Thatcher derided it, Blair set out to renew it, Cameron wanted it to be bigger, Boris wants it to support ‘levelling up’. The role of community in creating a strong safe and civil society has been at the heart of many national policy agendas over the preceding decades and used in the name of very different political ideologies. The legacy of those efforts is patchy at best but – spurred by the mass neighbourly support offered to those in need during the pandemic – we’re once again circling back to our communities as sources of support and succour.
A new approach?
Perhaps this time it’s different. The 1950’s classic book, Family and Kinship in the East End, which was co-authored by Peter Willmott and Michael Young, explored the idea of community as the primary source of support and mutual aid. Over the decades, this view has shifted – as the state, society and economies have shifted – but commentators and sociologists continue to debate the relationships people have with each other in the places we live.
Are we more neighbourly post pandemic than pre? Who in our community do we trust to provide vaccine information? How much does the existence of a library, pool or community centre foster a safe and thriving community? The questions which emerge when trying to examine such a slippery notion of ‘community’ are manifest and non-trivial. But the question of power and who gets to exercise it, arises often. The desire to [re]gain control was the tug of the Brexit undertow. It pulls at the devolution agenda and that self-same impulse for more control is found in advocates of ‘community power’: the idea that local communities and neighbourhoods are more than able to understand, articulate, decide and develop solutions to the local challenges they experience. An idea that has as many proselytisers as it does quietly demurring detractors.
Meanwhile, across Britain, the role of citizens and communities is evolving – particularly with regional and local policymaking. Universities, new NHS Integrated Care Systems, and local and combined authorities are all embarking on a new civic journey, propelled (to varying degrees of efficacy and enthusiasm) to engage. At its best, this involves people, working with their lived experiences, their needs and capabilities to reimagine public value and services. It’s an approach with huge potential to reinvigorate our democracy, finding new ways to understand each other and function better. We yearn for that, because our world today is more uncertain than it was.
The time for community power
Today, We’re Right Here, the campaign for community power, will issue a call to Parliament, pulling some of these threads together in a proposed new Act that calls for greater community control over decisions relating to council services, neighbourhood power-sharing agreements, and the establishment of a Community Power Commissioner. Building substantially on the Localism Act of 2011, this would provide the legislative protection for communities to exercise greater self-determination and to take a more powerful place in local decision-making.
As an organisation that supports community and social action, greater investment in community leadership and spaces, and bringing more people into research, innovation and collaboration, The Young Foundation is a supporter of the campaign for community power. This is a moment to be collaborative, to consider where previous policy went wrong, to move together to consider long-term implications, to reflect on what’s working – and to have the courage to stop what’s not.
There are few, if any, easy answers – and despite the relatively easy political targets, it would be folly to think we can point to one person, one cause or one problem. We can’t. It’s messy out there – and no single organisation or sector is equipped to face down challenges that range from obesity to social care, climate change, social mobility and the rest.
The role of us as people, communities – beyond being workers, consumers and family members – has become a defining question of our time. Just look to the success of Netflix’s The Good Place; a show that examines (in light-hearted ways) ‘what we owe to each other’. It struck a chord. Because post-Covid, many of us are questioning where our role as a good neighbour begins and ends. Yes, I’ll help my neighbour today. But every day? Does the ink of altruism run dry over time?
Many places are making strides in this direction. The creation of citizens assemblies and participatory budgeting have peppered our democratic landscape for a while – and if they become a sustained part of the system, not a faddish spectacle, over time they will shape the distribution of local power and decision-making. Community-owned businesses demonstrated their resilience during the pandemic, when only 1% ceased trading, compared to a 6% loss of privately-run businesses. We see new community-led and social enterprises, locking in real value and delivering collective ownership to local communities. This shifts and institutionalises local power.
As local government and the NHS tread a long and difficult road towards preventing need as well as servicing need, we will see more community-led and civil society-involving interventions. The act of GP’s prescribing social activities – such as community vegetable growing or volunteering to those with long-term conditions – is perhaps the most well-known example. Mutual aid was visible in streets all over Britain through the pandemic too, with communities providing a universal basic service to those who required it. Many of these community groups are here to stay. And we will need more such interventions as we weather the literal and figurative storms of climate change over the coming decades. No sensible 21st Century policy agenda to address a social or environmental challenge can now exclude communities as a key partner.
Greater community power equals greater equity?
Here’s the rub. Public and health services in 2022 are a postcode lottery, and this influences life expectancy, income and quality of life in serious ways. Research undertaken by The Young Foundation in 2018 and 2019 exposes vast differences in not only how much funding is distributed to different places in relation to their deprivation but – more importantly in this context – vast differences in their ‘community strength’. Some places are rich in connectedness, trust, social capital, physical assets and infrastructure. Things happen in those communities, from arts to enterprise, and social care in its broadest sense. Other places are less cohesive. In some, people come together based on what they hate; on what they wish to exclude and minimise. And it is common for both ends of the community spectrum to exist in the same localities. As much as we find it important, helpful and in some way simplifying to draw geographical lines around inequities across the UK, we know that great wealth and great poverty often reside cheek-by-jowl, even on the same street.
A means to what end?
Most people want safe streets, good schools, reliable public services and transport amenities – but priorities can be skewed if some households are not part of their local communities, and where the full cornucopia of humanity is on display. I have met people who are happy to pay for their street lighting and rubbish collection but get red-cheeked about paying for services supporting people who are homeless or suffering from addiction. If that feels outrageous, consider charitable giving. Over a quarter of UK charitable donations go to animals. Another quarter to children and young people. The next quarter to medical research. If we do not personally care about or relate to an issue, we don’t tend to support it.
More people having more power over the issues that affect their daily lives, family and wellbeing is a good thing. More local ownership of civic spaces and enterprises, fostering a greater sense of solidarity, social fabric and connectedness – across class, race, age, ethnicity, gender – is a good thing. And the need for cross-sector and cross-community collaboration to tackle our challenges is, to my mind, beyond question. As we embrace this, let’s ensure our quest for power-sharing genuinely supports greater equity and diverse engagement in our communities.
Community Community leadership Community needs & priorities Community wellbeing Covid COVID-19 Families & Youth Health & wellbeing Health and Wellbeing Social action communities community community power community strength Covid mutual aid NHS Pandemic Parliament politics public services social action social capital social enterprise Posted on: 13 June 2022