Power to the people: how much do we really value community empowerment

Power to the people: how much do we really value community empowerment


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Issue 4



The concept of community empowerment, argues Stephen Maxwell, is still entangled in the rhetoric of partnerships. In England there are signs of a more democratic set of ideas of empowerment emerging. But are even these ideas radical enough?



‘Community’ has become one of the most deceiving words in Scotland’s political lexicon. Community planning seemed to promise that local communities would take the lead in the planning of their own services. Instead it has defined communities as one voice among many more powerful voices, mainly from the public sector, in a process led by local authorities.


‘Community budgeting’ seemed to promise that communities would gain control of a budget of their own to spend on their priorities. Instead it turned out to be a process by which public authorities would disaggregate their spending in local communities to establish the size and bias of the overall spend; a useful ambition but not quite what seemed to be promised by the headline.


‘Community empowerment’ was the most deceiving of them all. It seemed to leave little scope for misunderstanding; communities were to be given the power to take decisions on their own account along With a capacity to implement them, But it turned out to mean that communities would be helped to contribute their views on local priorities and to present them to multi-sectoral structures, such as community planning partnerships,


Despite this serial misuse, the idea of empowering communities is too valuable to be discarded. To be sure, to make it fit for modern purpose the concept of community has to be stripped of some ideological baggage. The case for empowering communities does not depend on ‘communitarianism’, the belief that local communities operate as cohesive, self enforcing moral communities. In a multicultural society it can no longer be assumed that communities of place guarantee social solidarity around shared norms and values. Where different ethnic or religious communities, or even different age groups, live in dose proximity social conflict is as likely an outcome as social solidarity,


The case for empowerment is altogether more political and more practical. The United Kingdom has one of the most centralised political systems in the democratic world. David Miliband, the minister for communities and local government, recently confessed his surprise (itself surprising) at discovering that the lowest principal tier of local government in England is 10 times the size of the lowest tier in other countries, covering an average 150,000 people compared to around 50,000 in the United States, 30,000 in Sweden and 20,000 in Australia. While 36,000 communes serve a French population about10% larger than ours, and 15,000 municipalities cater for German population a third bigger, England makes do with three hundred and fifty local councils. Although the minister’s reference was England, the contrast applies equally to Scotland.


This centralisation of power is symptomatic of the weakness of democratic culture in the United Kingdom. We tolerate a voting system for our central Parliament which regularly gives parties gaining only minority share of the popular vote – at the last general election just 36% – an absolute majority of seats in Parliament. We accept a doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty which gives the Executive in Parliament far greater discretion than in almost any other democracy. There is no written constitution to check Executive abuses, only statute created by and rescindable by the Parliament itself. There is no power of popular initiative or recall. Through party whips and centralised bureaucracies the political parties serve to extend rather than counterbalance this political centralisation. The powerlessness of local communities is part of the price Britain pays for its preference for the ‘forms’ of democracy over the substance.


Yet despite the rocky soil the idea of empowering local communities is making progress, at least south of the Border. At the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister David Miliband speaks of ‘looking at questions of power and ownership as the way of building community’. His menu of policy options now includes a community right to buy publicly held local assets analogous to tenants’ right to buy, the continued rolling out of Sure Start Children’s centres run by voluntary organisations, a neighbourhood policing team in every neighbourhood, mobilising local people ~s volunteers or part-time and sessional workers if) diversifying local service provision, a greater role for voluntary organisations in service delivery, giving local people a power to ‘trigger’ Changes in services or in local management of services if they feel they are not getting the quality of service they need, the further development of volunteer ‘time banks’, neighbourhood management, giving Councillors delegated budgets, and strengthening the powers of Parish Councils.


No Scottish minister has emulated David Miliband in presenting himself or herself as a Champion of community empowerment and service diversification apart from housing stock transfer. However, the Scottish Parliament did act as an early path-breaker through its legislation on a community right to purchase land. Building on this power, Scotland has gone on to pioneer community owned alternative energy. It is disappointing that despite the efforts of a few organisations such as the Caledonia Centre for Social Development these initiatives have not so far fertilised a wider Scottish interest in community empowerment. Instead, the focus in Scotland is on improving the effectiveness of community representation in partnerships. The National Standards for Community Engagement developed by the Scottish Centre for Community Development with funding from the Scottish Executive are typical of the Executive’s approach. If implemented systematically the National Standards will increase the public sector’s responsiveness to the needs of the local communities it serves while stopping well short of empowering communities to determine and act on their own priorities.


There’s no mystery about the sources of Scottish opposition to more radical forms of community empowerment. There is a continuing concern about the practicalities. There is a fear that local decision taking and spending would fall under the control of local cliques. There is a worry about maintaining national standards of public accountability for local decisions. There is certainly a worry about the cost of sustaining infrastructures for community decision taking alongside local councils and the parliaments in Holyrood, Westminster, and Brussels. There may be concern too that community-based decision taking would multiply post code differences in services.


Above all though, the opposition is political. Political institutions never willingly surrender power. Scotland’s focal councils are already on the defensive. They feel, rightly, that they have had too much of their power sliced away by central Government and they do not want even more to be handed down to neighbourhood bodies. They are supported by the public service unions which fear that radical decentralisation would further fragment and reduce their membership. The Labour party, forced by its coalition partner to introduce the single transferable vote (STV) for local elections, fears to alienate further the two institutions which have provided so much of their political ballast. And as rivals to Labour for the support of e the same constituency, the opposition SNP party has deferred to these fears rather than challenge them.


South of the Border David Miliband already has experts examining the practicalities of his new ‘localism’, including how to ensure local and national accountability. But perhaps his greatest challenge will be to keep localism distinct in the minds of left of centre opinion from some other themes of third term Labour, particularly the Prime Minister’s education reforms. In fact Blair’s school Trusts and competitive school admissions would work against community empowerment.


As both the Scottish record and Miliband’s menu illustrate, the term community empowerment accommodates many forms. But without a transfer of the power to take decisions and back them with money community empowerment will produce only meagre results. While communities of all kinds can benefit from power, disadvantaged communities should be the priority. Scotland’s one hundred most disadvantaged communities should n have the option of voting for ’empowered e community status. Subject to their meeting prescribed standards of local and national accountability they would be given a community budget extracted from the overall public – expenditure for their area. The budget would need to be sufficiently large to make a real difference wherever it was applied. For an average community size of say 7-8,000 residents, that would mean a budget initially of at .least one or two millions rather than the few £100,000s typically available to social inclusion partnerships. Only with a budget on this scale will community empowerment produce the local social ‘multipliers’, including attracting the best local leaders and building local skills and confidence, which over time could transform the community’s prospects.


So what are the values which support the case for direct community empowerment? Certainly not any vision of a culturally uniform local community. Community empowerment should develop firmly within the framework of enforceable rights which has been developed to maintain the freedoms of a culturally and ethnically diverse society. Democratic values certainly, in particular the belief that the best decisions are those taken by the people who are most exposed to their effects. A belief too in the beneficence of accountable power, in particular that self determination tends to promote responsibility and encourages invention and initiative. A belief that shared responsibility for producing a public good will encourage the growth of the practical skills of communication, representation, negotiation and compromise, and promote a tolerance of differing views. All of these are forms of social capital which do not presume that shared norms need stretch beyond maintaining a shared public space and process of decision taking. If in practice the experience of shared decision taking leads to the emergence of other shared values within the community, all the better.


There remains the question of whether local political community is consistent with the market values which drive wider society. For example, if the Government was to achieve its ambition for 80% of the working age population to be in paid employment, how much room would that leave for the social networks – familial, group and communal – on which community empowerment in the end depends? Localism may well prove to carry a more radical implication than many of its current advocates assume.