The power of small things

By Simon Kaye | 13 October 2020

We may finally be reaching a turning-point. The idea of community power seems to be graduating from the brilliant, but usually ignored, experiments in people-powered energy schemes, housing projects, community businesses, and voluntary efforts all over the country. The over-centralised Government response to COVID-19, the emergence of countless mutual aid groups to support the most vulnerable: these phenomena are pinging on the radar of the UK’s chattering classes and decision-makers.

Most recently, Conservative MP Danny Kruger’s work on how to support communities through the crisis and into recovery – filled with radical proposals gained from strong engagement with the voluntary and social sectors – has become the best chance to influence central government thinking toward localities and communities since the collapse of David Cameron’s austerity-fuelled ‘Big Society’ project.

In Think Big, Act Small, an upcoming report from New Local, I explore the important work of Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics. I argue that Professor Ostrom’s research – criminally neglected in the UK’s policy debate – has the potential to become the focal point for a new political consensus. It could be a call to action for a new type of society that prioritises local democracy and autonomous communities, and sparks the kind of resilience that can emerge when people are given space to manage their own affairs and build up trust at the neighbourhood level.

But to get to these kinds of outcomes, many things will have to change. Reading Professor Ostrom’s work, it becomes clear that the approach to devolution in England is woefully inadequate, based on deal-making and efficiency-seeking rather than a fundamental recognition that all legitimacy flows from our communities. If Professor Ostrom had her way, we would start with the recognition of community rights, and devote the resources we need to equip councils to facilitate those communities while investigating the real barriers against a breaking away from the massive bureaucracies of Westminster and Whitehall.

Professor Ostrom’s insights about the possibility of escaping dominance by markets or states have even greater revolutionary potential. For her, resources, assets, and natural environments can be collaboratively sustained by communities without any need for state regulation or marketisation. It is time to give enterprising UK communities and voluntary groups the elbowroom to make this approach work. It is time to smash the pendulum that regularly swings us from central control to big business monopolies and then back again.

Of course, these hugely aspirational objectives would need traction at the heart of national Government. While there are hopeful signs that this may finally be achieved, it would be wrong for our communities, councils, and civil society organisations to simply wait for something to shift at the centre. Experience tells us that they could be waiting for a very long time!

Instead, Think Big, Act Small recommends that localities find new ways to work together: meeting without an agenda, settling local plans or charters to create stability around new, collectively co-produced objectives.

Professor Ostrom showed, long ago, that achieving economies of scale should not be the only object when we look to reform our systems. Consolidations, larger jurisdictions, and vertical accountabilities mean such reforms seldom even create savings. More importantly, the larger our systems and institutions become, the more distant they are from the public they’re supposed to serve. This encourages a mentality where people are treated as customers, users, or dependents instead of citizens, participants, and co-producers.

Smaller may not always be more efficient, but it does usually mean closer. And it is here that local government – with its on-the-ground knowledge, experience and connections – really comes into its own. For Professor Ostrom, closer can achieve everything. Approaches that are close to or originate from communities themselves are so much more likely to be appropriate for, and closely supported by, those communities. This unlocks the potential for earlier and more holistic engagement: a different, and harder-to-measure, source of the economies and efficiencies that everyone is always so desperate to find. In other words, a way to prevent rather than just cure.

The UK is owed a turning-point.

Professor Ostrom spent an entire career demonstrating that community power is not a fringe idea: these are lived realities that are playing out right now, some of them in systems of self-governance that are hundreds of years old. It would be the height of arrogance to imagine the only way to do things is some variation on the things we’ve always done before. In the wake of the pandemic, some ask that we build back better. Perhaps we should start with the suggestion: ‘let’s build back smaller’.

Simon Kaye is senior policy researcher at New Local  - formerly known as NLGN

@stkaye

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