Boxed in between a market that sees us only as consumers and a state that is too often dehumanising and inflexible, it’s clear that change is long overdue. At a time when resources are scarce in the economy, they are abundant in our communities. Passion, energy, empathy and creativity exist in spades, if only we could see it.
But after four years of cuts which have placed the greatest strain on communities and families least able to bear it, the message that we’ll hand power to people to do things themselves may seem impossible to those who are struggling to stay afloat. They need to know that this is not "politics on the cheap". We recognise that some communities don’t currently have the time, resources or confidence to organise, challenge and create change. Last year research by Civil Exchange showed how, since the "big society", the most deprived areas of the country have fallen further and further behind. The "big society" was based on an entrepreneurial business model, where the state got out the way and communities thrived. The message from Civil Exchange is that they don’t - especially where help is most needed.
There is an inequality in people’s experiences of wielding power and changing this takes time. There are brilliant examples, like the Unicef Rights Respecting Schools Programme, which shares real power with children from the age of 5, allowing them to participate in shaping and running their own schools and learning by doing.
Investing in communities to help build their own capacity doesn’t mean bringing in clever people from Whitehall to set up forums and networks, as the government has done, on short-term contracts. From Wigan to Walsall, those relationships and community groups are already there. The trick is to understand where communities are at their strongest and most energetic and build capacity around them. In Wigan you might start with the grassroots sport clubs which are strong, thriving and have reach across local communities. It’s a big leap from running a football league to taking power back and using it to manage your own cancer care or shape your local health service and there are different ways of bridging it. One approach is through community organisers, like anti-fascist charity Hope Not Hate, which uses a network of grassroots organisers to build capacity to fight racism and fascism across communities.
There are other ways too. In Lambeth, the Young Lambeth Cooperative gives local people the power to make decisions about how their youth services are run. The budget is held in a community trust and services are commissioned by its members with support from the local Council. This is more than localism. Just as power can get stuck at national level, so too it can sometimes get stuck at local level. As Lambeth has shown, to give more power to people sometimes, you have to take it away from local and national government, or you have to push it downwards and give the frontline professionals tasked with helping people the power they need to do it. There are many people who need and deserve help and support to make decisions and manage their own care. Children in care, for example, frequently say decisions are taken without thought to the reality of their lives. They don’t want to make huge decisions by themselves; they want the support of an adult they trust. But just as they don’t currently hold power to make decisions, nor do their social workers. They need access to budgets across health and social care and real power to make decisions.
The lesson of these diverse examples is that they succeed because they recognise the colour and texture of life in different communities. Trying to impose one model squeezes the spirit and energy out of people and communities. As Jon Cruddas told the New Local Government Network, our job is to help people shape things themselves in response to the needs of their own local communities.
This is so important because too often we hear people’s experience of both market and state is uncaring, unresponsive and inflexible, from incomprehensible computer-generated letters to poor service and lack of redress. Giving people the power and ability to shape services will stop us working in silos, ticking boxes and ignoring the things that matter to people most. Business developments that take no account of the wider impact on the community, a care system that drives a coach and horses through the relationships that sustain children at the time they need them most. The answer is to give children-in-care councils, patient forums and residents associations the power and ability to shape those services around the things that matter to them.
It’s not easy to do but it couldn’t matter more because it’s built on the idea of human potential, replacing a deficit model which focuses on people’s problems with a positive model which focuses on people’s potential.
Lisa Nandy is shadow for minister for civil society and MP for Wigan