Do we need a Community Power Act? A response by CEO Vidhya Alakeson

A blog by Power to Change CEO Vidhya Alakeson, in response to the calls for a Community Power Act

Over the last five years, Power to Change has supported over 1000 community businesses and community organisations on their journey. In that time, I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the dissonance between the amazing work I see in communities and the lack of national recognition for that work and the change it can create. For that reason, I commend Adam Lent for kicking off this debate with his call for a Community Power Act and I’d urge all of us who are committed to greater community power to work more closely together to build a more urgent case for change. But I’m sceptical about a Community Power Act as Adam has set it out.

In my experience, culture eats legislation for breakfast, even more so when you’re talking about power. That was my experience of working on the implementation of personal budgets and personal health budgets for 10 years – an attempt to shift power in public services to the individuals using those services. At the pilot stage, a number of local authorities and CCGs got it, there was a real power shift and peoples lives improved as a result. Once the approach become mandatory under legislation and lots of people had to implement it who had no real buy in to the approach, I was amazed how quickly the bureaucracy bit back. A lot of what got implemented was personalisation in name only, with little real power being shifted. The creative ways people found to hang onto power deserve a blog of their own.

That said, I think there could be room for the kind of legislation that does not mandate actions but provides a framework that legitimises community power and makes people act in ways that enhance it without mandating those specific actions. This is the approach Hilary Cottam suggests in her response to Adam, citing the Future Generations Act in Wales as a possible model. I do feel that we need a way to provide much greater legitimacy to action at the community level, something that changes my general Whitehall experience which is that community is quickly dismissed as fluffy; something that trumps the Treasury Green Book. It’s why I like Scotland’s Community Empowerment Act. Despite the fact it isn’t the radical legislation Adam is calling for, it establishes community as a legitimate focus for policy action and a greater role for community as an objective.

Another response to Adam has come from his New Local Government Network (NLGN) predecessor, Simon Parker. I agree that sustained investment in community organisations is essential if we want them to step up and do more, especially if we want to build capacity in places where it isn’t already strong. I remain frustrated, for example, that NHS England is rolling out social prescribing, without any parallel investment in the community sector to be able to effectively fulfill a significant expansion of its public service role.

Ideally this investment sits outside of the day to day control of government, resourced, for example, by the next wave of dormant assets as the Community Wealth Alliance is advocating. It belongs outside of government because this investment has to be long term. It must focus on building up community organisations themselves, including giving them assets for long term resilience, not just money to deliver programmes or meet specific outcomes. In tough communities like Winson Green in Birmingham where I was a couple of weeks ago, organisations like Newbigin Community Trust are becoming valuable neighbourhood anchors, creating economic opportunity and connecting people to create change but it’s a 15 not a five year journey.

This week, I was lucky enough to chair a session at the Locality Convention with two local authority chief executives, Kersten England from Bradford and Alison McKenzie-Folan from Wigan, who exemplify the new kind of public sector leadership we need. They give power away, work in partnership with community organisations and collaborate to make change happen. Do we grow more leaders like them by mandating a way of behaving that they exhibit naturally because of values, background and experience? I don’t think so.

I firmly believe that more power needs to be at the local rather than national level for community power to stand a chance. We are expecting local authorities to enact a revolution when they are at their most stretched. And yes, we need to train leaders differently as Simon has argued. But we also need to collectively celebrate those who work in the right way and what they achieve by doing so for others to sit up and take notice. I think it’s significant for this agenda that Wigan and Calderdale Councils are both ranked in top 10 most productive councils this year. Peers changing the behaviour of their peers is, in my experience, much more sustainable than any leadership training or mandated approach.

I realise that none of this sounds like the radical prescription that Adam is calling for. Maybe I am stuck in an incrementalist vein when the challenges call for nothing less than tearing things up and starting again. I suppose I can’t get away from the fact that much of this change is about mind set: do you fundamentally believe that people are experts in their own lives or not? I am not sure that legislation to mandate a power shift can effectively change mindsets.