Once communities are given some control, they rarely give it back. Instead, they go on to develop more ambitious plans and demand more power. We have to set this dynamic in motion if we want to create real change for communities in Britain.
Today marks the start of Communities Week, a government initiative to highlight all the good stuff communities are doing up and down the country. More and more, we hear about the importance of working closely with communities. Just as an example, last month’s Civil Society Strategy talks about how government would make more sensitive and appropriate policy, and achieve better economic and social results, by working with individuals and communities in a place, as well as service providers and the private sector. What exactly do we mean when we talk about working more closely with communities? I think there are three critical parts to getting it right.
The first is to really listen to communities and what they want. This sounds so basic but rarely happens. This was brought home to me when I visited the White City Estate in West London. There’s a building on the estate which acts as a community hub and out of which White City Enterprise runs a range of programmes to support the local community. As part of the agreement with the private company that manages the estate for the council, the building was refurbished top to toe with new windows and doors. Meanwhile, the building next door that used to be a health centre remains mothballed. Ask the community and they would have preferred a less thorough refurbishment of the first building to allow some of the money to be spent on reopening the second. But no one asked them.
- Value local talent
The second is to draw on the full range of assets and resources in the community. You get things done quicker and more cheaply that way and critically get greater buy-in. However disadvantaged a community when seen through statistics, all communities are rich pools of talent, expertise and resources. The Bevy, a community-owned pub and community hub on the Bevendean and Mouslcoomb estate in Brighton is proud of the fact that they rarely need to pay for repairs. There are plenty of locals with the skills to fix things for the simple offer of a pint as a thank you. In Ennerdale Bridge in Cumbria, volunteers keep the community-run café stocked with cakes year-round. The volunteer bakers can claim expenses but provide their time for free, helping the café to remain profitable.
- Give communities real decision power
The third is to ensure that community members have real decision-making power. They are not just listened to and given a role, they are given power and control. Several of the Big Local partnerships in which residents are put in the lead of deciding how £1 million is spent to improve their local area demonstrate the difference genuine control can make. Areas where council improvements were traditionally vandalised, have seen no vandalism of projects owned by local people. The community greenhouse on the Sale West estate in Greater Manchester is one example; the park in the Chatham area of Luton another. Local residents attribute this change to the fact that both projects are in the hands of the community itself, not owned by a remote social landlord, the council or private developer.
Working with communities in this way isn’t easy. It takes time, energy and skill – things that are in short supply in local government where this matters most. But the effort undoubtedly pays dividends in terms of better outcomes at lower cost and more ongoing engagement from communities in shaping the future of their place. Once communities are given some control, they rarely give it back. Instead, they go on to develop more ambitious plans and demand more power. We have to set this dynamic in motion if we want to create real change for communities in Britain.
Hear more examples of local people taking power and making change happen in Vidhya’s podcast episode ‘Learning to let go: the case for community control.’