How Elinor Ostrom and community businesses prove people power works

The power of communities to make a difference locally is enormous – and, until quite recently, enormously overlooked. New Local’s latest report Think Big, Act Small, uses the work of Elinor Ostrom to make the case for real community rights, re-imagined devolution, and the emergence of a facilitative rather than command-and-control state. Here, author Dr Simon Kaye, unpacks his new report.

The UK’s community businesses demonstrate, time and again, why simplistically looking to either top-down solutions from the state or the market alone can be a mistake. In their many forms and functions, community businesses demonstrate the potential for people-powered approaches as part of a diverse civic and economic system.

This too was the message of Nobel prize-winning thinker Elinor Ostrom, whose ground-breaking work is the inspiration for New Local’s report, Think Big, Act Small, supported by Power to Change.

Ostrom’s work has been under-appreciated by policymakers in the over-centralised context of the UK. Her research demonstrated that when they are trusted and empowered, communities can do a better job that business or government at running their own affairs. Her research confirms what many of us already believe, that people are less selfish – and more capable – than we’re conditioned to think.

Think Big, Act Small is an attempt to share Ostrom’s ideas more widely, and to wake the UK’s political establishment up to the sheer potential of approaches that place communities in the driving seat and redistribute power away from Whitehall and Westminster.

Our report makes the case for more locality in the governance of our most important resources and systems, more autonomy and respect for mobilised communities when they come together to make difference locally, and more diversity in the approaches taken, as communities will often arrive at more creative solutions and approaches when they’re given the space to do so.

At the heart of Think Big, Act Small is a series of UK-based case studies that embody elements of what Ostrom would describe as self-governance. Despite the challenge of operating in a bottom-up way in a country that is so dominated by the market/state duopoly and so rigidly managed from the centre, there are nevertheless many examples of communities taking control of the things that matter to them. Community businesses represent a growing part of that people-powered picture.

In the report, we feature community business case studies including the success story of the Bramley Baths, in Leeds. Here, community action rescued a historic local asset, made it profitable and useful again, and added enormous value to the wider neighbourhood by giving local kids swimming lessons and creating dozens of jobs.

In Brighton, the Friends of Westdene Green galvanised whole neighbourhoods to keep a local barn under community control. It has now been rightfully restored at the core of local life: a hub for gathering together, having fun, and collaborating with other community groups.

In both cases, communities faced the immediate challenge of building from scratch a working relationship with the council. But having achieved this, they were able to prove just how much can be accomplished and sustained by a mobilised neighbourhood.

You can learn more about these case studies – and other examples of Ostromian community power in the UK – and how we can take steps to support and encourage the emergence of more community-powered projects throughout the UK, in the full report.

These arguments and examples are important. Not only because people should have a say about the things that matter to them, but because – as we have learned this year – mobilised and tight-knit neighbourhoods are also a wellspring of resilience and mutual aid when times are tough. The moment has come to give communities the room they need to discover their own power.

Think Big Act Small was kindly supported by Power to Change, Local Trust, and the Centre for the Study of Governance and Society at King’s College London.

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