One of the defining features of London is the distinctiveness of its neighbourhoods.
The different characters of areas, and the strong attachments they generate, are instantly familiar to every Londoner. A third of Londoners polled in 2014 even preferred a ‘sub-London’, local identity over the city more broadly. But the importance of neighbourhoods goes further than identity.
Neighbourhoods shape our lives in a whole range of ways. As the scale at which much of everyday life takes place, they can impact everything from social connections to employment opportunities. Yet despite this, there is relatively little power at the level of the neighbourhood. London’s governance system is made up of a Mayor who sets a strategic vision, and boroughs which take many of the day to day decisions involved in running the city. Neighbourhoods are underrepresented in this system. And Londoners are aware of this mismatch – recent polling found that 65 per cent of Londoners feel that it is important to influence decisions in their local area, but only 35 per cent feel that they are able to do so.
With that in mind, there have been repeated attempts at strengthening the influence of neighbourhoods in the city. Our new research looks at some of the major developments in neighbourhood governance of recent years, and explores how we can support them to strengthen local voice and influence.
We found that while some initiatives have been relatively successful, there are still some hurdles to overcome for a genuine devolution of power to the neighbourhood level.
Developing collaborative and participatory cultures
One major barrier to neighbourhood empowerment can be a reluctance to share power more widely. Often there are tensions between the ways that local authorities and community groups see their legitimacy. Whereas councils see their legitimacy as coming through the ballot box, community groups can understand it as arising from their direct relationship to a place. This can make for an awkward fit and inability to work well together. On the other side of the equation, developing participatory culture amongst communities takes time and needs support.
Lack of resources
Even with new powers, local groups can struggle to make use of them in a meaningful way without resources. For example, growing moves towards handing control of neighbourhood assets such as community centres to local groups are welcome, but without making sure they are equipped to deal with the financial burdens this can involve, there is a risk of setting them up to fail. Even where capital costs aren’t involved, effective local organisation needs resourcing to function well. Leaving it just up to voluntarism runs the risk of allowing only those areas already with resources to influence their neighbourhood and could exacerbate inequalities.
Sometimes the hurdles to devolving power to the neighbourhood level can be more prosaic. Some legislative requirements can make things more difficult than necessary. For example, to establish a parish council requires proposers to reach a defined threshold on a local petition to even be able to apply to the local authority, who will then run their own consultation process and take a decision on its establishment. It can work the other way too. Even where local authorities may want to involve local people in decision making more, without a clear template or guidance, there is a risk that they will revert to the organisational default, because it is easier.
So how should we respond? We’ve come up with some recommendations that could go some way to tackling these issues and help people to have a greater say in the decisions that impact their local area.
Here are some of the key ideas:
1. Commit to sharing power
Public bodies should recognise that not only is it right for people to have a greater say in the decisions that affect them, it is crucial to achieving shared aims. Neighbourhoods and communities are a source of deep, local knowledge and expertise in the problems we all want to tackle. Being able to harness the capacities of local people is a good thing for all involved.
2. Commit to greater resources
Local authority funding is facing some serious challenges. But we argue that is not a reason to deny local people a say in how it is spent. If anything, it increases the need for more honest and collaborative decision making over public spending. We’ve identified some mechanisms which can maximise existing funding streams for the neighbourhood, and also deliver new, longer-term resources.
3. Create new community governance mechanisms
One way of overcoming some of the procedural barriers to neighbourhood empowerment would be to create a new, flexible, form of community governance. Building on the best features of some of the different models we have explored, new, ‘Community Improvement Districts’ could be piloted to test the viability of a new tier of governance which would be easy to establish, respond to local priorities, and be able to raise funds.
Some of our recommendations require a longer-term view, whereas others could be enacted now. Let’s not wait any longer. It’s time for London’s communities to play a bigger role in shaping our city.