Thursday, 9 August 2012

The rules of engagement

I happened upon a summary of the findings from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s (JRF) research project, Working in Neighbourhoods (WIN) project based in Bradford during my recent reading on community empowerment. Although this project was up and running prior to the introduction of the Localism Act, the findings are framed in terms of the contribution that neighbourhood working can make to both the Coalition’s localism agenda and Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.

I have no fundamental disagreement with the approach that the Localism Act takes but, as with ‘Big Society’, there is scant regard for the need to support communities, particularly disadvantaged ones, to take up the opportunities the Act offers them. The community empowerment aspects of the Bill do not, unfortunately, make the transition to this side of Offa’s Dyke as it is part of the Welsh Government’s legislative competence. With a Welsh Labour Government obsessed with control and centralisation, it’s not likely to materialise any time soon either.

Bradford Council was already engaged in its own brand of localism before the bill was introduced. Through the WIN project, JRF have charted the progress of Bradford’s efforts and highlighted some important lessons for effective community empowerment and the stimulation of civil and civic involvement. It teased out some interesting points, including:

- You need to employ neighbourhood workers to coordinate and broker solutions to local problems
- You need consistent but flexible structures (partnerships) to provide a focus for action, co-ordination and activity
- There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach and you need to allow communities the freedom to innovate and come up with their own solutions to local problems

Crucially, you need active citizens and JRF acknowledges that not everyone will want to be active – you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. While suggesting that there are probably ‘willing localists’ out there, JRF contends that lower income neighbourhoods have even low levels of participation.

So how to get people engaged? JRF point to the formal structures for community engagement, like consultation, and suggest ways of making them more involved and less formal. Holding meetings in less formal settings like cafes, proactive outreach through community ‘walkabouts, and even attaching social/family events to consultations to make them more appealing are all floated as ideas. They also highlight the need to shift the purpose of consultation. The current onus on local authorities to find out what concerns are and to act on them could be replaced with a more involved approach that looked at what the community and the local authority could do collectively. It’s an approach that already informs engagement methods like co-production and participatory budgeting. Recognising the value of activities outside the formal structures - like community centres and local clubs – is something that Bradford did to good effect. This is grist to the mill of ResPublica’s argument for greater support for clubs and associations.

The report also considers the risk of devolving powers to communities, particularly the fitness of local groups to take on more responsibility in terms of capacity and governance, especially as the local authority has overall responsibility for budgets. For me this again highlights the inescapable fact that not all communities are either confident enough or strong enough to take advantage. We need a positive policy response from government at all levels to allow communities to take greater control of their own affairs, not just an expectation that they should do so.

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