The unspoken barriers politicians must address when talking about empowering communities

The biggest one is time. Time to spend learning, reading, analysing, and debating the issues on their doorstep. But that’s not the only barrier.

Cambridge Labour councillors met up with Steve Reed MP, the Shadow Local Government Secretary / Shadow of Michael Gove’s new empire in Brighton (where I lived for three years around the turn of the Millennium) at their party conference this week.

You can read Mr Reed’s speech on his vision of Local Government under Labour on LabourList here.

“We will make sure people up and down this country can take back control of their own destinies.”

“From my time as a council leader, I know that regeneration works best when councils, communities and developers work together. “

“Labour will give people in every region more control over the investment and infrastructure their area needs.”

“That’s why Labour will guarantee people a voice and the power to use it in the workplace, in their communities and over the public services they use.”

“We will trust people up and down our country with the power they need to shape the communities they want to live in and the lives they want to lead.

Steve Reed MP, Brighton, 27 Sept 2021

Swap the names of the political parties and the quotations above could have been said by any other senior politician of any other political party – irrespective of whether track record in ministerial office corroborates such statements.

What do Labour’s past record and previous policies look like?

The first place to look at is their last-but-two Government White Papers on local government they published when in office. I got a front row seat on the attempts to deliver some of the policies within these during my Civil Service London years. The documents are:

  1. Strong and Prosperous Communities – which was sponsored and signed off by Ruth Kelly MP as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government;
  2. Communities in Control – which was sponsored and signed off by Hazel Blears MP, who succeeded her.

If you are a Labour councillor or are a potential candidate, it’s worth looking at both of these documents while considering two things:

  • What are the policies and projects that are worth keeping, whether at a local/regional/national level?
  • What are the policies and projects that are now obsolete or unworkable in this era of social media, big data, and sadly, misinformation?

Those of you who are ***really committed*** to background research may want to read the New Deal for Communities evaluation – the final report is here. This was a major long term Labour policy that had its good bits and awful bits. It covered nearly 40 of the most economically deprived neighbourhoods (sub-ward level) in England across council areas in each former region, spent over £2billion, and lasted for a decade.

“That’s a lot of background reading! Where is *anyone* supposed to find the time to read all of this??!?”

I’m glad you asked!

Because that is a major barrier that residents face when invited to “Take back control”. Sound familiar? It should do.

“Communities Secretary Eric Pickles wants to mobilise an army of armchair auditors as he opens up the Department for Communities and Local Government’s books to public scrutiny.”

Mr Pickles from 12 Aug 2010

Did he succeed?

“…the army [of armchair auditors] has not so much organised a mutiny as never really enrolled in the first place.”

Jolyon Cooper-Millar, Centre for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex, 30 Nov 2015

Which indicates that you can’t just ‘throw stuff out there’ and hope Big Society will sort things out for you. Personally I thought “Big Society” would have made a half-decent name for a corporate manufactured rap-music collective from the mid-2000s. Missed opportunity by the industry!

The point remains that most people do not have enough time to commit to what politicians ask of them when they talk of devolution. Furthermore, the powers that could make a real difference all too often are held up in The Treasury who institutionally are hostile to the concept of local councils being able to raise revenue through increased powers of taxation. The funding of local councils was raised as a significant issue in the 1969 Royal Commission Report into Local Government in England (See p11 of the summary report that I digitised and uploaded for everyone on the Internet Archive here). With the Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves MP pledging to scrap the system of Business Rates in a future Labour Government, the opportunity arises for overhauling the entire system of local government financing. Such is the density of that subject that I don’t expect any political party to announce in-depth solutions prior to a general election.

One of the few people in the world who knows something about how Local Government Finance works is Jessica Studdert, and she wrote this guide (referred to above) here

The problem with taxation is that globalisation has resulted in too many multinational and large corporations being able to avoid tax on an industrial scale, undermining the tax bases of nation states to fund public services, and putting too much of the burden on small businesses and citizens. (If only there was an international economic bloc near by the UK could be part of in order to deal with this international issue…)

Back in 2015 the future of tax was addressed by the Fabian Society in this pamphlet. A society that pre-dates the Labour Party and which has a number of early Cambridge Labour figures in their early membership (including MPs Hugh Dalton & Dame Leah Manning), they have a back catalogue of recent past policy papers, along with a digitised massive historical archive which the LSE has made available here.

It takes time to educate people about how politics and local democracy functions. And yet we have no established system of community education classes or workshops that do this

Individuals (myself included) have tried and failed with various attempts at doing this both independently as well as part of an established programme of evening classes. Part of the problem is that the person who develops the workshops is also left to do all of the publicity and marketing – impossible because, again of the time and effort needed. It is beyond the capacity of one person. But local institutions have not shown any appetite for stepping up and promoting those courses and workshops.

“None of that deals with the time barrier though”

This is something Independent councillor Sam Davies (Ind – Queen Edith’s) raised in the run up to scrutinising the first draft of the emerging local plan here. Councillor Katie Thornburrow (Labour – Petersfield) is being recommended by city council planning officers to approve the move to put the first draft out to public consultation – see p2 here. In terms of what is going out to consultation? That’s the 10,000+ pages of things in the agenda here. Which you can read!

“Where does any community start with several doctoral-theses-worth of documents written…at a similar level?”

Exactly – I had an early brief look at breaking down the local plan into bitesize chunks. But I need to have another metaphorical bite at it. Instead let’s look at something closer to home – the spending of funds contributed by developers to community projects – Section 106 monies.

Environment and Community Scrutiny Committee – Thursday, 7th October, 2021 5.30 pm

The agenda for the above is here

What should we spend the money on? This is what has been proposed that officials have asked for further clarification on.

For outdoor sports use:

Such funding from developers can pay for things like outdoor exercise equipment – these ones at Abbey are reasonably well used (They are next door to the astroturf where Cambridge United run free community football sessions aimed at men with mental ill-health)

Section 106 funding also covers children’s play equipment.

…which explains why in Coleridge ward there is more than one dragon. (This is the dragon slide at Coleridge Rec which one imaginative council officer ordered for the playground a year after Puffles the Dragon Fairy polled 89 votes in the ward at the City Council elections in 2014. Vote dragon, get dragon I guess!)

There is still no mechanism to bring new faces into the process for developing ideas and submitting bids to the councils.

Furthermore, how do we go beyond the same old model of spending small pots of money on a small number of green spaces over-and-over again?

For the past decade or so it has felt like the same groups and institutions are the ones coming back time-and-again. Not their fault – I don’t blame them. But I’ve not seen anything substantive that gets more people involved, working with them to develop new ideas and then bringing them through to fruition. Furthermore ( – and I can be bad at this too commenting on others’ proposals), all too often it can feel like people are prevented from developing an idea because of a seemingly arcane/archaic funding rule that says “Oh, no, you can’t do that, that would count as a heritage project, not an art project” or “Oh no, you can’t spend it on that because that counts as reparations to wear and tear rather than bringing in something new”.

I’m the worst for coming up with new ideas with zero knowledge of how to make them reality.

The Lord Morpeth in London – Sylvia Pankhurst Mural. The artist who created this told me a few years ago it would cost around £8,000 to create one of these elsewhere. We have enough local civic heroes who could easily feature in a similar mural. But I wouldn’t know where to start.

Take another example:

I recently discovered the work of artist Malika Favre

Above – “Paul” (You can recognise him immediately) and “Marie” by Malika Favre. How could we go about commissioning her (or any other artist) to produce works from the photographs from the Palmer Clark archive of glass plate negatives, or photographs from other publications, of some of our best civic figures of the past 150 years?

Above L-R: Eglantyne Jebb, Dr Alex Wood, Cllr Florence Ada Keynes

This may be a theme that some may want to explore in The Junction’s Bakery of Slow Ideas community events taking place over the autumn. See for details on how to take part.

It could be that The Junction’s workshops – initially covering most of its immediately-surrounding wards (Coleridge, Romsey, Petersfield, & Cherry Hinton) may demonstrate a way of combining both community outreach to new audiences, plus new methods of getting people engaged with each other and decision-making processes on things happening in their neighbourhoods and the city generally.

Cambridge’s constituted community groups and voluntary organisations may also ponder their roles as facilitators of grant funding applications – mindful that one of the requirements for providing funding is that the recipient organisation is properly constituted. (And with good reason). Someone like me can’t simply rock up with an idea and demand cash.

Reinventing area committees

I wrote about this earlier this year prior to the publication of the draft emerging local plan. There are still a number of things that I’ve seen at other meetings & events that I think would work here. Such as:

Short intro videos on topics for debate – similar how BBC Three used them on their “Free Speech” question time-style show for young people.

Above – show a video summarising a local issue, then let people discuss it.

Poster boards with maps showing either things happening or proposals for future works.

…and having local councillors doing the facilitating!

Having a portion of the meeting for multiple shared conversations rather than one-at-a-time for a whole evening?

The problem remains the time available

That is not something that can easily be overturned at a local level. It requires the sort of society overhaul that something like the response to the climate emergency might result in. Or politicians accepting the concept that essential work being done in communities – in particular the sort that the honours system tries to acknowledge and reward in principle, will always be under-provided for in an economic system like the one we’re in. Could Universal Basic Income be something that unleashes the power of communities to undertake the sorts of community action activities that enables people to work fewer hours and commit to doing things for their community in some of the time that is freed up?

Is part of the offer also about providing food and childcare for some families to get them to take part? What would some gatherings and events look like if there were provision for providing evening meals for those who needed it (including children – similar to what FoodCycle Cambridge does), plus appropriate supervision for children while their parents are engaged in whatever issue is up for discussion?

Above – from a Twitter discussion earlier: What would Cambridge’s proposed future transport networks look like if they were influenced more by people – esp women, with multiple family and community commitments, than say the influential heads of businesses & large employers (generally affluent men) who might be more focused on getting workers from A-to-B as fast as possible?

Oh, I bought a couple of large maps, pins, and various bits of ribbon and thin coloured tape to see if anyone wanted to experiment with the above.

Nothing serious or game-changing. Just something for a group of us to experiment and play with. No idea when or where, but I’ve got the kit.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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