Gazing up at the future of community power

By Ann McGauran | 27 April 2021

New Local’s Stronger Things 2021 in March brought people together virtually to celebrate community power and how to unlock its potential as we start to think beyond the pandemic.

One of its core messages – one that even cut across the political divide and was heard from both Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham and Conservative MP Danny Kruger – was the need to turn the power system on its head so that, in the words of Mr Kruger, ‘communities are properly in charge’.

Last week a follow-up session, Building Stronger Things, led on from that three-day programme. It provided an opportunity, said chair of the event, Claire Kennedy, to focus on some key questions. These were: ‘What is the community paradigm in practice? How do you translate the ideas of the paradigm into practice locally? And, what does it feel like when it’s working?’

Back in 2019, New Local’s The Community Paradigm argued for more power and resources to go to communities rather than being held back by public services or central Government. Last week, deputy chief executive of New Local, Jessica Studdert, called the ‘state paradigm’ and the ‘market paradigm’ the antitheses of the community paradigm approach.

She called the state paradigm a ‘historical hierarchical model very much based on professionalised service silos, standardised provision that sees the individual as a passive recipient of services’.

The market paradigm ‘came into force in the last 40 years or so and is probably now the dominant paradigm and it’s much more focused on cost savings and efficiencies’ and usually sees the individual as a customer who takes part in a transaction, she added.

In her view, both approaches ‘are not fundamentally capable of addressing some of the complex inter-generational challenges that public services are confronted with today’. The community paradigm is what New Local likes to think of as ‘current practice that exists outside the logic of the existing system, but it very much shows us the way we can mainstream that into a deeper system shift’.

Co-founder and managing partner of PPL Simon Morioka looked at ways of turning policy into practice. He cited the People Powered Health programme of 2011-2013 that supported the design and delivery of innovative services for people living with long-term health conditions.

He said when it came to the issue of ‘a perceived lack of evidence for doing something new and innovative’, people should not ‘beat themselves up if we couldn’t produce every single spreadsheet, report and evaluation that anyone would want to see before they change’. He emphasised people should not be put off by the scale of the change needed. ‘You have to start somewhere.’

Joanna Resnick talked about the experience of community power and community action working together. She is executive producer of Slung Low – a people’s theatre company based at the Holbeck in Leeds and the oldest working men’s club in Britain.

In 2018 the organisation launched a Cultural Community College based at the Holbeck where adults come to learn new skills, with all workshops provided on a ‘pay what you decide’ basis. It also currently runs a non-means tested self-referral food bank.

Asked what it feels like to see and feel community power in action, she said Slung Low had started to respond to social care referrals at the beginning of the pandemic – ‘and then the council invited us to take over as a ward lead and we have been doing that ever since, alongside all of the cultural activities we do here’.

Increasingly, the activities are chosen and curated by the members. The first course was ‘stargazing, because it was quite a poetic choice, because it is a profound thing to be able to read the stars, but you can’t really monetise it’.

The organisation has been ‘really excited over the last couple of years that participants have come back to teach courses themselves’. One important principle is that ‘everyone gets what they want, but nobody gets to stop other people from getting what they want’. She admits there are ‘constant tensions with that’.

Claire Kennedy, who is co-founder and managing partner of the event partner PPL, and vice chair of New Local, asked about the challenges of creating ‘genuinely equal partnerships in the community paradigm context’. Jessica Studdert said: ‘Some very interesting things happened’ in a period of intense crisis. ‘In normal times pre-COVID decisions went up the chain, were approved and came down…But what happened with the pandemic was that suddenly doing nothing became the riskier option.’

She sees teams within councils in some areas, particularly in COVID people-facing services, now having much more autonomy – leading to public services operating in different ways.

Her killer question for councils is whether they are ready to give that autonomy. ‘Do you have that kind of culture where you understand the difference between accountability and operational freedom and do you set the permission and values so that the delivery is a more flexible entity?’

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