Think tank urges localism ‘reboot’ to empower communities

Proposals to government include turning the Community Right To Bid for assets into a community Right To Buy.

Hands holding a model house

The UK needs to “reboot” localism and empower communities to influence decisions in their local neighbourhoods, according to a new report by the think tank Centre for London.

The report released today (24th September) proposes a series of reforms that would remove the barriers and enable citizens to shape the future of their neighbourhoods, strengthen communities and enhance local public services.

The proposals include making it easier for community groups to take over local buildings like pubs, libraries and community centres; the creation of Community Improvement Districts; and establishing a national endowment to support deprived communities.

These policies, the report argues, must be championed by local leaders and councils that are properly resourced to support their residents.

The report, Act Local: Empowering London’s Neighbourhoods, highlights that people want more control over the places where they live and work but there is a ‘disconnect’ between the desire to get involved and the perceived ability to influence change.

According to figures, in the capital, only around 35% of Londoners believe they can influence local decisions, yet 65% agree it is important to be able to.

Both the New Labour and coalition governments sought to boost neighbourhood control, such as through the 2011 Localism Act.

But the report reveals that the legacy of these policies in London has been mixed.

As outlined, in terms of community right to bid for ownership of local assets, just 1 building across the entire capital has been bought under this right, said to be partly due to high property prices.
Other policies include:

  • Neighbourhood planning – The country’s neighbourhood planning network has developed in the capital with 79 designated neighbourhood forums and 13 completed plans. However, nine of the 32 London boroughs have no forum at all
  • Parish councils – only one parish council has been established in London since legislation was introduced
    Community-led public services – The People’s Empowerment Alliance for Custom House illustrates what can happen if communities are trusted with resources to deliver change
  • Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) – 63 BIDs have been set up in the city that have taken on a more strategic, place-shaping role as they have matured

To further unlock the potential of these initiatives, the report urges that practical barriers including resourcing, technical expertise and bureaucratic processes “need to be addressed” and the localism agenda needs a reboot with reforms tailored to the specific needs of communities.

Centre for London calls on the government to:

  • Introduce Community Improvement Districts (CID) – A CID could be set up at the request of a local neighbourhood group, be established through a local ballot with renewal every five years, operate within a defined geographic area, can raise a levy on council tax payers and focus on local need, and prioritises issues with expenditure limited to those issues
  • Create a Community Wealth Fund – the report endorses the proposal first put forward by the Community Wealth Fund Alliance, and joins calls for local people should be in control of this new fund, with appropriate support provided to communities to build confidence and capacity
  • Turn the Community Right To Bid for Assets of Community Value into a Community Right To Buy – Following Scotland’s lead, this would allow local groups who express interest in a registered building have statutory first refusal on purchasing the property within an allocated time period

Joe Wills, senior researcher at Centre for London said: “As a society, we believe that decision making should come closest to those it affects most. Demands for agency and control over the decisions that affect us are being made from all quarters of the UK.

“There is a sense that our democratic institutions and processes are too distant from those they represent.

“Neighbourhood level participation can play an important role in shaping places, strengthening communities, and enhancing public services, but there is untapped potential.

“The government must kick start a new era of localism, to empower communities to become fuller partners in defining the future of their city.”

On the report, Vidhya Alakeson, CEO of Power to Change said: “Our work across the country shows the kind of transformation that is possible when communities take the lead, whether running local services, building affordable housing or revitalising their high streets by taking on vacant shops.

“We want to see more concerted action by national and local policy makers to give people greater control over what goes on in their neighbourhood.

“The recommendations in this report are a positive step forward which we support. Services and planning decisions need to be fit for purpose and appropriate for the communities that they serve, no matter where they live.”

Ruth Duston, OBE, OC, CEO of Victoria BID added: “BIDs in London have evolved to be powerful and strategic forces for good, and this evolution should continue.

“In my experience the private sector is now more civic-minded than ever; largely because they recognise that a more collegiate approach delivers the best outcomes and has a positive impact on their business, their staff, and their reputation.

“It therefore is the logical next step for BIDs to reflect this shift.”

For Chris Hageman, director of regeneration at One Housing, extensive on-going resident engagement is an “integral” part of the group’s development projects, with partnerships being “crucial for success to deliver the best for the communities” they work with.

“In a recent example, at our Camden Good Yards estate our residents helped us choose our development partner.

“This level of resident involvement is central to ensuring we are creating high quality affordable homes where were people are proud to live,” he added.

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