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.