Party conference diary: Momentum behind community power building, but can we sustain it?

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With levelling up the talk of the fringe, Nick Plumb reflects on day two at Conservative Party conference and growing interest in community power.
5 Oct, 2021

Nick Plumb, policy manager, Power to Change.

I’m writing on the train back to London after another busy conference, a week after writing a similar piece on Power to Change’s presence at the Labour equivalent in Brighton.

After 18 months of almost no professional in person interaction, I think I’m more exhausted than usual at the end of this conference season. But I’m also reminded of the importance of human relationships and getting to know people in person when making the case for community business. Building allies to make the case for community power is much easier in person.

Indeed, this is the topic of a new report published today by Power to Change in partnership with The Cares Family, which looks at the importance of connection and relationships for levelling up. It builds on the arguments made in Backing Our Neighbourhoods, which we published in August this year and focuses in on how community-rooted organisations build social capital, which is a vital prerequisite to economic levelling up.

The report includes new polling from Opinium which shows clearly that there’s public demand for investment in social infrastructure, and that people feel power is held too remotely from communities.

Interestingly the polling also shows that over 55s are least likely to say that levelling up will have a positive impact. 45% say that it won’t be compared to only 16% who say that it will. This poses an interesting political question for the Conservatives. Older people in ‘red wall’ areas were key in delivering the party its election landslide, and they will demand progress on turning struggling places around.

We launched a paper at an event with Conservative Home this morning, which was full of rich discussion on how we put communities in the lead of levelling up. Jo Gideon, one of the new intake of MPs that is part of the so called red wall, kicked off the event in punchy fashion, arguing that there ‘isn’t anything more important than community power’ and that it has to be at the heart of levelling up.

An interesting thread from this discussion was the tension that surrounds the distinct nature of places. Diversity of experience is what makes Britain great, according to a member of the audience. At the same time, there was recognition that this is often uncomfortable for many, especially the Treasury, which likes uniformity and a sense of replicability.

As the case for community power grows, there will likely be some compromise on both sides of this argument. Treasury and others will need to let go somewhat and learn to become more comfortable with variation. At the same time, the community power movement will also need to recognise that new structures may well need to be introduced to provide government the confidence to devolve more funding and power to the neighbourhood level. At Power to Change, this is something we’re thinking about lots at the moment. We hope to share more on this soon.

Our second event of the day was a lunchtime fringe with think-tank Onward. This star studded line up included Rachel Wolf, one of the co-authors of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto; Brandon Lewis MP, Secretary of State for Northern Irealnd; and Miriam Cates MP – co-chair of the New Social Covenant Unit (NSCU), which has been making a bit of a splash this conference. The discussion was wide-ranging, but for me, the moment of the session was Miriam telling Stocksbridge Community Leisure Centre’s powerfull story, and then realising that this, and lots of other places across the country, have been supported by Power to Change in recent years.

My sense was that there is a real buzz in Conservative circles about community power at the moment. This is partly due to the important NSCU / New Local paper published on day one of the conference and partly due to Michael Gove’s appointment as Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. He’s seen as someone who brings energy to a policy area, who can get things done. However, his speech yesterday gave us a much muddier take on what levelling up is, and communities’ role in it.

Many battles still need to be won if community power is to play a central role in levelling up. We can’t let the momentum built at this conference dissipate in the coming weeks. We’ll be working with old and new allies to continue banging this drum.