Communities in Control – what a different 18 years makes

Pictured above – ‘Hideous Cambridge’ – what happens when a community (or a city) is not in control of what gets built there. So what are communities in control? This post has a look – from a policy paper a year after I graduated, to a Government White Paper I briefly worked on in my civil service days, to a new document with the same name – by the same publisher, all in the space of 18 (+1) years.

The three documents are as follows:

Also, two other papers caught my eye from The Fabians:

…you can also browse their various recent policy publications here.

Hazel’s analysis from 2003

You can read Hazel Blears’ wikiPage here. I met her on a couple of occasions when I worked for one of the policy areas she had direct control over when she was Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government. Community Development was not one delegated to ministers reporting to her such as on housing and planning issues. Communities in Control 2003 has just over 50 pages to it, and the contents are as follows:

1 | Labour’s story 3
2 | Understanding community 7
3 | Real public ownership 14
4 | Creating active citizenship 28
5 | Reading the book – case studies 35
6 | Apathy or activism 43

Part of the political context to the above was the declining popularity of Tony Blair in the face of his decision to involve the UK in the disastrous Iraq War of 2003, which had begun 4 months before this publication was published. There was also a complete vacuum in Parliament with a weak Conservative opposition under Iain Duncan Smith who had taken control after the resignation of his predecessor William Hague in the dullest general election campaign for decades when the Conservatives only managed one net gain in the 2001 General Election. The Liberal Democrats gained six seats bringing them to the dizzying heights of 52 seats. Currently they only have 14 seats. Still a long way to return even in the face of a voting system that has worked against them for the best part of almost a century.

Co-operation is a theme that runs throughout – as is a 21st Century version of Socialism

Although I can’t find any record of her standing on a joint Labour and Co-op ticket for Parliament in the safe Labour seat of Salford, when she left Parliament in 2015 she became a director of the Co-operative Group, recalling her previous 20 years as a member of the Group.

One of the things that shocked The Establishment (For want of another term) was the very low turnout – only 60%, in the 2001 general election. It somewhat undermined the impact of maintaining the margin of victory over the Conservatives, and part of the public policy response was how to deal with what felt like a growing apathy to politics and democracy. Something that we now know is a very dangerous thing.

“Without creating a tangible connection between citizens and their public services, beyond narrow concepts of consultation and participation, the process of alienation and disengagement from mainstream politics and institutions will continue.”

Blears (2003), p6

Quoting David Marquand, she continues:

“…a new community politics must be ‘bottom-up, not topdown. It will shy away from universal solutions and all embracing formulae; it will run with the grain of human ignorance… it will be an extraordinary difficult and demanding politics, requiring levels of humility and openness from which the political class of today falls abysmally short.

Ibid, p8

So far so good – but does it feel like Labour achieved this while in office? And if not, why not?

Broken systems of consultation – ones not solved by the emergence of social media

Another theme explored – and one that will be familiar to residents of Cambridge and Cambridgeshire given the troubles we’ve had with flawed consultations. Back in 2003 there was no social media in the way we understand it today. The use of the internet to carry out public consultations was still in its infancy. Her proposal was for a new Quango – the Citizens’ Participation Agency. As Labour were to find out post-2010, Quangos can be just as easily abolished as they are to establish.

“Define Community”

This was the challenge that the Communities in Control White Paper had in 2008 – it didn’t define what a community was. This was something the public policy world was to come back to time and again.

“As a political term, community – like freedom, equality and democracy – tends to mean what politicians want it to mean. ‘The community’ is invoked like a muse, to provide political cover, to imply democratic legitimacy, and to sweeten the pill.

“Who could argue with the building of ‘community centres’ or employing ‘community nurses’? We have community colleges, community funds, the new deal for communities, community
chests, and so on.

For socialists, the lack of a clear meaning for the term community is more than semantic. The confusion creates a barrier to devising policies which are in line with our values. We have to be clear what is meant by the words we use, and although political terms are always contested, we need as broad a consensus as possible around the things we stand for.”

Ibid p11

Eventually she concludes:

“Community must mean more than simply a common bond between individuals, or a sense of belonging and obligation. A socialist definition must include a dimension of empowerment and control over people’s collective destiny…. …Our utilisation of the term community must mean therefore a democratic community in which members of the community have a real say over the decisions affecting them, active participation in systems of decision-making and governance, ownership over local assets, and the ability to hold to account their representatives.

Ibid p15
“That was a lot just about a definition!”

A big reason why this matters is because you can then apply the definition to your own village/town/city and ask whether where you live meets that definition – and if not, why not.

On the 2003 publication, the final thing that strikes me compared with today is the ‘top-down’ mindset of the proposed Citizens’ Participation Agency. Laudable aims, and understandable in the early 2000s where you bring together the experts in the field together in a policy unit, which then produces the ‘guidance’ to share the ‘expertise’. Today this would all be decentralised in self-organised communities of learning. Or should be were it not for the continual cuts and fire-fighting that public service providers have spent the past decade doing.

Communities in Control 2008

You can read the White Paper here.

  • Chapter 1: The case for people and communities having more power
    • Why empowerment?
  • Chapter 2: Active citizens and the value of volunteering
    • How can I be an active citizen and volunteer?
  • Chapter 3: Access to information
    • How can I find out information in a way I understand and can use?
  • Chapter 4: Having an influence
    • How do I have my say and influence the decisions being made on my behalf, both by elected and appointed people?
  • Chapter 5: Challenge
    • How do I hold to account the people who exercise power in my locality?
  • Chapter 6: Redress
    • How do I get swift and fair redress when things go wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen to someone else?
  • Chapter 7: Standing for office
    • How do I stand for office and what support should I get?
  • Chapter 8: Ownership and control
    • How can my friends, neighbours and I own and run local services ourselves?

This was in the days when institutions were beginning to take early steps using social media. Furthermore it was still in the days when Central Government was willing to spend significant amounts of money through top-down systems either with or bypassing local government and going direct to communities through government agencies or a charity or voluntary organisation. Reforming local government was left in the ‘too difficult to do’ box for too long. And it still shows to this day.

There is one paragraph that stands out – almost idealistic in its tone from Hazel Blears’ intro.

“Ours is a government committed to greater democracy, devolution and control for communities. We want to see stronger local councils, more co-operatives and social enterprises, more people becoming active in their communities as volunteers, advocates, and elected representatives.

“We want to see public services and public servants in tune with, and accountable to, the people they serve. Democracy is not about a cross in a box every five years, but about a way of life. It should flow around us like oxygen.”

Hazel Blears (2008) Communities in Control, HMSO p10

In the face of the cost of living crisis, who has the time to do the voluntary work essential for all of those things to happen? In the face of dreadfully long commutes and a housing market that forces people to live further and further away from the workplace, who has the stamina to get involved in local activities after a two hours driving day-after-day? Hence one of the popular features of the 15 minute City model, and the rapid growth of working from home or in local hubs in towns and villages rather than everyone doing massive commutes in over-crowded trains or long drives every working day.

Communities in Control 2022 – when the policy wonk (me) is too far ahead of the rest of the population

I’m already asking ‘how?’ before everyone else has gotten their heads around ‘what?’

You can read Communities in Control 2022 here.

“Our towns and villages should be better connected to jobs, opportunities, our family and our friends through good transport, digital infrastructure and affordable housing that we have too often been denied.

“Our town centres should be safe and welcoming instead of plagued by anti-social behaviour, with criminals being let off and victims let down.

“People do not need money to restore pride in their communities, the pride has always been there. We need a real plan that puts back what has been lost, and with it the power to make decisions for ourselves.”

Lisa Nandy MP, Communities in Control 2022, p7

The politically astute of you can see which policy boxes are being ticked by the above sentences. And with good reason.

The format is a mix of scoping the general problems, short case studies of how communities have tried successfully to respond to those problems, and how such methods could work elsewhere.

There’s also some very personalised statements of belief from each of the authors in their specific pieces – ones that they link to their own experiences (life, working, voluntary, campaigning) and to what they have seen out and about. In this, they are trying to make a case for specifics to be adopted as policies – or at least discussed and developed further.

My questions involve the structures of local government and the methods of funding and revenue-raising that councils can have that are free from. the dead hand of The Treasury. Otherwise we’re stuck with the faux-devolution of metro mayors and combined authorities. Really – who wants to talk about the minutiae of local government finance and council boundaries? There are a host of things that need to happen prior to such conversations. And those who go door-knocking will be more than familiar about things like:

  • Cost of living and the astronomical energy bills now coming through (especially in the face of poorly-insulated housing stock)
  • Lack of doctors’ and NHS dental places
  • Cost of living with so many dependent on food banks – and rising food prices increasing that dependency while fewer can afford to donate
  • Cost of living with so many parents unable to afford to clothe their children
  • Cost of living with astronomical rents combined with heating bills
  • Cost of living with rising petrol prices – will people end up paying more to get to work than they get paid to work?
  • The long term hit of Long Covid plus the localised impact of areas that had higher than average deaths of working people in high skilled jobs in healthcare during the pandemic

When you list all of those things, stuff like council boundaries, how local government is funded, and what the structures and powers should be…well…it’s all academic, isn’t it?

‘Community’ in Cambridge.

Do we have it? Do you have it?

“If people don’t feel a sense of belonging, it’s bad for them and bad for the community they live in.”

Cllr Sam Davies MBE (Ind Queen Edith’s, Cambridge City Council, June 2022

Because from my vantage point I certainly don’t. And have not had any sense of being part of any ‘local community’ for most of my adult life. A solitary journey mine has been, with people flittering into and out of my life at will – despite going out of my way on many occasions (and at my own financial expense) to help run various voluntary organisations and groups over the past couple of decades.

I’m also at an age now where:

  1. I lost the capacity to keep up that level of activity over a decade ago
  2. I no longer have the desire to keep going – having figured out where my own mistakes were at particular points in my own personal history, to where I’ve identified what I call structural barriers that no one person could hope to bring down alone.

Finally, any civic vision of what Cambridge could become as a city is all too easily drowned out by the power of large institutions whose cultures and values are as such that they do not have a stake in the long term wellbeing of our city. You only have to look at the last decade-and-a-half of planning applications where too many of the larger applications were done to, rather than designed with communities.

The fact that the leisure and sporting infrastructure has not kept pace with the rising population – Cambridge University being many years overdue in completing the large swimming pool they are required to build as part of the planning permissions for their North-West Cambridge developments, speaks volumes. Brookgate pulling out of commitments by its predecessor to deliver a heritage and archives centre by Cambridge Railway Station is another example. Not only that, the public transport infrastructure and utilities (especially water supplies) infrastructure have not kept pace either.

Finally, the changing tenures and ownership patterns of housing inevitably have an impact – as the Institute for Fiscal Studies wrote in 2018 here on the decline in young adults owning their own homes. Fewer young people able to afford their own homes independently, vs more middle-aged people at the same age. And this is a global issue. Higher turnover of populations acts as a huge disincentive for people to put down roots if they know they are on a fixed term contract that might not be renewed – requiring them to move to another city. – and even another country as a result. Finally, the lack of voting rights for international citizens living and working in Cambridge is a massive disincentive for people to get involved in community life beyond a superficial level. Scotland overcame this by bringing in residency-based voting local elections – which are a devolved matter for the Scottish Parliament. In England, the Conservatives have pushed in the opposite direction, legislating to remove the rights that EU citizens moving to the UK would have acquired like those already living here had acquired.

“So. What’s changed in 18 years?”

Everything. And nothing.

Food for thought?

%d bloggers like this: