“All we needed was a space to tackle period poverty”

Our campaign leader Neelam Heera faced continous push-back in her search for something simple – a space to house period products vital for the marginalised communities she worked with. She shares why a Community Power Act is vital in giving initiatives like hers the – literal – room to flourish.

This week I was honoured to speak at the Guildhall in London at New Local’s community event of the year – Stronger Things, about harnessing community power and the We’re Right Here Campaign.

“This country is not only one of the most imbalanced in the developed world, it is also one of the most centralised – and those two defects are obviously connected,” – words echoed by our very own Prime Minister when introducing the Levelling Up agenda.

In order to tackle this and see a true devolution of power, the We’re Right Here campaign was born. Driven by community leaders from around the country, policy writers and influencers.

My personal experience in these spaces came out of our (Cysters) desire and support for those experiencing period poverty. We started our work providing period packs from my little flat in Birmingham, as the need for these product grew, the space in my flat got taken up.

Neelam with fellow campaign leader Andy Jackson at New Local’s Stronger Thing event

Myself and my flat mate have often come home late from work and struggled to walk freely through the front door due to the amount of products we were obtaining. It also became a security risk for me – as a young person of colour speaking on the topics of sex, misogyny, patriarchy and health inequalities has often has resulted in me receiving threating messages. So we needed to find a central location to house these products, a place that was as accessible as a food bank and manned by our many volunteers.

We tried on many occasions to meet with people from our local council, and had promises made to us, but the red tape and money we needed to invest seemed to outweigh the community benefit.

The need for a centralised space became a dream, and we didn’t have the expertise to understand how to navigate these conversations. We were just people in the community, who cared about the community, and since we have continued from my flat. This has meant we have to scale back our work, only a few people are able to collect the products (as I don’t like giving my personal address out to everyone) and ultimately we can’t reach as many people as we would have liked.

We have worked like this for six years now. We have often thought about having a community-based hub for Cysters, there is so much we could do to tackle health inequalities more broadly and not just period poverty.

So when the opportunity presented itself to join the campaign for community power, it felt natural to say yes. I had my doubts whether a campaign would be enough to truly make a difference, but being surrounded by some incredible community leaders makes me feel optimistic for the future. This could be the political reset we need giving the government a legal backbone to support communities meaningfully.

What’s in a Community Power Act?

The Community Power Act we’re proposing has three key parts

  1. Communities should have a legal right to self-determination
    This would mean all decisions about local services and spaces would have to be made at the ‘most local’ level possible and with the participation of local people. No longer would the first port of call for any policy process be: what levers can central government pull to fix this problem? Instead, the starting point would become our local communities and what powers and resources they need to support community-led change.
  2. Communities and councils would come together to form Community Covenant
    The Act would designate a range of possible ‘power partners’ at the neighbourhood level, building on what’s already there: parish and town councils, Neighbourhood Forums, community ‘anchor’ organisations, or new community alliances. There should be no one-size-fits-all governance model, as each Community Covenant will necessarily be defined by local people and reflect the dynamics of the local place. But whatever the specific institution, each power partner must follow a rigorous set of common principles and accountability requirements.

    Once communities and councils have come together in this way, they would be able to access a range of new powers and resources across local economic development, service provision, community assets, planning and housing. Local authorities that form Community Covenants would likewise gain access to greater powers and flexibilities, including a long-term funding settlement and enhanced fiscal powers.

    In this way, the Community Power Act would have a clear and concrete mechanism for moving power out of Westminster. But crucially it will ensure that the process of devolution doesn’t just make it as far as local town halls, but continues onward into the heart of our communities.
  3. An independent Community Power Commissioner would be created
    The Commissioner, appointed by the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, would be a powerful new role. It would be tasked with the job of holding the government’s feet to the fire on its decentralisation commitments, in a way no other government has ever done in the past.

    First and foremost, they would evaluate how the government is upholding communities’ right to self-determination, with statutory powers to conduct reviews, require departments to produce information and make recommendations. They would also have a particular role working with the Treasury – so often the key centralising part of the system – to investigate practices and make binding recommendations. And finally they would be responsible for supporting the development of Community Covenants, ensuring each area has the opportunity to form one and the resources they need to make it effective.

Find out more and sign our open letter to Michael Gove – Our Letter to Michael Gove

The crisis we are facing in our neighborhoods is enormous, and the pandemic has shown us that it cant be tackled by the state alone. It is communities which really drive and make change.

We need this campaign. We need change. We need to be seen and heard.

This article was originally published on Neelam’s LinkedIn page.