Three key recommendations from Onward’s new report

We need to give individuals and communities both the necessary power and capital to shape their neighbourhoods, but for this to happen, we need reform at both a national and local government level.

Nick Plumb

Policy Manager

Onward’s new Policies of Belonging research provides a useful framework for policymakers thinking about how we repair our fraying social fabric. Simply, the authors argue that we need to give individuals and communities both the necessary power and capital to shape their neighbourhoods, as visualised through their ‘Social Fabric Matrix’. For this to happen, we need reform at both a national and local government level.

At Power to Change, we believe that no one understands a community better than the people who live there. We have also built a strong evidence base to show that community businesses are uniquely placed to tackle some of our biggest social, environmental, and economic challenges. This includes putting communities front and centre of the fight against climate change, providing people furthest from the labour market a route back into work, and meeting local affordable housing needs that are not being met by traditional methods of supply.

So, we’re pleased to be a supporting Onward’s Repairing our Social Fabric programme, alongside the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Shelter. Some of the recommendations in the report are things we’ve been advocating for some time and behind which momentum is building. Others are new ideas with the potential to transform the role of community in our policymaking. Here I focus on three of the report’s key recommendations.

1. Legislate to create Community Improvement Districts (CIDs) to give power to local community groups to shape the lived environment of their areas

There is often a lack of access to power and governance systems at a local level which can connect communities with the levers that drive town centre regeneration. Without meaningful access to formal mechanisms, too often community involvement is ad hoc, and dependent on the benevolence of bigger players in a local place – whether that’s developers or local government.

Community Improvement Districts would put communities on an equal footing to their business and local authority counterparts in the community. Inspired by Business Improvement Districts, CIDs would give local stakeholders and community champions greater participation and stewardship in determining how their local area is viewed economically, socially and environmentally. We’re working with Centre for London to further explore how this model would work in practice.

2. Help local people take over empty buildings and shops on the high street for community use

At Power to Change we know the power of community ownership. Local buildings, such as libraries, post offices and pubs are critical to the social fabric of a place. But they are disappearing at pace. Community ownership and management provides communities with a stake in their local place, helps drive economic regeneration, and provides a sustainable income base for communities.

The Onward report argues for two changes in this space. They call for a Community Right to Control, based loosely on measures in Scotland’s 2015 Community Empowerment Act. This would give communities the right to claim empty spaces owned by local authorities. They also propose a ‘community asset licence’ which would enable communities to take on temporary management of privately-owned long-vacant high street spaces that have been listed an asset of community value.

We’ve recently made calls for a £250m Community Buyout Fund, which would go further. It would support communities to take ownership of strategically important high street assets, in the context of economic decline and an acceleration of changes to our high street brought about by the pandemic.

3. Introduce Charitable Enterprise Zones to focus philanthropic investment in places with fraying social fabric

We’re really interested in the question of how we invest in community empowerment in a way that enables people to build their capacity. That’s why we think the Social Fabric Index is such an exciting development. Building a social fabric measure like this enables policymakers and others to think through where they should target their investment.

The Charitable Enterprise Zone idea aims to incentivise philanthropic giving, and to match this giving to places with the weakest social fabric. There is lots of potential in this idea, and we’re excited at the prospect of any policy which gets money to the places that need it most. There are questions around other funding streams which could be targeted in such a way, and how local funds – such as through the Towns Fund or the Levelling Up Fund – are best aligned.

We’re looking forward to seeing this work develop further and working with partners to continue to make the case for policies such as those highlighted in this blog, which can help re-stitch our fraying social fabric and put power and capital in the hands of communities.