Urban Forum have welcomed the introduction of new Community Rights to give local people control over public services, local development and a greater say over buildings and land in their communities. The principle of community ownership, control and influence is something we strive to increase. So the Community Right to Buy, to Build and to Challenge within the Localism Bill should be cause for optimism. However, as so often with government initiatives, the implementation is crucial, and a good idea can soon be destroyed with poor implementation and detail.
The greatest concern I have about the introduction of the community rights, is also my biggest fear about the whole Big Society agenda….that government seems to have very little concern about how they are taken up by different groups. Despite Big Society’s strong language on ‘placing power in the hands of those who lack it’, there is little evidence to suggest that government wishes to actually do anything about this. If you accept that power is unequal and some groups are less powerful than others (as ‘those who lack it’ suggests), then surely you must take steps to ensure that specific effort is directed to the less powerful. I cannot believe that anyone with a modicum of intellectual capability can assume that this inequality will be addressed simply by giving everybody (the powerful and the non-powerful) the same opportunity and letting them get on with it. That is patently absurd as ‘any fule kno’ (as Molesworth would say), as the powerful are, by definition, better equipped to take advantage.
We know that particular communities and groups are more likely to lack power and to be excluded from decision making – and these characteristics are reflected in law, as the ‘Protected Characteristics’ in the Equality Act. Given that, you would expect to see government directing significant resources to supporting these excluded groups, in order to fulfil the ambition of addressing power inequality. So far, we’ve seen no evidence of this. In fact, there have been signs of things going in precisely the opposite direction with the withdrawal of funding from organisations like Voice4Change England and Women’s Resource Centre.
We should be under no illusion whatsoever…more affluent, ambitious and organised communities will be far better placed to take advantage of the new community rights than poor and excluded communities. Anyone who is concerned about social inequality (and the evidence presented in the Spirit Level demonstrates that it is bad for all of us) should be nervous about the knock-on effect of failing to support excluded groups and communities to take up these new rights.
Urban Forum is keen to ensure that we understand what the needs and ambition of VCS groups and deprived communities to use the community rights is and to help provide the support they require to use them. We have launched a brief survey seeking the views of not-for-profit groups so we can build an evidence base to really understand awareness, ambition and needs. Please complete it and encourage others to do so – it will really help (as not everyone believes evidence-based policy and practice has had its day!)
Unless we move quickly to support more marginalised communities to take advantage of the new Community Rights, the opportunity to use them as a means to strengthen and improve deprived areas will quickly evaporate.
Community Rights survey – http://www.urbanforum.org.uk/apply/view/Community-Rights-Made-Real/index