The dust is just settling on last week’s historic election. There is much still to digest and important leadership battles to come. But one thing is clear: the redrawing of the UK political map in the small hours of last Friday necessitates fresh thinking on community power.
The constituencies in the Midlands and the North that voted Conservative after generations of Labour rule will be priorities for investment for a reinvigorated Johnson government. As many commentators have stressed, the disaffection that led to this dramatic change goes far deeper than Brexit and the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. These are constituencies like Redcar and Workington that have struggled to recover since the mines and factories closed more than thirty years ago. The state stepped in to fill much of the gap but austerity revealed that to be a flimsy sticking plaster.
Conventional economics would tell you that the answer for these towns is to be better connected to their closest major cities to improve access to jobs and in return, grow disposable income that can be spent locally. If you’ve ever got the train to Grimsby, one of the towns that flipped blue, you’ll know how poorly connected it and many similar places are. Robert Jenrick MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government was keen to stress on Friday’s Newsnight that infrastructure investment including broadband would be forthcoming. But economics provides only a partial answer.
These towns need to remain places where people want to live and work not dormitories for the nearest big city. They must remain places in which people can access services, take pride and feel a sense of hope for their children’s future. As Lisa Nandy MP, one of the Northern Labour MPs who retained her seat, put it writing in The Mirror on Saturday, ‘for too long, communities like mine have been denied the power to protect the things they care about’.
A similar sentiment has been expressed by Sacha Bedding, Manager at the Wharton Trust Community Centre, an organisation that we at Power to Change work with on the Dyke House estate in Hartlepool: ‘The fact we’ve had the systematic dismantling of a once-proud hospital, which was outstanding and now it’s a shell. Not having A&E in your hometown, not being able to give birth in your hometown – you can’t get Hartlepool on your birth certificate; the magistrates court has closed – you can’t even get justice locally. There’s been a systematic stripping of local provision in lots of cases by unelected quangos. Schools, hospitals – that really matters massively to people.’
This is where the Government’s Community Ownership Fund will be important. It’s £150m investment to enable communities to take over and run things that matter to them and make up the fabric of everyday life in our towns: pubs, Post Offices, football clubs. Communities have a strong track record of running these businesses: no community pub that has transferred into community ownership has so far closed, for example. And we know that community ownership makes local economies stronger, with 56p of every pound spent by community owned assets being reinvested locally through local employment and supply chains made up of other small, local businesses.
But the Community Ownership Fund alone barely scratches the surface: it must represent the vanguard of a new way of thinking about regeneration and local economic development that gives greater power to communities and Local Authorities to act as their partners and enablers. A review of neighbourhood regeneration published by the Community Wealth Alliance earlier this year identified a number of factors that underpin successful regeneration efforts. They included community control, supporting asset creation, long term investment in social capital and social infrastructure and partnership. These principles equally need to shape the Towns Fund, the High Streets Fund and, critically, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund that will be invest billions in regeneration post Brexit.
At its best, community ownership gives people an opportunity to participate in decisions about the future of the place where they live, to really feel that they have a say and can exercise some control. This more participatory form of democracy gives people more options than the ballot box every five years to feel that their voice can be heard. We must use this historic election result to ensure that going forward we not only listen more closely to communities but give them real power to help shape what matters to them.