Why a Community Power Act?

Ed Wallis, Director of Policy and Engagement, Locality

A new vision for where power lies

How to shift power has become the defining political challenge of our times. As the Prime Minister put it when explaining his government’s flagship “levelling up” idea: “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.”

This is an important insight – but his is not the first government to have had it. Over the years we’ve witnessed various attempts by governments of all stripes to decentralise, from New Labour’s “Communities in Control” white paper in 2007 to the coalition government’s Localism Act in 2011.

Each, however, has failed to achieve a decisive reset and make real power something people can feel in their own communities. And so policy failure became political earthquake when people’s desire to “take back control” fuelled the Brexit vote in 2016.

How can we make this the moment we finally deliver on the promise of power? How can communities take back control for real?

The campaign for community power

We’re Right Here is a new campaign driven by community leaders from around the country. Away from the glare of Westminster, they and thousands of others like them have been working tirelessly to tackle the big challenges they find in their neighbourhoods: inequality, local decline, loneliness and mistrust.

It’s determined, practical people making it happen – finding workarounds, not taking no for an answer, pushing rocks up hills

But they have generally been doing this work on their own steam. It’s not being facilitated by national policy frameworks or supportive systems. It’s determined, practical people making it happen – finding workarounds, not taking no for an answer, pushing rocks up hills.

Imagine what could be achieved if we made it easier? Imagine if all this hard work went with the grain of the local system, rather than having to kick against it?

That’s why we’re calling for a Community Power Act: to make the decisive shift in the balance of power local people have been waiting for.

We need to reset the foundations of public policy, so it incubates the solutions already there in our communities, rather than starting with a blank sheet of paper in Whitehall.

We need to reset the foundations of public policy, so it supports and incubates the solutions that are already there in our communities, rather than always starting with a blank sheet of paper in Whitehall. This is a huge task – and we know serious efforts in the past have failed – so that’s why our campaign is all about a path-breaking new piece of legislation.

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 Covenants
    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.

A political reset of who has control

Finally, after years of false dawns and unmet manifestos, local people will have the power they need to shape the places where they live.

We’re Right Here is supported by a number of national organisations who have been trying to support community power to flourish over the last few years. One of the key barriers that they have consistently identified is risk-aversion in the public sector to do things differently and really trust communities to get on with things. We see this across service commissioning, devolving budgets, or supporting community ownership of assets. So often a lack of trust holds back the potential of community action.

A Community Power Act will fundamentally change the dynamic, making community power the default rather than the exception. The balance of risk calculation that prevents the public sector giving power away will be reversed. Finally, after years of false dawns and unmet manifestos, local people will have the power they need to shape the places where they live.

We’ve seen this begin to change because of the inspirational role community organisations have played in response to Covid. Local authorities are looking at their communities in a different light, with a new-found respect for and understanding of their work.

Locality is one of the national organisations supporting We’re Right Here.