How much longer can the dissonance last? Across the public sector there is a revolution underway as people begin to develop and implement community powered ways of working. But in Westminster, the old ways trundle on.
The White Paper on health and social care issued in the midst of the biggest health crisis in decades had nothing to say about communities, nothing to say about asset-based approaches, nothing to say about relational ways of working. On the distribution of power, it has only one concern: to make sure ministers could wield it as fully as possible over the NHS. For all its piecemeal improvements, this paper revealed our political leaders to be the generals firing off portentous decisions completely unaware of what is really happening on the frontline.
The year 2021 needs to be when this begins to change. Not only must the shift to community power in councils and the wider public sector be intensified, but Westminster needs to be woken up to its potential. At a time when neither market fundamentalist nor statist solutions offer answers to the challenge of rising demand and declining legitimacy, policy-makers’ obsession with these ideological train tracks needs to be derailed. We rapidly need them to become champions of community power declaring war on paternalistic and transactional practices and instead providing the climate and the resources for an upsurge of local innovation that has collaboration with communities and service users at its heart.
There are some positive signs that 2021 could indeed be the year when community powered change begins to seize a wider imagination.
Keir Starmer has spoken about how important the redistribution of power is to him and how central, community and locality are to that vision. Danny Kruger – now a Conservative MP but formerly a close associate of the PM in No. 10 – published a Government-commissioned report on reviving the country’s social fabric which talked openly about community power and the need for action in Westminster to encourage it.
There is also growing talk within the voluntary and public sectors of the need for a focused campaign to spread the message on community power and to lobby for change at the national level.
Most importantly, of course, the fundamental role mobilised communities played in the pandemic response has awakened very many in the public sector to the potential for community power in addressing the deep challenges arising from the current crisis. At New Local, interest in our work and support from local government and the wider public sector is at its highest ever.
It’s in this simultaneously frustrating but exciting context that New Local is holding its second Stronger Things conference. We always saw this event as an annual opportunity to bring all those inspired by community power together for a day of networking, inspiration and dialogue. But this year, under the shadow of COVID and the ongoing drift at national level, the event takes on even more significance.
It can be, I hope, the beginning of a new chapter for community power. The moment when a radical idea and a transformative frontline practice truly becomes a wider movement for change at local and national level. There are tens of thousands of people across the country working hard to undo the toxic legacy of decades of centralisation, hierarchical thinking and institutional self-interest that robs communities of power and voice. They are truly inspirational but they also know they are swimming against the tide. I am tired of hearing of great community powered initiatives that are side-lined as pilots, cancelled after just a few months or, worst of all, treated as form of consultation or ‘community engagement’.
Those brave, community-powered souls need to come together not just to support and learn from each other but also to demand change at local and national level with one united voice. Stronger Things 2021 is a huge opportunity to start raising that united voice.
Adam Lent is chief executive of New Local
Stronger Things 2021: Communities vs Crisis will be completely free and totall virtual. It will take place over three mornings - 9,10,11 March. Confirmed speakers include Professor Sir Michael Marmot, Professor Donna Hall, Ruth Ibegbuna, Danny Kruger and Professor Danny Dorling. The MJ is the media partner for the event.