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More power for communities can’t just mean more power for councils

Keir Starmer's Take Back Control Bill needs to truly empower citizens.

By Adam Lent

Keir Starmer did something remarkable in his New Year speech. He shifted the arcane and rather tired agenda of constitutional reform and devolution onto territory voters actually care about – having a direct influence over the decisions that affect their lives. By committing to a Take Back Control Bill, Starmer has responded directly to the extremely well-evidenced and widespread frustration of people who feel ignored by government. This would effect “a huge power shift out of Westminster” and be designed to give people “control over their lives and their community”.

This is much needed but there is a big risk of failure. There is a high chance – given the institutional mindset of government officialdom – that reform becomes merely a shuffling of powers from Whitehall to town halls with little thought given to the genuine empowerment of communities. If the Take Back Control Bill is to do as it promises, a Labour government will need to inject some fresh thinking.

Fortunately, because of the work many councils and public sector bodies are doing in this area, we know the three headline shifts that enable a community-powered approach to government. A Take Back Control Bill will need to make sure it encourages and supports these shifts.

The first imperative is the opening-up of decision-making to much wider participation. The growing use of deliberative forums and other forms of citizen engagement across the world and in the UK is starting to reshape governance. Policies and plans are being developed in close collaboration with the people they affect rather than being decided behind closed doors. This is a change that could happen faster and reach further with serious support from central government.

Second is the acceleration of a fundamental shift in the delivery of public services. Visionary public servants have been chipping away at the standard model for years now. Rejecting paternalist mindsets that regard service users as “cases” to be processed by professionals, they have adopted “strengths-based” approaches that recognise that those in need of support bring their own insights and capabilities to any personal challenge. Many are setting this approach in a wider context by seeking out the insights and capabilities present in the communities of which service users are a part. This is Take Back Control at the micro level and it is having a transformational effect on what a service can achieve. It also proves Starmer’s point that the Take Back Control agenda is more than a dreamy ideal: it offers practical solutions to big challenges.

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Finally, and most importantly, there is the methodical culture shift many public services are adopting: away from the prevalent “we know best” mindset towards one which fully accepts that change is always best done with people rather than to them. Again this is something a Labour government should widen and accelerate. This is admittedly a strange idea for central government. Politicians tend to enjoy announcing big structural reforms rather than promoting culture change, but the latter is proven to be far more effective. There is much that a Labour government can do. Ministers should urge the shift in speeches and statements, appoint public sector leaders with a proven zeal for the new way of thinking and establish a fund to support culture change efforts. The proposed bill should also mandate a major revision of the mass of public sector regulations, contracts and targets that tends to reinforce the top-down, paternalistic behaviours that disempower communities.

Too often, when politicians talk of empowering local communities they actually mean empowering local public institutions. The latter, of course, desperately need much more resource and power and any Take Back Control Bill must make radical devolution a reality. But if that is where Labour’s change agenda stops then the profound sense of agency and responsibility that Starmer clearly wants to instil across the population will not emerge. If Take Back Control is to avoid going the way of the Conservative’s ineffectual levelling-up agenda, Labour will need to think beyond the boundaries of normal institutional reform and turbocharge the imaginative change already happening on the ground.

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Adam Lent is chief executive of the New Local, a think tank and network of councils aiming to empower communities and transform public services.

[See also: Can Starmer take back control of “take back control”?]