What we want

We’re calling for a Community Power Act, a major piece of legislation which would fundamentally change where power lies in this country.

The Act would:

1: Establish three new community rights

  • A Community Right to Buy
    Giving communities the right of first refusal once buildings and spaces with significant community value come up for sale.

If a community organisation or group is able to raise the required funds when an Asset of Community Value (ACV) comes up for sale, it would be theirs to purchase without competition. The current moratorium of six months should be extended to 12, to give time to raise the necessary funds.

This right would apply both to spaces already in community use and to spaces which have the potential to be used by the community – including privately-owned vacant or derelict buildings and land.

To facilitate this, ACVs should be protected from change-of-use planning applications unless the applicant is able to prove that there is no prospect of community use.

What’s the story?

There’s a well used green space in my neighbourhood. And when I say well used I really mean it. You can find every age group there, particularly children. In the winter they sleigh in the snow, in summer they play football and cricket.

But the local authority has decided they want to sell it to developers.

As a community we’ve got together several times to try and stop this from happening. So far we’ve succeeded and it has been a right tough fight, but it feels like a never-ending battle we’re not really equipped for.

We’re trying to tell the council – please do not lose this important bit of green space. This area has such high rates of obesity and mental health problems, and we live in one of the most polluted parts of Yorkshire. This little piece of land is vital for us and our children.

How would a Community Power Act help?

As the social philosopher John Dewey said, there is a difference between ‘doing to’ and ‘doing with’ and we need people to do things with us whilst respecting our needs rather than steamrolling in with their own ideas.

In a country where health inequalities are growing, where fast food take-aways are easily delivered to our homes, where green spaces are being sold off to housing developers, where sedentary behaviour is on the rise and pollution levels are breaching EU regulations, we really should be finding ways to work with communities to save every remaining green space that offers children and families somewhere to go and burn some energy and be in nature.

A Community Right to Buy would mean we would have a chance to get together and take ownership of that much loved green space for ourselves. This Act would make it a legal duty to respect the wishes of residents rather than simply decide what is best for them. It’s exactly the kind of thing that would help our cause. Bring it on!

What’s the story?

In 2007 the last big employer in Totnes, Dairy Crest, closed down, leaving a big industrial site to go to ruin. We immediately came together as a community to consider what could be done with the site to generate jobs, provide local, affordable housing and improve local facilities.

We got the Brunel Building on the site listed, and formed a community group to start developing plans. Over the course of a whole decade, with the site remaining unused and unsold, we worked and worked until we at last got agreement from the owners that we could develop our own community-led plan for taking on ownership of the site.

Between 2014 and 2016 we engaged deeply with the local community and with planning and design experts to produce a watertight plan for the site, taking into account the deep needs of the community for affordable housing and historically sensitive, carbon-neutral development.

By 2017 the financing was in place, the Community Right to Build Order had been made and 86% of local people had voted in favour of our plans in a historic local referendum.

What stood in your way?

We were about to take ownership of this vital site at the heart of our community and develop it according to the community’s real needs. And that’s when things went wrong.

There were two years of prevarication by the owners, during which Dairy Crest were sold to Saputo Inc and became Saputo (Dairy) UK, and then in 2019 they sold it to a private business, Fastglobe (Mastics) Ltd. Of course, this company have not done anything with the site yet and their plans for it do not even begin to address the needs of the community.

How would a Community Power Act help?

It’s simple, really. If the Community Right to Buy had existed, then we would have been able to apply to list the site as an Asset of Community Value and exercised our Right to Buy it at an independently set market price. We would have had 12 months to complete the transaction, with legal protection from being gazumped. And instead of a derelict eyesore, Totnes would have had a thriving and thrilling community-owned site right at its heart, providing local jobs, affordable housing and prosperity for all.

  • A Community Right to Shape Public Services
    Encouraging greater collaboration between communities and public institutions when designing, commissioning and delivering local services. 

This would enable local communities to trigger a joint review of a particular local service, conducted by the local authority or relevant public body alongside local organisations and service users as well as the provider. There would be a set period of community consultation and co-design, with the option of triggering a full commissioning exercise – which might, for instance, result in a decision to insource a service.

Unlike the existing Community Right to Challenge, the new right would apply to services beyond those run by local authorities. Community organisations would be able to trigger joint reviews of services provided by health authorities, public institutions with responsibility for the provision of housing, education and skills training services and bodies with responsibility for local business policy, such as Local Enterprise Partnerships.

As additional policy powers come to be transferred to local authorities through the process of devolution described in the Community Covenants section, associated public services would also come under the scope of this new community right. And the availability of targeted capacity building support for Covenant partners would enable every community to make effective use of this right.

What’s the story? 

There was a time recently, when if you were older, disabled or struggling for money in the Bournemouth area, it was very difficult and costly to get to your healthcare appointments. There was a lack of suitable public transport to local hospitals, and taxis were prohibitively expensive and inaccessible. 

That’s why in 2015 we set up our own community transport service. We provide affordable, accessible flexible transport, based on what the community needs. In our case, this has meant helping people socialise and run errands, and most importantly get to hospital appointments and, during Covid, visit vaccination centres. 

What’s stood in your way? 

Funding has been our biggest obstacle to ensure a sustainable service to the community. We, the community, need more control on where funding should be directed within local councils. 

 What difference would a Community Power Act make? 

The Community Power Act would support the most vulnerable disadvantaged people in the community. The Community Right to Shape Public Services and the Community Right to Control Investment would mean our community’s real and intense need for a more cost-effective and accessible community transport service would get the attention and funding it requires. This would reduce the risk of ailments leading to emergency hospitalisation, which in turn reduces the added financial burden to the UK’s health system. This would in turn address the problems of inequalities, loneliness and mistrust within our communities. 

What’s the story? 

Five years ago, I could see that the outcomes for Essex’s substance misuse services were ok, but they were the outcomes that we as bureaucrats had chosen.

While we paid lip service to involving communities and service users, we didn’t really do it. But I firmly believed that we could achieve more by working with people with lived experience. We had to make a change, we had to grasp the opportunity to do something differently. 

Working with people in recovery and in treatment across the system in Essex, we created the charity ‘The Essex Recovery Foundation – Revolutionising Recovery’, entirely chaired and run by people in Essex communities, in recovery and their family members. 

Slowly but surely, we are transferring responsibility for all of our drug and alcohol agenda to the charity. This includes control of the budget, and the strategy. 

We are also negotiating a seat for the charity on the council’s Health and Wellbeing Board, so they can be at the top level of decision making across all health and wellbeing commissioning. 

Power that once sat with a small group of people in the public health team will now sit with the community directly affected – so they can define their own outcomes, allocate their own resources, and work with providers to build a better treatment and recovery system. 

Why I support a Community Power Act 

This has been one of the most exciting bits of work that I’ve ever been involved with. It’s also been a process of ceding control and realising that actually, things are going to get better with the community in charge of its own provision, its own functions, and its own services and support networks. 

A Community Power Act would help more councils to realise these advantages. It would engage and empower communities to self-organise where it really matters. It would directly link communities to powers and influences that impact on their daily lives. And it would ensure communities are at the heart of all relevant decision making. 

  • A Community Right to Control Investment
    Increasing community control over the key spending decisions which affect local neighbourhoods.

Where there is an accountable community-level decision-making institution such as a Community Covenant or parish council, a significant proportion of all public regeneration and local economic devolution funds allocated to that area should be controlled and invested directly by that community-level institution.

This could include the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. It would also provide a means to ensure that developer-generated funding streams such as Section 106 revenue and the Community Infrastructure Levy are, in future, directly invested by community-level decision-makers. 

It would also provide a mechanism through which local communities could trigger an ‘open book accounting process’ with the council of any spending in their neighbourhood. Once this process is completed, the community would be able to negotiate with the council how and where to exercise greater control over certain aspects of spending. It could lead to decisions being devolved directly to the community in some areas of spending, or to participatory budgeting style processes being carried out.

What’s the story?

The Annexe is a community organisation in Dyke House in Hartlepool. Over the last 10 years or so, we have worked with the community to find the solutions to their own issues. We are a place people can come to, where they can feel safe, and where we can give a bit of inspiration and hope about what’s possible.

There’s this idea that poor people are lazy, feckless, they eat takeaways, waste money and deserve what they get. It couldn’t be more wrong. In Dyke House, people care deeply about each other and about the future of the neighbourhood, and when they’re given the right opportunity and support they’ll do amazing things.

We’ve been successful because we work side by side with the community, we listen to people, and we understand the real needs.

What’s stood in your way?

There’s about £1bn a year spent in Hartlepool by our statutory sector. To be frank, it’s hard to say that this money is being well spent. Talk to people here and they’ll ask: “where does it all go?” 

The big investments round here go on things that just don’t touch the lives of people in Dyke House – airports, business parks, ring roads and the like. There is a disconnect. The question is how are we going to connect all this investment with people in the poorest communities. If it’s done top-down, without the involvement or influence of the communities in question, it’s just not going to work.

How would a Community Power Act help?

You can’t come in from outside this community and go round telling people what to do, thinking you know best how to spend public money and what’s going to work. You’ve got to ask them. And you’ve got to trust them. And if you do, you’ll find people are really careful with these investment decisions. There’s very little wastage when communities are in charge of money. A Community Right to Control Investment would mean people in Dyke House, at long last, being trusted to find the right solutions for themselves.

What’s the story? 

Our local youth centre is facing closure and the building is being sold off under austerity measures. We want to take control of the building either as a community asset or to buy it and run it to meet local needs of local young people.

What’s standing in your way? 

Backed by a corporate sponsor, we are proposing a rescue package to bring it back into use for the community, but we struggled to compete with outside developers both in terms of up-front finances and time. 

Even on smaller scale, we started a youth football programme in the local area during the summer and ended up with around 60 local children taking part, however, we have been trying to get access to deliver our sessions inside at the local Youth and Community Centre since September 2021 but we’ve faced barrier after barrier, passed from pillar to post, asked to produce endless documents, put our staff through costly training and issued with cumbersome checks. 

I have the voice of my community, I have the backing of two community football clubs and the backing of a major local property developer. What we need now is to understand how we do it. 

What difference would a Community Power Act make? 

My area is one of the 10% most deprived in the country. It’s suffered from a rise in local anti-social behaviour, knife crime and county line exploitation. Young people need a place where they can be heard, where they feel they have a voice, where they can socialise with their peers, meet positive role models, create and realise positive aspirations and believe they have a way out of deprivation beyond their control.

A Community Right to Buy would give us the legal protections – and the time and support – that we need to take this much needed local asset into community ownership and ensure young people have what they need. A Community Right to Shape Public Services would mean those people most in need of services actually have a seat at the table when they are being designed. And a Community Right to Control Investment would ensure that the real needs of young people in my neighbourhood were taken into account when public money is being spent.

I don’t think devolution of power has gone far enough. Let us determine the future of vital community assets to meet local needs. We owe it to our children, we owe it to ourselves and we owe it to each other. This Act would give us the legal powers to make the changes our communities need and deserve.

2: Introduce Community Covenants

These neighbourhood-level arrangements would bring local people, community organisations and local authorities together to share power and make decisions.

Formation and local accountability

Covenants would be formed between local authorities and a range of partners, including parish councils, Neighbourhood Forums and community ‘anchor’ organisations.

Each prospective partner would be expected to demonstrate their ability and intention to fulfil five tests of local accountability:

  1. Earn and maintain the trust of the whole community
  2. Support everyone within their place to participate in community decisions and activities in an inclusive and equitable manner
  3. Practise ‘dynamic local accountability’ and community leadership based not just on consultations and voting but on ongoing community participation, relationships and local action
  4. Work proactively to identify and address shared issues and local concerns
  5. Make decisions so as to promote the interests of local people, rather than institutions alone

Provided that these conditions are fulfilled, Covenant partners would act not as agents of the local authority but as independent actors with distinct and valuable voices, expertise and skills. For its part, the Government would be required to recognise qualifying Community Covenants universally and on an equal footing.

In the event that a prospective Covenant partner felt that their local authority had assessed their ability to pass these five tests of local accountability in an inaccurate or unfair manner, they would be able to appeal directly to the Community Power Commissioner.

Powers

On the agreement and approval of a Community Covenant, Covenant partners would automatically and immediately be able to access and exercise a range of new powers and accompanying resources, including powers and resources related to:

  • Local economic planning
  • Neighbourhood planning
  • Community assets
  • Local service delivery
  • Government funding streams
  • Scrutiny of spending decisions

Funding

The Government should create a development fund which Community Covenants could draw upon to meet their core operating costs, with grants of approximately £60,000 made available to fund the work of Covenants over a three-year period.

Upon moving to assume responsibility for one of the policy powers listed above, the Covenant partner would be charged with directly negotiating the transfer of related funding and resources with the relevant local authority.

The role of local authorities

In the event that a Covenant partner ceased to be able to manage a space or deliver a service effectively on behalf of the local community – or was found by the Community Power Commissioner to be falling short of any of the five conditions for local accountability set out above – the local authority would automatically reassume this responsibility. Similarly, if two partners within a single Community Covenant were to declare that they were no longer capable of working effectively together, the council would be expected to reclaim any functions which they had assumed responsibility for.

Local authorities would therefore be expected to assume a certain amount of risk in supporting the formation of Community Covenants. But they would also themselves be invested with new powers and resources as a result. Once a certain geographic share of the local authority area was ‘covered’ by Community Covenants, the government would be required to rapidly devolve substantial powers (including fiscal powers) and associated resources to the relevant local authority.

Tackling inequalities

While all neighbourhoods will have the opportunity to form a Community Covenant, there should be a generously resourced support programme to ensure that communities with less well-developed social infrastructure – but which stand to benefit the most from a meaningful effort to unlock community power – are first in the queue. This will be crucial to ensuring these neighbourhoods ‘level up’.

3: Establish a Community Power Commissioner

This independent office would be charged with ensuring action is taken across government to uphold the new community rights, enable the formation of Community Covenants everywhere, and generally unlock community power.

The Commissioner would fulfil their mandate through carrying out three core functions.

  1. Evaluating the Government’s performance in unlocking community power. 

This would involve developing a set of simple tests against which government policies, practices and bodies might be assessed; undertaking investigations as required; and laying a report before Parliament annually appraising the government’s performance in this respect.

  1. Support Ministers and officials to consider how working with and through Community Covenants and unlocking the power of communities might enable them to achieve their goals

The Commissioner would work to embed recognition of the social and economic value of community power across government departments and public bodies – building understanding of the ways in which community-led approaches enable early intervention and prevention; improve health, wellbeing and social and economic outcomes; and generate cost-saving opportunities which can be obscured by the siloed nature of Whitehall policymaking. 

  1. Support the formation and development of Community Covenants

The Commissioner would work to ensure that as many places as possible had formed Community Covenants, while also supporting local authorities, community organisations and communities themselves to grow the impact of their individual power-sharing and joint-working arrangements. They would achieve this through promoting learning, sharing ideas and constructively challenging participating organisations, groups and communities to think bigger and bolder.

These three measures are intended to complement and reinforce one another. The three new community rights provide a basis for action which is supported and enhanced through the formation and work of Community Covenants. Meanwhile the Community Power Commissioner would both drive the formation of Community Covenants and work to ensure that the government upholds communities’ rights fully and effectively.

The Community Power Act is the missing piece of the devolution puzzle – it will build a clear and trusted track along which power can be devolved from Whitehall to regions, local areas and all the way to the neighbourhood level.

There is already a large and growing movement of people around the country taking action in their communities. This Act would remove some of the institutional and legal barriers in their way. And by changing the basic assumption about where power lies, it would also help inspire others to take action so that ultimately every neighbourhood in the country is supported to take control of its future.

A Community Power Act does not ‘create’ community power on its own. That comes from the awesome potential residing in communities everywhere. But this Act is needed to unlock that potential. We’re Right Here looks forward to working with government, parliamentarians, local authorities, civil society organisations and local communities everywhere to make it happen.

Want more detail on the Community Power Act, including answers to Frequently Asked Questions? Download our full proposal.