Asset transfer can unlock local power
Regeneration & Renewal
I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the white paper on local government, expected in the autumn, will propose radical change.
Anticipating the white paper, a new book, Double Devolution, published by think-tank the Smith Institute, develops David Miliband’s approach to community renewal. It calls for a cross-party consensus to shift power downwards from Whitehall to local government, and from town halls to neighbourhoods.
The book recommends ‘the creation of neighbourhood bodies with significant power over the issues that matter most locally – especially crime, grime, young people, noise, public spaces etc. These bodies should be directly elected and led by a new category of neighbourhood councillors.’
Direct elections at local level would bring the UK into line with the rest of Europe, and reconnect many citizens who presently ‘can’t see the point of voting.’ The risk is that political parties will see this as an opportunity to rekindle defunct branches along with all the centralist manipulation that discredits our electoral system. But representative democracy is not the only way to empower communities.
In 2004, the Home Office published a report, Firm Foundations, which was ahead of its time. It included specified actions to ‘facilitate the appropriate transfer of assets to community anchor organisations.’ This work was carried forward by a ‘cross-sector work group’ whose findings have now been published by the Home Office as Communities Taking Control. It recognises the unique power of ownership to galvanise local morale and confidence. It’s one thing to elect a local management committee which the council ‘allows’ to operate some services. It’s quite different for a community to own the local operating companies and the premises they use.
This is not an argument against the benefits of elected neighbourhood councils – it’s a recognition that true power comes with ownership. Some communities will become a lower tier of the state – much more responsive to local needs. But the ones which will be really transformed will be those which also grasp the challenges of the market; those which promote a culture of enterprise and independence – where social entrepreneurs can flourish. Let the model be business rather than bureaucracy.
– Double Devolution: the renewal of local government is available from www.smith-institute.org.uk