The Localism Act presents a transfer of power from central government to local councils and communities, giving them the right to take over local assets, drive improvements in local services and draw up neighbourhood plans. There appear to be some barriers for communities taking up these rights – could a partnership approach be one way to overcome them?
Last week I attended ‘Community Rights Made Real: getting to grips with the localism act’, a workshop organised by Urban Forum and London Civic Forum. As the name suggests, the aim of the day was to brief people on the details of the new community rights that are part of the Localism Act as well as sharing experiences of existing community action. I welcomed the opportunity to gain more insight into what these community rights actually involve. Even more so, I was keen on hearing what community groups had to say about these rights and if they would potentially use them.
The Localism Act received Royal Assent just last month and brings with it a number of key measures to increase the power of local communities. These will come into effect the coming months, but what do people actually know about these localism measures? According to Urban Forum’s research there is a general lack of awareness and knowledge, accompanied by high levels of scepticism. Will the community rights actually give opportunities to community groups? Or will it be too resource intensive for these groups to even consider bidding and therefore just leave the door open to privatisation? Despite these huge issues, there also seems to be belief that the Localism Act brings opportunities for communities to shape their future.
Throughout the day I gained insight in the technicalities of the Right to Bid, Neighbourhood Planning and the Right to Challenge. A few amazing examples of existing community action were presented as well. One example is Camden Blueprint: a project that explores how neighbourhood planning could work in Camden. They are getting citizens involved in planning their neighbourhood by using a wide range of innovative participation methods (including a funky online tool from Sticky World, which allows participants to add virtual StickyNotes to give their feedback).
Technicalities aside, what I was really interested in hearing was what the participants in the room thought about the new measures. I got the feeling the community rights are quite daunting to many community groups. They might see opportunities to take initiative in their local area. However, they also perceive major barriers such as potentially expensive procedures. Surely an Act that is meant to shift power back to local people should not throw up impregnable barriers preventing local people to actually get involved… Yet, worries about decrease in public participation (and thus public accountability) were expressed a few times, for example through the potential loss of rights that flow from public duties such as the Duty to Involve.
So, there are some hurdles on the way for community groups who would like to get involved in delivering a public service or managing a community asset. In fact, for a lot of smaller community organisations it would be nearly impossible to become a credible bidder. Yet, this is not to say they wouldn’t have incredibly valuable expertise, networks and skills to offer in running certain services. One of the comments that stuck with me was from a participant who asked if citizens can get involved, but not necessarily be bidders. The answer seemed to be: no, they can’t.
Is there any way that citizens or community groups can get involved to set the requirements and have an oversight role without taking over the service? A partnership approach seems to me to be the way forward. Here citizens and community groups would be involved from the get go to shape the requirements of how a service is run, monitor the procurement and ultimately keep an eye on – or have a role in – the implementation of the service. This could be a great opportunity at a local level to introduce citizen led evaluation and accountability processes.
Rather than letting small community groups and citizens run ashore beforehand because of insufficient resources to actually be a credible bidder, why not ensure a mechanism where citizens and community groups can benefit from the Community Rights and empower their community.