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.


The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.

Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.