So just how radical is Kelly’s new brief?
Regeneration & Renewal
Now that Ruth Kelly has taken over responsibility for David Miliband’s important devolutionary white paper, what can local communities look forward to?
In a letter to the new Department for Communities and Local Government minister, Tony Blair wrote: ‘I would like to see a radical devolutionary white paper and subsequent bill, with more power for local neighbourhoods and new models of accountability.’ (R&R, 12 May, p1). The Prime Minister’s affirmation of the Miliband agenda is encouraging, but words like ‘radical devolved power’ are vague. Community empowerment activists like myself accept that the best interest of a particular community could be different from that of the local council. Communities need to have the organisation and the resources to be autonomous – in effect, to be disobedient. Miliband understood that the acquisition of wealth through property is at the core of real power and his ‘community right-to-buy’ proposals have been carefully prepared.
At the Regeneration & Renewal annual conference in London last week, I sought the views of those civil servants I could find of community right-to-buy. Their responses varied from warm support to incredulity that such a thing could be proposed. I sense that this is not yet a done deal.
One of the most impressive speakers at the conference was Alan Riddell, director of operations at the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit. His command of his field had me going with him until he used the phrase ‘local government led – community engaged’ which stopped me in my tracks. This is just the same old mantra. All across the UK there are scores of communities which have a degree of local autonomy and they all have one thing in common – that they won it from a reluctant local council. For too long the independence of communities has been down to heroic individuals. The challenge is to change the culture so that every community that wishes can achieve its own ‘anchor organisation’ to champion its aspirations.
Everyone agrees that the political pendulum has swung too far towards centralism and that a serious democratic deficit has resulted. If this Government is serious about democratic renewal its ‘radical’ devolution measures mustn’t depend on goodwill from local authorities for empowering communities. That would be tantamount to putting the fox in charge of the chicken run.