Locality’s policy team argue that a centrally-driven shift has to go hand in hand with culture change and support for local capacity and social infrastructure.

Earlier this week, Adam Lent, Director at the New Local Government Network and friend of Locality made a rallying call for a major new piece of legislation – a Community Power Act.

Locality’s policy work aims to put forward solutions that unlock the power that exists in all our communities, but is too often left latent and unexpressed. So, this is clearly an exciting development and something we read with great interest. In the days since, there have been thought-provoking responses from leading thinkers in this field, including Hilary Cottam, Simon Parker and Vidhya Alakeson.

It’s a timely debate for us because we’ve been at Locality’s annual Convention in Leeds over the past few days. The agenda was packed full of inspiring examples of Locality members and local authorities working in partnership to unleash community power. Yet, unfortunately, while these “power partnerships” are the pioneers – there are still many more stories of frustration where the potential of community power being stifled.

The time has come for community power

So, we share Adam’s diagnosis of why community power’s time has come. Long-term trends alone — like rising inequality, an ageing society and climate change — would have placed huge strain on the public sector and required imaginative new policy approaches. But combined with deep austerity and our ongoing political instability, bold solutions of the required scale can seem nigh on impossible to grasp.

Indeed, one of the greatest tragedies of the austerity decade is that its impacts have been weighted towards the local level. For this is where the innovation to tackle the economic, social and environmental challenges we face is most likely to be found. As such, we have been failing to catalyse our best hope for the future: the power of community.

Patchy power partnerships

At our Convention, we heard from places that have begun to build community power partnerships – like Wigan and Bradford – and the work that it has taken for them to get there. One audience member remarked “the work that is going on in those places is amazing and inspiring, but how can I get my council to do this?”.

Adam rightly observes that it “currently it takes a rare combination of courage, persistence and vision on the part of local leaders to adopt community power while it is at odds with the overwhelmingly paternalistic and institutional status quo.”.

This story of unmet potential means that we need to be bold to ensure we don’t miss this opportunity – to support a bigger system shift than is possible at the moment. How do we unlock the power in all our communities?

What we learned from the Localism Commission

A couple of years ago, we convened the Localism Commission to review the Localism Act 2012 and ask why it hadn’t had the transformational effect on community power many hoped it would.

We also wanted to think about what a radical Localism Act version 2.0 (or a Community Power Act, if you will) might look like. We heard evidence from communities, civil society, academics and policy makers. We made recommendations for overhauling the legislation – including new ambitious local powers on community ownership, public services and the local economy. But importantly, we also found that a Whitehall-led process of decentralisation alone would not deliver the change we need.

It is not enough to legislate for localism. For community power to thrive, it requires a far more deeply rooted change, embedding localism in the culture of our neighbourhoods, and growing local capacity and social infrastructure. Localism is a marathon, not a sprint.

Practice, culture and behaviour change within local government is key, as our recent localism research “Power Partnerships” has highlighted. This is what our Keep it Local Network is doing by building a national movement of local authority peers who can challenge one another to move further and faster.

But mandating what that culture change looks like from the centre risks being too mechanistic. As Hilary Cottam points out – the bureaucratic nature of legislation could stifle the power and innovation that it seeks to strengthen.

National leadership for local change

Yet the challenge is, if we truly want community power to be a national movement, and to flourish within radically localised political, social and economic systems, then can we accept piecemeal change?

Ultimately, we do need national leadership and change on the scale that the proposed Community Power Act is seeking. Inspirational local leaders and community organisations are carving the way. But we need national action and vision to spread it further and make the innovation that’s happening in different places add up to more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps it is something like a Community Power Act that is needed to bust us out of the system we currently have (centralised, bureaucratic, top-down), and lead us into a new paradigm.

Certainly, we at Locality are excited to see where this debate goes, and are ready to contribute our learning and the experience of Locality members on how best to unlock the power of community.