Community Rights risk going wrong

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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

 

Toby Blume
Chief Executive
 
Urban Forum

 

Twitter: http://twitter.com/tobyblume/  

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Community Rights risk going wrong

  1. Not only will the new Community Rights favour those communities that are already sufficiently organised and powerful to exploit it, but it will also favour those for whom ‘influencing public services and local development’ are high on the list of priorities. It is interesting to note the communities around Leeds that are already coming forward with ‘design statements’…They are not, on the whole, the most deprived…But there is another interesting dynamic happening that I think is worth comment. Much of the ‘community development’ infrastructure that has been encouraged, and financially incentivised in recent years can hardly be said to have ‘engaged’ much of the community. Instead, often a tiny handful of people use them to further develop their agendas. Sometimes this may truly reflect the needs and priorities of the ‘community’ they claim to serve. Sometimes this is not obviously the case.So for example a small group of people form a community trust and recognise that there is investment and support available to help them to take over and run ‘community assets’ previously known as ‘poorly used buildings’. They then try to find a use for the building that will make it financially ‘sustainable’. Rarely does this ‘new use’ tie in significantly with the major priorities of many of the local community, especially the poorest. So we see a ‘managed workspace’ develop that is populated by ‘outsiders’. Or a community building that attains financial sustainability by selling services to the more affluent.So my concern is that embracing the opportunities created by these new community rights and other aspects of legislation may itself further increase inequalities. And of course this runs counter to one of the values of community development – ‘seeking and promoting policy and practices that are just and enhance equality whilst challenging those that are not.’And sadly it is not as straightforward as helping the most disadvantaged to exploit the new Community Rights. For the vast majority of people living in these communities their immediate personal priorities lie elsewhere than developing design statements and endeavouring to influence public services. We must help individuals work on what matters most to them, on their agendas and processes, rather than help them be ‘led by the nose’ to operationalise the latest policy whim of the state.For me, the question of ‘Whose agenda are we working on?’ is much more than a ‘rhetorical device’ but provides a fundamental clue as to the integrity of our community development work.

  2. When initiatives like this are ill conceived, I am always reminded of a citizens jury I ran in Birmingham in the early 90s. For one highly vocal juror, the vision for Cannon Hill Park was to wrap its circumference in barbed wire, convert the Midlands Arts Centre into a police station, with viewing tower, and to give the coppers bikes on which to exercise whilst carrying out a circuit beat to keep vandals and hooligans in check – not a penny spent on leisure equipment.

  3. From a rural perspective I would say that every community is likely to have members who find it hard to get involved and articulate their needs through approaches such as Neighbourhood Planning and Joint Strategic Needs Assessment. Their involvement can be increased through the inclusion work of charities such as Rural Community Councils but this isn’t really the point. I feel that better recognition needs to be made of what these communities are already delivering for themselves in ways that suit them e.g. in Lincolnshire there are over 370 village halls in community ownership with a replacement value of over £100,000,000. These assets, that are already in community control, are not second rate managed work spaces, they are community hubs, providing a range of services from fitness classes, older people’s lunch groups, public meeting venues, parish and district council offices, children’s birthday parties, ICT centres, library facilities and many other functions.These services and activities have not developed because the govt thought it was a good idea, but because the community thought they were a good idea, particularly in the face of the withdrawal of services by public sector bodies. The services also reflect the nature of the community, which are often much more mixed in socio-economic terms than urban areas and often have a much stronger sense of identity.Given the experience they have developed, the community right to challenge offers them extra opportunities to draw services back into the heart of their rural communities. The issue will be, how do they plug in to the system when the system is still unsure of what it needs to do, in other words its not the communities who are not competent but the system.

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