Community power is a hopeful new vision for the future of Britain. Shame the party manifestos will ignore it

Preston bus station. Image: Getty.

Produced by a political elite in a state of confused panic, the election manifestos stand as a pretty good metaphor for what passes for democracy in the UK these days. Inevitably, they will miss a major trend which, if only their authors knew it, has great potential to address our deepest divisions and challenges. 

It is a trend emerging on the frontline of cash-strapped public services. It can be found in thousands of voluntary initiatives springing up around the UK. It is there in a plethora of micro-economic enterprises. It can be read about in the writings of a handful of thinkers whose number is growing.

And like all the best political visions it is remarkably simple. So simple in fact that just two words sum it up: community power. Or if you prefer a little more detail: it is the idea that local communities and networks need to take the initiative to solve their own social and economic challenges sometimes with, but just as often without, the help of the state.

The instances of community power are growing so rapidly and working their way into so many different areas of life that any attempt to list them risks being woefully incomplete. But here goes.

Within the public sector there is now a welter of initiatives designed to challenge paternalistic ways of working by handing power over to communities. Let’s name just three. In Morecambe Bay, key parts of the NHS such as communications and diabetes care are now run by the local community. In a new school in Doncaster networks of students are designing their own learning in close collaboration with the wider community. Cambridgeshire County Council is completely rethinking its services so that neighbourhoods get to shape how social care is delivered – an approach also transforming services in Wigan, Gateshead, Islington, Camden and others.

The voluntary sector is home to one of the most radical initiatives where the Local Trust is handing out one million pounds of Big Lottery money to each of the 150 most deprived neighbourhoods to spend as they see fit with no strings attached. An approach that has led to hundreds of community power initiatives ranging from anti-loan shark movements to litter-picking teams. Local Trust is now seeking to go even bigger by bringing pressure on the Government to use billions of pounds in dormant assets in the same way.

Community power also reaches into the economic realm. In recent years, people have established thousands of community businesses – motivated more by the desire to meet local social challenges than to generate profit. Many have been set up with the help of local councils putting unused buildings, theatres or libraries into community hands. Many more have been launched with the help of social investment or grants and support from groups like Power to Change.

This approach is also seeing transforming local economic policy. Preston Council has inspired many other councils with its idea of community wealth building. And councils and many others are increasingly recognising that the revival of their high streets and town centres is to be found not in standard retail but in creating spaces for communities to solve their biggest challenges.

The causes of this burgeoning community power movement are multiple: the increasingly apparent impotence of Westminster politics to address everyday problems; the need to move to more humane, holistic public services that prevent rather than simply treat crisis; the growing sense that the solution to climate change may be a re-localisation of our economy. Maybe people have simply decided to make “take back control” mean something more than a convenient campaign slogan for over-ambitious Old Etonians.

There is a growing realisation that the people delivering community power are part of a wider movement. That new self-awareness can be seen in the popularity of recent publications such as the New Local Government Network report, The Community Paradigm, or Hilary Cottam’s Radical Help  and the much more established work of Elinor Ostrom. The self-awareness also stretches well beyond the UK in the form of the New Municipalism – a mixture of ideas and increasingly networked practical initiatives that is inspiring community power in places as diverse as Barcelona, Sao Paulo and even Frome.

So, if in the midst of this uniquely pessimistic election, you are seeking a spring or two of hope, you can find them in thousands of increasingly networked local, autonomous solutions. They remind us that our real power as humans is not found in the confected division of high politics but within communities that solve problems together.

Adam Lent is director of the New Local Government Network.


This election is our chance to treat housing as a right – but only if we listen to tenants

The Churchill Gardens Estate, Westminster, London. Image: Getty.

“You’re joking, not another one... there’s too much politics going on at the moment..!”

Brenda of Bristol’s televised comments in 2017, when told that another election was to take place, could just as well have been uttered when MPs voted to call a general election for 12 December this year. 

Almost immediately the politicking began. “A chance to transform our country”. “An opportunity to stop Brexit/get Brexit done”. ‘We can end austerity and inequality.” “A new revitalised parliament.” “Another referendum.”

Yet dig behind the language of electioneering and, for the first time that I can recall, there is mention of solving the housing crisis by all the major parties. I can welcome another election, if the result is a determination to build enough homes to meet everyone’s needs and everyone’s pocket.

That will require those who come to power to recognise that our housing system has never been fit for purpose. It has never matched the needs of the nation. It is not an accident that homelessness is increasing; not an accident that families are living in overcrowded accommodation or temporary accommodation, sometimes for years; not an accident that rents are going up and the opportunities to buy property are going down. It is not an accident that social housing stock continues to be sold off. These are the direct result of policy decisions by successive governments.

So with all the major parties stating their good intentions to build more homes, how do we ensure their determination results in enough homes of quality where people want to live, work and play? By insisting that current and prospective tenants are involved in the planning and decision making process from the start.

“Involved” is the key word. When we build new homes and alter the environment we must engage with the local community and prospective tenants. It is their homes and their communities we are impacting – they need to be involved in shaping their lived space. That means involvement before the bull-dozer moves in; involvement at thinking and solution finding stages, and with architects and contractors. It is not enough to ask tenants and community members for their views on plans and proposals which have already been agreed by the board or the development committee of some distant housing provider.

As more homes for social and affordable rent become a reality, we need tenants to be partners at the table deciding on where, how and why they should be built there, from that material, and with those facilities. We need them to have an effective voice in decision making. This means working together with tenants and community members to create good quality homes in inclusive and imaginatively designed environments.

I am a tenant of Phoenix Community Housing, a social housing provider. I am also the current Chair and one of six residents on the board of twelve. Phoenix is resident led with tenants embedded throughout the organisation as active members of committees and onto policy writing and scrutiny.

Tenants are part of the decision making process as we build to meet the needs of the community. Our recently completed award-winning extra care scheme has helped older people downsize and released larger under-occupied properties for families.

By being resident led, we can be community driven. Our venture into building is small scale at the moment, but we are building quality homes that residents want and are appropriate to their needs. Our newest development is being built to Passivhaus standard, meaning they are not only more affordable but they are sustainable for future generations.

There are a few resident led organisations throughout the country. We don’t have all the answers to the housing situation, nor do we get everything right first time. We do know how to listen, learn and act.

The shocking events after the last election, when disaster came to Grenfell Tower, should remind us that tenants have the knowledge and ability to work with housing providers for the benefit of all in the community – if we listen to them and involve them and act on their input.

This election is an opportunity for those of us who see appropriate housing as a right; housing as a lived space in which to thrive and build community; housing as home not commodity – to hold our MPs to account and challenge them to outline their proposals and guarantee good quality housing, not only for the most vulnerable but for people generally, and with tenants fully involved from the start.

Anne McGurk is a tenant and chair of Phoenix Community Housing, London’s only major resident-led housing association.