Implications for policy and practice
These essays have explored some promising examples of ways to empower communities and neighbourhoods, while also highlighting some of the practical barriers that need to be addressed. What lessons can we learn, as London faces up to the continuing pressures of growth, the impact of long-term public spending cutbacks, and the potential offered by new technology?
1. One size doesn’t fit all…
There is a wide range of mechanisms for providing greater influence at the neighbourhood level, and fit seems to depend on local context and need. For example, the failure of proposals for a parish council in Spitalfields and Banglatown reflects the specific politics, history and demographics of that area. Conversely, Queen’s Park saw the establishment of a community council, but less interest in neighbourhood planning, as there was less largescale development taking place in the area. BIDs have proved surprisingly adaptable to local context, but they are unlikely to take root in predominantly residential areas, with few businesses. Respecting the principle of neighbourhood empowerment must also mean respecting the fact that places are different: therefore an imposition of a particular form of neighbourhood governance won’t always be appropriate.
2. …meaning that uptake will need time and look uneven, depending on local civic and political culture.
The spread of different forms of neighbourhood governance and influence across London has happened at different speeds, often building on longer-term community development. For example, the experience of Queen’s Park Community Council built on a pre-existing democratic culture in the local area. There is also evidence that participatory budgeting processes have better outcomes in places where similar programmes have been carried out previously. 47 Where initiatives are being introduced for the first time, local participatory culture must be allowed to develop inorder to properly take root. Similarly, where innovations are wholly new, they naturally take some time to convince established actors and government bodies of their worth – as has been the case with the slow but steady spread of BIDs.
3. Community groups need resourcing…
Neighbourhood empowerment is easily constrained by resource availability. For example, the right to manage and/or own community assets must not be limited to those who already have the means to acquire and run them. This could mean different things in different contexts – for example, grant funding for a purchase, or in the case of a transfer from a public body, ensuring that maintenance requirements do not become burdensome. Even where capital costs are not involved, neighbourhood empowerment still requires proper resourcing. For example, creating a neighbourhood plan requires technical expertise. Without resourcing, there is a risk that only communities with access to those skills “in-house” will be able to shape their neighbourhoods in this way.
Of course, one role of councillors and MPs is to exercise influence on behalf of those without it. But that should not be a substitute for neighbourhood empowerment. The essay by Pat Turnbull of London Tenants Federation – and the experience of PEACH in developing a community-led alternative regeneration plan – both show that low-income communities are just as capable of dealing with complex technical issues as wealthier neighbourhoods, provided they are given the right support.
4. …and public bodies also need resources to support communities.
Neighbourhood empowerment should not be seen as a way of saving local authorities money. The need for funding isn’t just limited to community and civic organisations, however. For example: having dedicated ward budgets large enough to take meaningful action at the neighbourhood level, and decided through a ward committee, could contribute to empowering neighbourhoods – but requires funding. Similarly, for ward councillors to act as an effective advocate for their area requires support in terms of officer time, information and training, all of which have resource implications.
5. Regulatory processes need iterative development.
Policies need iterative development to respond to changed circumstances or unforeseen issues. For example: creating clear guidance on the extent to which local authorities can collaboratively make decisions with non-statutory bodies would have resolved some of the issues discussed in the interview with Casey Howard of PEACH. Likewise, the unnecessary procedural burdens imposed on BIDs in the balloting process could be revisited in order to make the process work more smoothly. Examples of where this has taken place include the extra planning protection given to pubs listed as Assets of Community Value. This was in response to the popularity of pubs as a category to be listed, something which was perhaps not foreseen by the Localism Act 2011. Regulatory requirements for neighbourhood governance should be sufficiently flexible and revisited often enough to allow them to respond to changing circumstances on the ground.
6. Neighbourhood empowerment means that public bodies need to share power.
The challenge to existing institutions and decision makers is more than a request for patience and resources, however. Allowing for greater influence at the neighbourhood level in practice involves a transfer of power away from the bodies that currently hold it – and boroughs along with other public bodies can be reluctant to “let go”, as highlighted in the essays from Tony Burton of Neighbourhood Planners. London, Pat Turnbull of London Tenant Federation and Karin Woodley of Cambridge House. Much of this could be resolved by committed leadership which sees the value in genuine co-production. The experience of PEACH in Newham is instructive as a lesson in how political leadership can overcome institutional inertia. Boroughs and other elected bodies should reflect on the value of allowing genuine input into decision making. Whether achieving community consent for developments, providing a level of lived expertise, or acting as “gateways” to other parts of the community that they find “hard to reach”, 48 local civic and neighbourhood groups have a crucial role to play. Capacity building can work in both directions.
7. Success shouldn’t be measured narrowly.
The “success” of different models of neighbourhood governance can lie in the process as well as the outcome. The interview with Casey Howard of PEACH cited in this report illustrates how the process of participation in neighbourhood governance can serve to build confidence, skills, organisational capacity and the ability to work practically with public bodies. This in turn can also boost social cohesion, build social capital, and spur other forms of civic participation.
The case for action
The argument for neighbourhood empowerment has never been stronger, given the challenges and opportunities that London faces:
- London’s population is forecast to rise by nearly one million people over the next ten years. 49 Accommodating this growth well will require genuine participation, both to gain popular consent for and to ensure quality of new developments – not least in redevelopment of social housing estates where residents have often felt marginalised and ignored.
- London government has been through a period of almost unprecedented budget constraint. Total budgeted spending has fallen by 35 per cent in real terms since 2010, 50 and the loss of local public services has been exacerbated by a reduction in funding for community groups and the voluntary sector. 51
- A decline in traditional retail represents a challenge to the vitality of the high street as a focus for neighbourhood life, 52 threatening its function as a place of encounter, exchange, social connection and support – particularly for more disadvantaged Londoners. 53
- New technology – from local social networks and campaigns to targeted political advertising – is rapidly changing models of social engagement, politics and participation. As well as encouraging ongoing dialogue between councillors and citizens, it is enabling crowdfunding, the rapid growth of online campaigns, and innovative use of data to power policy.
Recommendations for action
In addition to the broader principles of neighbourhood empowerment outlined above, there are a range of concrete actions which could be taken by central government, local government, and community groups now.
Recommendation 1: Local authorities should commit to formally including the neighbourhood in decision making.
Imposing one particular mechanism for neighbourhood empowerment may be inappropriate, but the general principle of devolving power to neighbourhood groups should be respected. As a minimum, local authorities should:
- Make a formal resolution to devolve power to neighbourhood level, in a manner appropriate to the local context and service area. This could require, for example, consideration to be given to how neighbourhood have been involved when taking formal council or cabinet decisions, similarly to how equalities impacts and other statutory requirements are considered.
- Produce clear guidance on how to collaboratively make decisions with non-statutory bodies.
- Create a dedicated role or team, such as a neighbourhoods link officer, tasked with auditing existing local neighbourhood groups/organisations and incorporating them into governance structure beyond the traditional consultation processes. The aim would be to require local involvement in all decision-making processes as standard practice.
Recommendation 2: Local authorities and community groups should monitor and evaluate the extent and diversity of participation.
Ensuring that a diversity of voices is heard in local participatory processes is important for a number of reasons: to capture the full variety of knowledge and expertise in a local area, to make sure the benefits of participation are spread equally amongst local residents, and to make sure that the process itself is not exclusionary. Providing an evidence base to ensure that the entire community is represented in neighbourhood governance is a first step. Local authorities and community groups should monitor who is participating in local neighbourhood governance and evaluate the implications, and to ensure that neighbourhood governance mechanisms are as representative of their local area as possible.
Recommendation 3: Local authorities should maximise the neighbourhood Community Infrastructure Levy, and decide its allocation in partnership with neighbourhood organisations.
Despite the limitations on local government finance, there is scope for existing funding streams to be devolved to a greater degree to the neighbourhood level. Neighbourhood CIL is one such available mechanism. In local areas where development is taking place, authorities are obliged to set aside 15 per cent of CIL receipts to be spent on addressing the demands placed on the area. Where neighbourhood plans are made, this rises to 25 per cent. There are statutory limitations on what each portion of the CIL can be spent on, but there is discretion around the overall amount allocated to the neighbourhood element, how the neighbourhood is defined, and the processes councils can use for allocation.
Local authorities should raise the standard amount allocated to NCIL from 15 per cent to 25 per cent. They should go beyond the ‘consultation and engagement processes’ mandated in Planning Policy Guidance, and ensure that decisions on local spend of NCIL are taken together with the neighbourhood, through existing community governance structures where possible.
Recommendation 4: The government should create a Community Wealth Fund – a national endowment to support neighbourhood and community development.
Finding sustainable sources of funding for neighbourhood empowerment is a challenge, particularly for more deprived areas. We endorse the proposal to set up a Community Wealth Fund, which has been put forward by the Community Wealth Fund Alliance, a partnership of 150 different voluntary and community sector organisations across the country. The Fund would be a national endowment to support deprived communities, similar to a sovereign wealth fund, but with asset-based community-led local development as its aim.9
The Fund would be financed through the reclaiming of dormant financial assets. A first wave of unclaimed financial assets has already been used for social purposes, following the Dormant Bank and Building Societies Act in 2008. In 2016, a government-led commission recommended that the scheme could be expanded substantially to encompass more unclaimed assets, such as unclaimed proceeds from insurance and pensions products. The Community Wealth Fund Alliance proposes to use the unlocking of these assets as the seed funding for the new Community Wealth Fund.
As a first step, the government should establish a task force to investigate the Fund’s feasibility.
Recommendation 5: The government should strengthen the Community Right to Bid for Assets of Community Value.
To reflect the high cost of land in London, consideration should be given to strengthening the Community Rights established in the Localism Act 2011. Only one building listed as an Asset of Community Value under the 2011 Act has since been purchased by a local community group. Even where funds are available to pay the purchase price, landowners are under no obligation to sell to community groups.
The government should consider extending the “moratorium” period (where landowners are prevented from selling their listed property) from six months to at least a year, to take into account the unique issues London faces.
The government could even go further and follow Scotland’s lead in turning the Community Right to Bid into a “Community Right to Buy”, where local groups who express an interest in a registered building have statutory first refusal on purchasing the property within an allocated time period. To properly evaluate the take up of this right, government should keep an accurate live central register of all listed Assets of Community Value.
Recommendation 6: The government should pilot the introduction of “Community Improvement Districts” as a new form of neighbourhood governance.
The disconnect between Londoners’ desire for more influence in their areas and their inability to exercise it can partly be attributed to a missing layer of governance, between neighbourhoods and borough level. One way of responding to this deficit is the introduction of a new, more flexible form of neighbourhood governance. This new form could build on the best elements of the different approaches to neighbourhood governance that this essay collection has explored. Harnessing the flexibility of the BID model with the civic focus of parish councils, we propose that the government introduce “Community Improvement Districts”. These would be a hybrid of the governance models of BIDs and parish councils. They would be:
- Set up at the request of a local neighbourhood group.
- Established through a local ballot, with renewal every five years.
- Operating within a defined geographic area.
- Able to raise a levy on council tax payers.
- Focused on specific issues, agreed on establishment, with expenditure limited to these issues.
They would be less procedurally burdensome to establish than parish councils. Rather than being limited to a particular competence, as neighbourhood forums are with planning, they could be able to focus on whatever is deemed a local priority, and raise the funds to address these priorities. This would allow neighbourhoods to come together to agree on issues of common importance which could be the subject of action. The regular requirements for ballots to renew their mandate would guarantee both ongoing democratic legitimacy, and also that priorities for action are still relevant for local people.
This essay collection has illustrated the scale of unmet need, as well as the potential for new forms of neighbourhood empowerment. London government rightly calls for devolution, but it must not stop at City Hall or in London’s council chambers. It is time for London’s communities to become fuller partners in defining the future of their city.