Local Communities

By natwei_lngozg on 1 July 2010
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                Source: Hansard My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Perry for obtaining this debate, which is extremely well timed. I also welcome the insightful and eloquent maiden contributions of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and the noble Lord, Lord Knight, and I look forward very much to the forthcoming maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy. A key principle of the big society as expressed in government policy across the board is to give people more power closer to where they live-in effect, to devolve power to local communities, to citizens and citizen groups. I want to take this opportunity to highlight some of the ways in which this can happen through the thread of action from the centre of government through to the level of a street or neighbourhood and in reverse. I will then bring out some of the specific challenges in implementing these policies and potential ways to address them. Finally, I will mention the roles that not only central government play, but also the roles that enabling bodies such as local authorities and social enterprises as well as citizens can play in helping to effect this multi-layered devolution of power smoothly. As has been mentioned, we live in a relatively centralised democracy, with powers concentrated in the hands of the few. This places accountability mainly in the hands of Parliament to regulate and monitor both government and itself, and to the media to hold government to account through ad hoc public challenge and exposure-but only infrequently at some elections is there a feeling of real accountability to the voters. This state of affairs leaves many ordinary citizens disillusioned and disconnected from power. It can feed a sense of apathy and reliance on government for solutions, rather than a sense that citizens together can make improvements that fit their circumstances, resources and geographies with government and other institutions in more of a supportive or facilitative role. For all the rhetoric of previous Governments, the model to date has in general been rooted in the notion of the controlling state rather than the enabling state. There is a sense that big government-the assumption that government has all the answers-while it achieved much in the 20th century, is no longer fit for purpose and that reforming it will require not just a piecemeal devolution-a referendum here or a right to be consulted there-but a radical approach to shifting power at every level, a control shift, which combines new ideas with a rediscovery of ancient values. This shift starts in Westminster in exploring how this House and the other place can best function and represent the nation, and how we can relate more equally with the devolved Administrations; in how data in Whitehall are more widely shared about costs and impact through a right to data policy; and even in the bringing back of true Cabinet government and greater trust in the Civil Service. It continues with an emphasis on shifting powers to local authorities; namely, powers of competence to determine their own future financially and non-financially, powers to have elected mayors, and, in the abolition of regional spatial strategies, powers to return decision-making on housing, enterprise and planning to councils and localities. It is expressed in greater trust in front-line professionals, with a reduction in the amount of targets being collected across various departments and other bureaucracy so that professionals can focus on serving citizens and communities whether on the beat, in the community, or in the classroom. It continues in giving public sector workers the right to bid to form employee-owned co-operatives to take over the services that they deliver, and in allowing some of our highest performing schools to become academies and new ones to be established. The shift continues in measures which allow the further opening up of hitherto central or local authority run or owned services and assets to third parties, such as social enterprises, and to citizen groups so that they can be co- or wholly citizen-designed, run, and/or bid for or taken over with payment by results. It continues as monopolies in state provision are opened up in education, healthcare and social care, and in central and local procurement, supported by the release of local data on costs and performance, such as through crime maps, and in the promotion of open-source processes to enhance and involve citizen participation in planning, budgeting, debating and myriad other activities. In the long term, we have the opportunity to enshrine rights for, and to remove barriers to, neighbourhood groups at the most local level so that they can engage with, run and shape even more the services that affect them; to collaborate with each other and with enabling bodies such as local authorities, social enterprises and other local anchor institutions to achieve critical mass and scale where needed; to tackle critical and complex problems; and to exist without uncalled for interference and costs being imposed on them where they are clearly behaving responsibly. I hope that noble Lords will agree that this is indeed a radical shift. There will of course be challenges in implementing this ambitious programme. The first is the ability of each protagonist in the chain to exercise its new powers responsibly and effectively. The second is the capacity for communities, particularly those in deprived and resource-constrained environments, to make use of these new powers and data to bring about improvement. That is a challenge which I and my colleagues in the Office for Civil Society in particular are wrestling with through policies such as community organisers, the community first grant programme, and the big society bank. The third is the willingness and ability of players along this tapestry-local authorities, newly elected mayors and social enterprises-to seize this opportunity to act and to take responsibility, and for us not always automatically to blame the centre when things go wrong. The fourth challenge is when the shift of power is not accompanied by a shift in resources-for example, when councils cut grants to effective social enterprises because they represent external costs which are much easier to deal with than internal ones such as staff. Players, be they government departments, local authorities, social enterprises or citizens’ groups, that handle this shift well and responsibly deserve our praise and support, while those that abuse their new-found powers and do not pass them down deserve scrutiny and challenge, not just from us at the centre but from the people, through greater transparency and local media interest. We must also accept that at times there will be failure from which we must learn and move on-that is the risk you take when you trust people and institutions-and recognise that often a local rather than a systemic response for failure works best, unless the failure is genuinely systemic. In essence, we want small failures, not large ones. We must also recognise that such challenges will mean that the pace of change will be different in different places, although that is not necessarily dissimilar to the situation in many places today. This is fine as long as progress is still being made across the board and the state is always on hand to protect the vulnerable. New skills will be needed to help effect the culture change and transitions that will be required. Central government will need to become more risk-aware and less risk-averse. Councils may need to learn to facilitate more and deliver and even commission alone less or in less onerous ways. Front-line staff and commissioners of services will need to take into account more than just a pure short-term value-for-money argument in their decisions. They will need to understand what will drive long-term sustainability and savings in their locality and to build bridging social capital through greater citizen and non-governmental inclusion in service delivery, whether that be through restorative justice circles, patient expert groups and new mutual forms of social care such as demonstrated through Southwark Circle. We will also need to make sure that transparent citizen feedback, harnessing technology where possible, is used to generate continued pressure for devolution and improvement, learning from businesses such as Amazon and eBay so as to avoid having to create regulations and bureaucracy in order to keep track of the myriad actors and players that will be involved in this new landscape. For this to work, it is clear that central government cannot act alone. Just the act of publishing data and passing new laws can achieve a great deal, but local authorities, social enterprises and other intermediary bodies that stand between the centre and the citizens where they live will have a huge role to play in making such laws and information usable, ensuring that local capacity and engagement exists, and ensuring that changes are fair. Even then, it will require millions of citizens, a veritable “civic service”, to want to make use of their rights, to take responsibility to help deliver, hold to account or feed back on progress, and not once more just leave it to a few to carry the rest of us. Will such a civic service arise, building on the great multiplicity of action that already exists? Will local institutions step up to the mark? Can Government willingly give up so much power? Do we have any other choice? I do not believe we do, and so we must try. But more than hope for the best, the challenge for all of us is to work together to bring about this shift, and it will require our finest minds, our most enlightened officials and politicians, our most able social entrepreneurs and forward-looking public servants, and our most innovative and determined citizens up and down the land to make lasting and real progress. It is my belief, however, that we can do it. One short true story illustrates my point and demonstrates to me that this programme, while ambitious, is possible. A certain engaged citizen I know, William Perrin, lived on a street in King’s Cross which eight years ago had severe social problems-exploding cars, endemic fly-tipping and severe anti-social behaviour, including a crack dealer living in a caravan right in front of his house. William and his neighbours got stuck in to volunteer community work, but after several years the burden of local paperwork and documents became more than he could bear. In desperation, he set up a community website to manage the information and share it with others, blogging about the situation, using photos taken on members’ mobiles to report acts of abandonment and vandalism, and the unresponsiveness of some local public bodies. Four years on, the website has 900 articles, many local campaigns have been successfully fought, and the local area is being transformed. William used the experience to raise money and set up a social enterprise that helps other people in hundreds of other deprived communities use the web to improve their neighbourhood up and down the country, in rural areas, towns, and post-industrial estates. This story, replicated in myriad different ways across the country, can contribute over time to a stronger and more content society as our social ties grow; to a more balanced economy as we transition resources and people from the public into the community and private sectors, and could even allow us once more to help inspire other countries around the world as they too wrestle with how to build partnerships between government and civil society, and to design their civil administrations in a way that empowers people. Imagine what more could be done if we can achieve the shift that this Government wish to make happen and see it lived out in millions of stories such as the one I have just mentioned. We can do it if, together, we can overcome the obstacles that we will surely face, and if as many of us as possible are able to play a responsible and appropriate role, however large or small, whether online or offline.