but there do appear to be some small but tangible shifts.
People power and place-based funding have been growing as themes for the UK’s leading funders for many years. What feels like it might be different over the past year is a realisation that if they really want to see more local power and control then they will need to change their own funding practices, too. Take a look at the Big Lottery Fund. They’ve reconfigured how they work to have locally based funding officers out in the field. For some new funds they have abandoned formal application forms and replaced them with a conversational approach.
Alongside these changes, two of the Big Lottery Fund’s independent ‘spend down’ endowments, Power to Change and Local Trust, are maturing and turning their attention to legacy. Power to Change, a foundation I was part of building in its early days, is now exploring the future of itself and the community business movement, and is investing in major areas of economic challenge, such as housing, energy, and social care. Central Government is also starting to follow through its Community Housing Fund, investing £163m in community-led housing in England over the next two years. At Local Trust, where I am a relatively recent trustee, the Big Local programme – a radical investment that puts 150 communities across the UK in charge of at least £1m – is seeing these resident-led areas increase their confidence in placing bigger bets in similar fields, and starting to reframe the nature of their relationship and partnership with local councils in the process.
Maybe slowly but surely we are seeing the beginning of the end of funders asking organisations to come to them and then prove how they involve and are accountable to their local community, and instead coming to us and recognising the need for core funding to support community-led organisations to do this work on their terms. “Some of the hurdles we have to jump in the name of good governance actually lead you away from genuine community accountability. Where a conflict of interest can be removed by replacing community leaders with a board of distant and independent professionals, or where thousands of conversations with local people are not rewarded or supported because you aren’t the appropriate legal structure”, says Jess Steele, awarded an OBE for services to community assets in the UK, including her part in bringing Hastings Pier into community ownership in the first place. We can hope, too, for more nuanced and collaborative approaches to investing in place, rather than dogged adherence to each funder’s own unique flavour of what community leadership ought to look like. “Increasingly”, says Matt Leach, CEO of Local Trust, “there is recognition that legitimacy may come simply from being a long-term resident of a place, and accountability simply from the possibility of being questioned or challenged by your neighbour.”