We achieve more together than we do alone. Our politics has been dominated by the state and the market, but there is a growing movement that recognises the value and power of a “third pillar”: the community. I’ve spent most of my career being amazed by – and providing advice, funding and support to – people and organisations that are an embodiment of this third pillar, building practical solutions to our biggest challenges, both social and economic.
This agenda is urgent. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, a shift in the geopolitical order, climate change and the cost-of-living crisis signal the need for a new approach to politics. The state and the market are necessary but no longer sufficient to reckon with such challenges. Too often, the power of our communities has been undervalued. But all along they have been there making life better for people and the places they live – taking charge of assets, running vital businesses and services, and bringing stability in the face of insecurity.
Since 2015, the charity Power to Change has invested more than £100m in community businesses across England. These locally rooted and accountable organisations reinvest profits in delivering broad community impact. Examples include the Bromley by Bow Centre, which delivers a range of services that make up its pioneering integrated health model, and Radcliffe Market Hall, a community-managed day-and-night market that has breathed new life into Radcliffe town centre. As political parties gather for their annual conferences, and begin to look towards the next general election, they should begin laying out how they will engage with and harness the incredible potential of this sector.
In short, our politics needs to catch up. By putting power into the hands of local people to radically alter how our society functions, we can tackle our shared challenges together. From our experience, this means focusing on three key areas: ownership, power and funding.
One of the most important interventions from the current government is the introduction of the £150m Community Ownership Fund. Capitalising communities is a surefire way to build sustainability and resilience. It provides places with an asset base from which to build successful businesses run by and for the local community. Research by the Onward think tank uncovered that the most successful past regeneration efforts have had community-led elements at their core.
Power to Change has supported hundreds of groups on their community ownership journey and advised government on the design of this fund. The next government should look to double this investment and give communities more time to access it. Extending and expanding this fund to £300m over four years would put 1,300 assets and spaces into stable community ownership, which would create at least 5,000 jobs and 30,000 volunteering opportunities.
The growing distance between our politicians and the people they serve is one of the global political challenges of the past decade. Recent Opinium polling shows that 71 per cent of us say we have “no” or “not much” control over important decisions that affect our neighbourhoods and local communities. While there are inspiring examples of communities and community businesses pushing back against this disempowerment, it is an uphill struggle. They need the system to work with them not against them. We believe we need to introduce a landmark piece of legislation, a “Community Power Act”, to do just this. The act would enable communities to take back control of the spending decisions, services and spaces in their local area. It would shift the balance of power out of Whitehall and into the hands of communities working together with local and regional government.
Finally, the next government needs to get a grip on our high streets. Vacancy rates are at an all-time high and the pandemic has further accelerated worrying trends. The retail-dominated model is outdated, and in many places high-street vacancy is contributing to wider decline. This impacts on people’s perceptions of their place as well as their economic opportunity.
Time and time again, high streets come top of people’s lists when asked what levelling up means to them. Persistent vacancy rates – where property has been empty for more than three years – are particularly acute in so-called “Red Wall” constituencies, the next election’s key battleground. Having a strong offer on high streets will be vital for both parties in the run-up to the next election.
Community ownership on the high street is proving especially important in tackling this decline. These spaces help diversify the high street offer, act as “destination spaces” that draw people into the town centre and are responsive to the needs and demands of residents.
But they are still on the margins. Property ownership data is opaque, and the commercial property market is difficult to navigate. Communities can raise money over time but often lack the capital to move at pace and compete with private investors, many of whom are happy to snap up high-street property and leave it vacant. This continues the spiral of social and economic decline in a place.
We’re calling for the establishment of a “High Street Buyout Fund” to act on behalf of communities, snapping up strategically important high-street buildings – like an old department store – and then working to transfer the building into community ownership over time. Importantly, this is an investable proposition. Government grants of £100m could leverage up to £250m of commercial and social investment. Regional funds at a smaller scale could be kick-started across a combined authority area.
Ensuring policies like these are part of the conversation as we move towards the next general election makes sense politically and economically. They respond to many of the concerns at the forefront of voters’ minds and they would deliver long-lasting change for our country and our communities. Importantly, they would herald a shift in the way we do politics and policymaking. Now is the moment to work from the bottom up.#
Tim Davies-Pugh is Chief Executive of Power to Change