Three community leaders from the Midlands are heading a national campaign to “fundamentally change where power lies in this country”.
Neelam Heera, founder of Cysters in Birmingham; Charlotte Hollins, manager of England’s first community owned farm, Fordhall Organic Farm in Market Drayton; and Deena Wildgoose, who runs Coalville C.A.N. in Leicestershire, are calling on the government to introduce a Community Power Act.
Their campaign has already won the backing of several national groups such as NewLocal, Peoples Health Trust, Power to Change and Locality as well as Alex Morris, Labour’s shadow minister for levelling up, and Councillor Doug Pullen, Conservative leader of Lichfield council.
The proposed Community Power Act would have three key parts:
1. Communities would have a legal right to self-determination
All decisions about local services and spaces would have to be made at the “most local” level possible. The starting point for all policies would be what powers and resources local communities need in order to support community-led change.
2. Communities would have the right of first refusal when buildings and spaces with significant community value come up for sale; the right to control investment and increase community control over the key spending decisions which affect local neighbourhoods; and the right to co-design, commission and deliver local services.
3. Communities and councils would form Community Covenants
The Act would designate a range of possible “power partners” at the neighbourhood level: parish and town councils, neighbourhood forums, community ‘anchor’ organisations, or new community alliances.
Once communities and councils have formed Covenants they can access a range of new powers and resources across local economic development, service provision, community assets, planning and housing. Local authorities that form Community Covenants would gain access to greater powers, including a long-term funding settlement and enhanced fiscal powers.
The Community Power Act will “ensure that the process of devolution doesn’t just make it as far as local town halls, but continues onward into the heart of our communities”, says the group’s manifesto.
An independent Community Power Commissioner would be created
The Commissioner, appointed by the government of the day, would be a powerful new role, tasked with holding the government’s feet to the fire on its decentralisation commitments.
The Commissioner would judge how the government is upholding communities’ right to self-determination, with statutory powers to conduct reviews, require departments to produce information and make recommendations, and support the development of Community Covenants, ensuring each area has the necessary resources.
‘Making big change happen’
Neelam Heera said: “My work is all about changing the conversation concerning reproductive and mental health. But it shouldn’t be so difficult for us to get a hearing when these are decisions which so fundamentally change our lives. That’s why I’m ready to make big change happen.”
Deena Wildgoose said: “What we do is put communities in the driving seat. If we give communities the time, space and resources, people might start to believe that things can actually happen and want to get involved in making change happen.”
Charlotte Hollins said: “It’s time to challenge the assumption that power is something that is used on people rather than held by them.”
A ‘decisive shift in the balance of power’
Will Brett, campaign director, said: “People have been doing this work on their own – determined, practical people making it happen, not taking no for an answer, pushing rocks up hills.
“That’s why we’re calling for a Community Power Act: to make the decisive shift in the balance of power local people have been waiting for.
“We need to reset the foundations of public policy, so it supports and incubates the solutions that are already there in our communities, rather than always starting with a blank sheet of paper in Whitehall.
“This is a huge task so that’s why our campaign is all about a path-breaking new piece of legislation.”
A political reset of who has control
He adds: “The campaign is supported by a number of national organisations who have been trying to enable community power to flourish over the last few years. One of the key barriers that they have consistently identified is risk-aversion in the public sector to do things differently and really trust communities to get on with things.
“A Community Power Act will fundamentally change the dynamic, making community power the default rather than the exception. The balance of risk calculation that prevents the public sector giving power away will be reversed. Finally, after years of false dawns and unmet manifestos, local people will have the power they need to shape the places where they live.”