Community rights vs Free schools

Community rights and free schools both make a lot of people nervous. Many people see them as ‘privatisation by the back door’ and a deliberate attempt to dismantle long established public services. To be honest I also share this concern, believing that there is a real danger of private sector companies scooping up contracts to run our public services and suck profits out. However I believe we can reduce this risk by ensuring there are high quality alternatives that are not driven by a profit motive.

Working on the community rights agenda during the lengthy passage of the Localism Bill, I saw a great deal of nervousness. In research we did at Urban Forum, we found that two thirds of community groups thought that the Right to Challenge would lead to greater private sector service delivery. However the response to this risk from many in the not for profit sector was highly pragmatic. Was there a way, they asked, for us to reduce this risk? Or even more than that, was there actually an opportunity for us to benefit from the policy? For many the response had clearly been to conclude that there is a way of using the right to challenge to enable charities, community groups and social enterprises to successfully bid to deliver services.

So, despite huge reservations, the overall response from civil society to the community rights agenda has been to see a glass half full. Or perhaps, if not half full, then at least an opportunity to have a good drink.

I don’t think people have particularly changed their minds…but the pragmatism of the not-for-profit sector has sought ways to turn the policy into a force for good.

The contrast with free schools, which I’ve been working on more recently, could not be more stark. Many of the same VCS people who have decided to do what they can to make community rights work, along with Teachers and other education professionals view free schools in a wholly negative light. No doubt there are key differences between them and perhaps there are good reasons not to embrace free schools. But there appears to be something inconsistent at play here.

Many free school objectors talk about privatisation, but that is just like community rights. So what has made sector leaders respond far more positively to community rights (albeit in a somewhat guarded way) than they do to free schools?

Could it be emotional? Our schools are precious to the British psyche and any perceived threat will be strongly opposed. But are our other public services valued less? I wouldn’t have thought so.

Or could it be that free schools are being set up by private companies tht many fear so much? That could be the case, and certainly I am nervous about the growing numbers of companies seeking profit that are setting up new schools.

But my reaction to that situation (coupled with local circumstances that leave comprehensive education in desperately short supply) is to make sure there is an alternative on offer. The alternative could be many schools being set up by parents and community groups that are community hubs and become a focal point, or hub, for community life.

Free schools do not have to be bad. They do not have to be good either. But I believe they have the potential to enable socially-minded groups to establish outstanding schools that can improve outcomes for children.

I am not for one minute suggesting we should not speak out against things we believe to be wrong. If public services are being dismantled then we must voice our concerns. But we also need to be realistic in where we are…and at present there is little prospect of Labour reversing the free schools approach (though I imagine some posturing and finessing would be likely). Remember this is a policy approach that was instigated by Labour with their academies programme. They may not like aspects of it (like the potential for private sector firms to dominate) but I see no prospect of them dismantling it. Like Community Rights, it may be changed under a different government, but the broad thrust of policy is likely to remain intact.

So we have a choice. Oppose free schools (or community rights) in all their forms and fight to oppose them, or find ways to bend the policy to produce the sort of outcomes we want in education and public services. Me, I’m going for the latter.

The pragmatism seen in response to Community Rights is sorely lacking when it comes to free schools. The government’s motivation may be dubious, the language may be wrong and the implementation may be clunky, but can we really afford to ignore the potential?



Community Rights risk going wrong


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 –


Toby Blume
Chief Executive
Urban Forum





Something for everyone, or nothing for anyone?

It started as a good news story….DCLG issued draft Best Value guidance following Eric Pickles speech at NCVO’s annual conference saying he would take action to ensure local authorities did not cut funding to the VCS disproportionately or thoughtlessly. This ‘right to reshape’ is something we have been lobbying for along with colleagues on DCLG’s VCS partnership board. It is intended to create breathing space in advance of cuts being made, to explore how things might be done differently with less money. The publication of draft guidance was intended to set out the government’s expectations of local authorities to adopt this approach.

So far so good…

Then I had a look at the ‘guidance’ (I use the term loosely), all two-thirds of a page (or 275 words) of it. My first thought was ‘there’s not a lot there’. In fact, what I actually thought was that it was actually missing the guidance bit. So I checked again….nope…it was right….that was it.

DCLG proudly announced in their news release that the new draft guidance would replace the 56 pages of statutory guidance relating to the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. Clearly much has changed in the last year – for example the scrapping of Local Area Agreements and the Comprehensive Area Assessment – making much of the previous guidance redundant. But an unassuming sentence in the introduction to the draft guidance (which is actually longer than the guidance itself!) announced that the government plans to repeal the Duty to Involve (and the Duty to prepare a Sustainable Community Strategy). This immediately set alarm bells ringing…and clearly I was not the only one to pick up on this apparently minor detail, as blogs by Davy Jones  and Edward Andersson from Involve show.

When the Duty to Involve (D2I) was introduced, it had been heralded as a major step forward (and not just by a labour government) – placing a statutory duty on public bodies to ‘inform, consult and involve’ local people in decision making. Of course it was not without its flaws – the inclusion of the phrase ‘where appropriate’ left it completely open to interpretation. But it was generally welcomed nonetheless; particularly as it was something that local authorities and their partners were to be assessed on.

Urban Forum has taken a keen interest in the Duty from the outset, seeking to raise awareness of it among community groups, and conducting a survey on perceptions towards it at the time of its introduction. We then resurveyed the same people one year on to see how people felt things had changed.  The research – which is available here: Involving Communities – a legal duty produced some interesting findings:

  • There was virtually no change in levels of awareness of the Duty one year after its introduction.
  • Almost 9 out of 10 people felt their involvement would not make any difference
  • Confidence in the Duty’s ability to improve involvement had fallen significantly
  • The numbers of people that felt councillors did nothing to implement the Duty had increased substantially.

In short, the prevailing opinion was that the Duty had not had a major impact on local participation.

So what do we do about it? Three possible responses might be; to focus on making it work better, to replace it with something else, or to just get rid of it.

The government say that they have effectively gone for the middle option – with the introduction, through the Localism Bill, of new Community Rights to Build, Buy and Challenge. However I would argue that these are very different. The community rights, whilst welcomed, are far more specific and focused on citizens or not-for-profit groups being prepared to take on responsibility for doing something. The D2I’s strength (and possibly its weakness) is in its generality – that citizens have a right to express views to inform decision making. They don’t have to want to take over a public service or buy a building, just have their say. The shift from a more general ‘have your say’ to more emphasis on actually doing things seems to go somewhat against the grain of public opinion. Consistent polling data from Ipsos MORI shows that the number of people who want to have a say in local decisions is quite high (around 60%), compared with only 1 in 10 who are interested in actually running services[1]. So the change of emphasis is perhaps somewhat surprising.

There are also questions about the Duty’s relevance to Big Society and localism. Surely citizen voice and community empowerment are central themes within the government’s agenda…isn’t that the point of the D2I? Perhaps this is a sign that when push comes to shove a laissez faire approach to regulation trumps community empowerment in policy?

Another question that ought to be asked is whether there is any evidence to show that the D2I is a significant (and costly) bureaucratic burden on public bodies. If it hasn’t greatly affected the way councils work, surely it can’t have been particularly burdensome then, can it? And if that’s the case, then why repeal it? I am unaware any evidence of significant costs associated with implementing the Duty to Involve (but if any exists I would be interested to see it). Given that localism and Big Society will mean even more engagement with local people, how can it make sense to remove the statutory basis for involvement? I do not accept the suggestion that the statutory guidance was overly prescriptive. It sought to set out the expectations that central government had on standards of community participation by public bodies. Scrapping the guidance means we risk every single local area feeling they have to ‘reinvent’ this for themselves.

It was suggested to me privately that the decision to scrap the Duty to Involve is merely a ‘sweetener’ to local authorities in return for ‘imposing’ the Community Rights on them. If that’s the case I fear that in an attempt to offer something to everyone, we’ve ended up with nothing for anyone.



Toby Blume
Chief Executive
Urban Forum




Breathing space and playing the long game

I didn’t hear Communities Secretary Eric Pickles’ speech at NCVO’s annual conference yesterday (though I was following it on twitter), but I did arrive soon afterwards for a drink and a natter with the assembled ranks of the VCS. The Secretary of State had earlier announced that he felt it was reasonable that local authorities did not disproportionately cut funding to voluntary and community groups and that he would consider using legislation to prevent it.

The reaction to his speech was not particularly positive and the impression I got was that most people were deeply sceptical and unimpressed with what they saw as just ‘warm words’ without action. This is entirely understandable given the daily pain of news about further cuts to the sector we are receiving. It is legitimate to point out that had the Secretary of State not frontloaded the cuts to local government (so that the deepest cuts happen in 2011-12,) the situation would not have been so bad.

Nonetheless I was surprised by the rubbishing I heard, characterised by one prominent sector leader disparagingly referring to the ‘Pickles Doctrine of Reasonableness’. These are pretty dark days for the sector and I for one am desperate to grab on to the bright spots of opportunity that might offer some hope of improvement in the future.

Whether the example of councils like Thurrock and Wolverhampton (who have fully protected their funding for the not-for-profit sector) can be followed more consistently, I don’t know. I know of a number of local authorities that are deeply committed to protecting as best they can, their funding for the VCS, but are still having to make cuts. Nor do I believe that every penny that flows through to charities is spent in the interests of those most in need.  I even have to admit that I do not hold out a great deal of hope that things will change significantly in the short term as a result of Eric Pickles’ speech.

The one thing I think central government could to do to convince sceptics in the VCS and local government of their sincerity on this issue is to demonstrate leadership by example. We need to see Departments across Whitehall lining up to prove that they value the sector and that they too will ensure that the cuts in their funding will not be out of proportion with their own budget cuts. If we see that, perhaps more people will be prepared to take them at their word.

But for me the really interesting part of his speech was when he said that where Councils expected funding or support to need to be cut;

“It is reasonable to expect that they (Councils) … give local groups a chance to make their case and suggest alternative ways of redesigning or reshaping the service.”

That is where I think we ought to be looking for opportunities.  The chance, in effect, to get creative and explore whether there are ways to reconfigure or redesign the way things are done. That seems to me to play to the VCS’s strengths – creativity, innovation, efficiency, joining things up and finding ways to address needs and problems. I heard Locality’s Chief Executive, Steve Wyler, call for something very much along this lines recently – a right to reshape – and I thought then it sounded like a good idea.

It’s essential that we don’t solely focus on the here and now and the considerable challenges we all face in the short term. There is a long-game to play too and we must not let the opportunities slip away. I accept that this comes too late to save many organisations and jobs which are already gone or going. However that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.

I believe that legislation along these lines – as part of the package of community rights being introduced through the Localism Bill – could significantly strengthen not just the VCS but the public sector too. It could mean that, before any cuts were made, we’d have a chance to get people together to explore, openly and honestly, how savings might be made, how improvements could release other funds, or how the aim might be achieved in a different way. At the very least it might buy some breathing space.

Of course there are plenty of ‘ifs and buts’ and much would depend on the detail, but that’s my point. We will miss out on informing the detail if we’re too quick to reject the idea out of hand.

Whether or not this represents a change of heart or of policy for the Secretary of State, I don’t know. Nonetheless, I do recognise that Eric Pickles is attempting to offer the sector something and, if our collective response is to dismiss it, we may not get a second invitation.

I believe it would need a legislative underpinning and can only see this working through the Localism Bill. However to get this idea onto the statute books we will first need to recognise its potential and then make our voices heard loudly and clearly. Localism means central government devolving powers, but it does retain control of the framework within which decisions take place. A community right to review or redesign would be a positive step in my opinion and one we should lobby hard for.


Toby Blume

Chief Executive 

Urban Forum