To date, the Government’s approach to community power has been one which emphasises competition – pitting towns and cities against each other to vie for limited funding.
Under the banner of “levelling-up”, the Levelling Up Fund, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, the Towns Fund in England and other national funding pots take power away from communities. While on the face of it, they are about rebalancing the economy, they do so only through Westminster command and control – and when one place benefits another loses out.
A rising tide should lift all boats. Community power has solidarity at its heart, ensuring no community is left behind and putting in place shared objectives and values so that everyone benefits.
Permanence is important. There is little so disempowering as having your agency taken away from you, your voice ignored by a government that doesn’t like what you have to say.
If our system stopped relying on communities taking their begging bowls to Westminster and instead gave them the tools they needed to make change happen themselves, we would see those communities scarred by deindustrialisation, Westminster indifference, and austerity rise again and provide economic power which would serve our country as a whole.
There are two ways that permanence can be embedded to make community power meaningful.
First, institutionalising devolved power structures and secondly widening ownership.
Devolution is the half of the jigsaw dealing with political power. Community power has to mean more than simply creating more mayors through backroom deals. The scale of devolution required to shift power from the centre to communities requires a fundamental shift in the governance and culture of the British state. This means meaningful decentralisation and a degree of fiscal devolution, with decision-making going beyond the town hall to the communities affected.
Ownership is the other half of the jigsaw concerned with economic power – the ability to exercise agency through having a stake and a say in the economy. Democracy must not end at the balance box – because the actions and choices of businesses and private companies impacts on our lives too.
Power means having some control over the economy whether it’s a voice in our workplaces, the power as a consumer to challenge mistreatment or the ability as a community to decide how profits are redistributed.
To achieve this, wealth must no longer be concentrated in the hands of distant market providers with little local economic or social return. For political democracy to be supplemented by economic democracy, we need an economy characterised by co-operatives. Because only through co-operative ownership can we ensure an accountable economy where wealth and power are shared through co-operation.
Wherever the aim is to improve community empowerment, increase confidence and genuinely involve communities in understanding and solving their problems the co-operative approach should be recognised as the preferred alternative to the 'doing it for them'
approach which perpetuates .dependency.
Britain is plagued by deep inequalities. Even before this pandemic, the UK was one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. Poverty was on the rise then – and our cost of living crisis means many more households will be pushed below the line. And the gap doesn’t just exist between one household and the next – there is a huge variation in the local economies, investment, transport systems and infrastructure from region to region too.
Compounding this, structural inequalities that mean women are paid less, that disabled people are often excluded from the workforce, that the poverty rate for BAME groups is nearly twice that of white groups, and that social mobility has stalled.
A drive for equality must sit at the heart of community power for it to be meaningful. Inequality breeds power imbalances both between people and between places.
As well as tackling the systemic inequality and discrimination that exists across Britain, we can seek to rebalance investment in local places and widen ownership of local economies. Because, by widening ownership, we can narrow inequality and create a new normal – one where you own your workplace, own your community and own the future.
For the above reasons we continue to encourage Central Government, Local Authorities and other support funders to engage with and commission support from organisations that specialise in developing and supporting social enterprises, especially Co-operatives.
In mid-southern England this would be Community Empowerment Ltd and its partner organisations but if you submit our enquiry form from another region we will happily pass it on for you.