The UK needs to reboot localism and empower communities to influence decisions in their local neighbourhoods. That’s according to a new report by the think tank Centre for London.
The report proposes a series of reforms which would remove the barriers and enable citizens to shape the future of their neighbourhoods, strengthen communities and enhance local public services.
The proposals include making it easier for community groups to take over local buildings like pubs, libraries and community centres; the creation of Community Improvement Districts; and establishing a national endowment to support deprived communities. These policies, the report argues, must be championed by local leaders and councils that are properly resourced to support their residents.
The report, Act Local: Empowering London’s Neighbourhoods highlights that people want more control over the places where they live and work but there is a disconnect between the desire to get involved and the perceived ability to influence change. In London, only around 35 per cent of Londoners believe they can influence local decisions, yet 65 per cent agree it is important to be able to.
Both the New Labour and coalition governments sought to boost neighbourhood control, such as through the 2011 Localism Act. But the report reveals that the legacy of these policies in London has been mixed:
- Neighbourhood planning – The country’s strongest neighbourhood planning network has developed in the capital with 79 designated neighbourhood forums and 13 completed plans. However, 9 of the 32 London boroughs have no forum at all.
- Parish councils – Only 1 parish council has been established in London since legislation was introduced.
- Community right to bid for ownership of local assets – Just 1 building across the entire capital has been bought under this right, partly due to high property prices.
- Community led public services – The People’s Empowerment Alliance for Custom House illustrates what can happen if communities are trusted with resources to deliver change.
- Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) – 63 BIDs have been set up in the city which have taken on a more strategic, place-shaping role as they have matured.
To further unlock the potential of these initiatives, practical barriers including resourcing, technical expertise and bureaucratic processes need to be addressed and the localism agenda needs a reboot with reforms tailored to the specific needs of communities. Centre for London calls on the government to:
- Introduce Community Improvement Districts (CID) – These would be a more flexible hybrid of the Business Improvement District model and the civic focus of parish councils. A CID could be set up at the request of a local neighbourhood group, be established through a local ballot with renewal every five years, operate within a defined geographic area, have the ability to raise a levy on council tax payers and focus on local need and priorities issues with expenditure limited to those issues.
- Create a Community Wealth Fund – A national endowment to support deprived communities – The report endorses the proposal first put forward by the Community Wealth Fund Alliance, and joins calls for local people should be in control of this new fund, with appropriate support provided to communities to build confidence and capacity. As a first step, government should establish a task force to investigate the Fund’s feasibility.
- Turn the Community Right to Bid for Assets of Community Value into a Community Right to Buy – Following Scotland’s lead, this would allow local groups who express interest in a registered building have statutory first refusal on purchasing the property within an allocated time period.
Joe Wills, Senior Researcher at Centre for London said: “As a society, we believe that decision making should come closest to those it affects most. Demands for agency and control over the decisions that affect us are being made from all quarters of the UK. There is a sense that our democratic institutions and processes are too distant from those they represent.
“Neighbourhood level participation can play an important role in shaping places, strengthening communities and enhancing public services, but there is untapped potential.
“The government must kick start a new era of localism, to empower communities to become fuller partners in defining the future of their city.”
Vidhya Alakeson, Chief Executive of Power to Change said: “Our work across the country shows the kind of transformation that is possible when communities take the lead, whether running local services, building affordable housing or revitalising their high streets by taking on vacant shops.
“We want to see more concerted action by national and local policy makers to give people greater control over what goes on in their neighbourhood. The recommendations in this report are a positive step forward which we support. Services and planning decisions need to be fit for purpose and appropriate for the communities that they serve, no matter where they live.
“A further report on the role of localism and councils will be published on Thursday 24 September, by the Commission on the Future of Localism, set up by Locality in partnership with Power to Change.”
Matt Leach, CEO of Local Trust, on behalf of the Community Wealth Fund Alliance said: “We need to trust local people with the resources and decision-making powers they need to tackle the problems that are most important to them. The Big Local programme, a unique experiment in which local residents of 150 different neighbourhoods across England have been given direct control over more that £1.1 million to improve their local area is already providing tangible evidence of how this can work in practice. This report and its recommendations further highlight the crucial changes needed to create an environment in which local people are given the opportunity to deliver long term, sustainable change for themselves.”
“Whilst amendments to planning and enterprise regulations can make a difference, communities that have suffered from both deprivation and the disappearance of much needed social infrastructure, such as community and youth centres, often need long term resources and support to turn things around – running well beyond what is possible within the constraints of financial and political cycles. An independent Community Wealth Fund for our most deprived areas could offer this kind of long-term commitment, providing funding and support over twenty years or more to the communities that need it most.”
Ruth Duston, OBE, OC, CEO of Victoria BID said: “BIDs in London have evolved to be powerful and strategic forces for good, and this evolution should continue.
“In my experience the private sector is now more civic-minded than ever; largely because they recognise that a more collegiate approach delivers the best outcomes and has a positive impact on their business, their staff, and their reputation.
“It therefore is the logical next step for BIDs to reflect this shift.”
Chris Hageman, Director of Regeneration, One Housing said: “Extensive on-going resident engagement is an integral part of our development projects. Working in partnership is crucial for success and to deliver the best for the communities we work with.
“In a recent example, at our Camden Good Yards estate our residents helped us choose our development partner. This level of resident involvement is central to ensuring we are creating high quality affordable homes where were people are proud to live.”
Contributors to the report include essays from:
- Tony Burton, Volunteer Convener, Neighbourhood Planners. London
- Ruth Duston OBE, OC, Chief Executive, Victoria BID
- Casey Howard, Community Organiser, People’s Empowerment Alliance for Custom House (PEACH)
- Indy Johar, Co-Founder, Project00
- Professor Tony Travers, Director, LSE London
- Pat Turnbull, Regional Delegate, London Tenants Federation
- Karin Woodley, CEO, Cambridge House
Notes to Editors
- This report has been sponsored by the London Borough of Camden, One Housing, Power to Change, Victoria Westminster BID and Victoria BID.
- Data on Influence: Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (2018). Community Life Survey: 2017-2018 Statistical Release. Retrieved from: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/community-life-survey-2017-18