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Why we urgently need a Community Power Act – and what should be in it
Adam Lent, Director, NLGN, 11 November, 2019

NLGN’s Director makes the case for a new law that would shift power from public institutions and into the hands of citizens.

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The factors eroding the very foundations of our political and economic system will barely be addressed in this election. No-one will admit that the legitimacy of our democracy has been weakening for decades. No politician will lead on the profound threat to our public services, or admit that their obsession with economic growth at all costs has helped degrade our communities and environment As a result, this is an election that will be decided by entirely the wrong debates.

On the front-line of delivery, it is much harder to ignore the reality of these challenges. Public servants confront the consequences of weakened legitimacy, spiralling demand and economic dysfunction every day. Unlike national politicians, they are being forced to adapt, simply to survive.

As I outlined in a recent blog for The New Statesman’s Citymetric, this is leading to an emphasis on community power – the simple idea that institutions have to drop their paternalistic mind-set and hand power and resource over to communities to solve their challenges themselves. It is an approach that restores trust in public bodies, enables a move to preventative services and helps create sustainable local economies. This community power idea is now at the very heart of NLGN’s work.

The Crucial Role of National Politicians

But the failure of national politicians to honestly acknowledge the challenges let alone the solutions is now a major drag on this emerging wave of change. Political power is so deeply centralised that the capacity of the public sector to mobilise communities around their biggest challenges is always going to be limited. How, for example, can citizens really get to grips with worklessness in their communities when labour market and skills policy is almost entirely controlled by civil servants and ministers based in central London?

Currently, it takes a rare combination of courage, persistence and vision on the part of local leaders to adopt community power while it is at odds with the overwhelmingly paternalistic and institutional status quo. This means that the growing examples of community power have yet to add up to a total system shift. This is lamentable because the longer we leave that shift, the greater the risk that our system will descend deeper into crisis and the more lives will be damaged by the failings of institutional hierarchy.

Whole system shift can only be fully realised with the conviction and commitment of those with oversight of the whole system – ultimately national politicians. They need to recognise that they are the ones who must give permission for public servants to take the leap into a new world, and that they must also dismantle the national structures – such as top-down targets and inspection regimes – that reinforce institutional ways of working.

A Community Power Act

In this context, I am increasingly convinced that national politicians must pass a Community Power Act (CPA). It would have one overriding goal: to transfer significant power from the institutions of the state and public sector to communities and networks of citizens – what we at NLGN call ‘communitisation’.

What a CPA would legislate must, of course, be a subject of debate but to kick that off, I would suggest six elements.

  1. Communitising public services: all public sector institutions would be required to explain how they plan to transfer a significant amount of power and resource from institutional control to community control over the next decade.

  2. Communitising local economies: all public sector institutions and private sector bodies over a certain size would be required to explain how they plan to enable communities to create socially and environmentally sustainable local economies over the next decade.

  3. Participatory decision-making: councils and public sector bodies would be required to explain how they plan to move to a more participatory and deliberative process of decision-making over the next decade.

  4. Unconditional devolution and the duty to collaborate: there should be a process of devolving centrally held powers and funds down to local councils and existing public sector bodies. This will not require new institutional structures or tiers of governance. However, to ensure that communitisation plans are integrated across locations, there will be a new duty to collaborate imposed on councils and public sector bodies. And to ensure that duty is more than an aspiration, failure to collaborate will result in removal of devolved powers and funds.

  5. Guaranteeing communitisation: to ensure communitisation plans are fully implemented and effective, a new inspection regime will be established. This will be based in local areas, will be community-led and will replace the Whitehall. To ensure this inspection has teeth, devolved powers and funds could be removed if communitisation plans are not implemented effectively.

  6. Funding for communitisation: the Act would make significant financial provision to enable the transition from the current model of governance and service delivery to a new community-led approach.

As is clear, the scope of a Community Power Act is significant. If it has any analogue, it may well be the Communitisation of Public Services and Institutions Act 2002 implemented in the Indian state of Nagaland. This displayed an ambition equal to the task of totally overhauling a system that was failing its citizens and had, as a result, lost their trust.

What a CPA cannot be, however, is just one more piece of legislation amongst many others – such as the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015. Nor can community power be half-heartedly tacked on to other “more important” legislation as in the Localism Act 2011. The principle behind a CPA is a profound and comprehensive reformulation of the relationship between state and communities and, as such, would have to be the flagship legislation of any parliament and, quite possibly, a whole Government. Nothing less is needed.

@adamjlent

We’d like this to be the start of a conversation. Is there a case for a new community power law? And what would it involve? We’d like to hear your thoughts via twitter.com/NLGNthinktank or alent@nlgn.org.uk.


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