Why now must be the time for community power and community wealth building
The title is a quote attributed to Guy Fawkes, but it seems eminently suitable as we come out of the biggest global pandemic in living memory. I am not advocating burning down the houses of parliament, but I am advocating finding radical ways to move power from the centre to the people, and changing where the rewards for work flow to. If we are to make a difference to some of the big issues in the world whether that is poverty and inequality, or climate change then we have to engage and empower communities and the people in them.
I am not an expert in either of these topics and if you want to find out more, a simple internet search will give you plenty of food for thought. I do, however, have some experience of working with communities and the groups that are embedded in them – groups that deliver services and bring people together, groups that are the glue that binds communities together.
We need people with skills in working with communities to help them realise their ambitions. We need people with expertise in setting up social enterprises. We need civic and business leaders to create a narrative of change within anchor organisations. There is space for all sorts to come together so communities, and those within them, can deliver outcomes that have positive impacts on people’s lives.
What is community wealth building?
Community wealth building is a “local economic development strategy focused on building collaborative, inclusive, sustainable, and democratically controlled local economies.” Or more simply it is about finding ways to keep money in local economies and not in the hands of investors with interest in the profit and not in the place or the people.
There is a whole movement that has been set up around this and different examples of how it can work can be seen nationally and internationally, Scotland even has a minister for this in the Scottish government. It is about a way to link jobs and wealth and skills so that communities can build them all; it is about working together and bringing work back into the realms of the commons so that it is of the people and for the people. It is a way to promote cooperative working and mutual aid, to foster enterprises that are truly powerful and to stop profit and return on investment being the drivers. Social and individual good become the prize. It is not about how much profit can be made, but how many local jobs are created. It is not about the lowest priced service and the race to the bottom, but about real living wages and fair division of the benefits of labour. It is not about temporary gig culture, but meaningful jobs with a future and a way of progressing.
What is community power?
This is about giving communities real power and the resources to make real change. It is about smaller central government and devolution of budgets, it is not necessarily about less government or reduced spending. It is not about consultation and short-term projects but has to be long term, sustainable change. It is also not about community councils that are talking shops or that produce reports, it is about giving people the collective power to change legislation locally. In some areas it may be about devolving more power (and more budgets) to parish councils, but these councils have to find ways to become more reflective of the whole community. It may be giving power over the things that are important to different communities of interest, to young people or to families. It must be about building consensus and community ownership and not creating divides and discord.
In some places it might be about power moving to community anchor organisations that are rooted in their community these could be new or existing groups who will take on the upkeep of an area and provide spaces and services that the population need. There will not be a single way of doing things but all will involve people collaborating and agreeing on a way forward. This does not mean everyone will be happy with every decision, but it will mean that everyone has had the chance to make their point, and that there has been discussion and debate.
What can we do to build community wealth?
The first thing to realise is that we are not alone. All around the country and indeed the world, people are looking at how wealth and power can be vested into communities to reduce inequality. There are concrete examples of how differences can be embedded, and changes made to work, and whilst not everything will work in our communities, we have to take heart and ensure we take our first step.
We need to start to talk to communities and start to engage with them. It is not enough for the great and the good, or the academic, or the enlightened to sit and talk about this. We must get into the communities. We must engage with people. This will mean good old fashioned community development. It will mean setting up long term projects (nothing less than 5 years). It will mean us getting political and helping others to become political as we will eventually need things to change at local, and national government level.
We need to work with and influence some of the anchor organisations in the area to get them to change how they procure services and contract work. This will include big local businesses, local councils, the NHS and universities to name but a few. If these organisations are able to change and create a market for community enterprise, for co-ops and for socially responsible firms then people will see that there is a point in engaging and setting these up. These organisations have to offer more than warm words. It may mean that initial costs are higher but that this is not the deciding factor in looking at who will deliver a service. It might be about ensuring you are a living wage accredited organisation. It might be less about competitive tendering and more about compassionate tendering. It might be about truly embedding social value in all you and not just nodding occasionally in its direction.
By taking this two-pronged approach to working with communities and businesses we will develop both the customers and the suppliers for new ways of working. It will then be about looking at how these can be married up, what we need to do to make this happen, and ultimately how we develop community owned organisations that can deliver required services, and will invest in the people and places they are grounded in.
What about community power?
Since the days of the partitioning of common lands, communities and individuals have been losing out to business and the state. If we are going to redress this, we have to look at what the people can take back. This must be more than ‘community rights to acquire’ when communities get to take over what no one else values. We need to find ways that will get people engaged in their community and passionate about making it better. This will mean we have to get people angry and political if we want them to take charge of changes.
Our society is getting more unequal in income, in health outcomes, and in education. Institutions that were once available to the people have been disappearing as libraries and children’s centres close, as playing fields are sold off, and as everything from schools, to trains and buses, to utility companies are privatised. To restore equality, we need to find ways that communities can take back some control.
The pandemic showed what communities can achieve, where government dragged its feet or struggled to adapt, communities acted. You can find out more from the Support Cambridgeshire research on the pandemic. People came together to deliver services, to help people in need, and to save lives.
Now is the time to put our trust in communities but we need to find the vehicles for this, and they will be different for different communities. If we are going to hold citizen assemblies, they must be given the power to force change in legislation otherwise they are an interesting report. If we are going to hand power to resident associations it has to come with the resources to make the changes agreed, otherwise it was an interesting consultation. If we are going to ask parish councils to take on more responsibility, they need to have the devolved powers to decide and act, otherwise it is simply a talking shop.
Whatever route we take to put power back into the hands of communities we need to ensure that they are representative and that all voices are given an equal weight. Work will need to be done to facilitate engagement and to mediate consensus. There may be a few quick wins, but this has to be a long-term project that will see community power embedded into the countries decision making processes.
Now is a good time to start to make changes and to build consensus and connections that help to answer some of the big questions facing the world. These solutions will not solve everything on their own but the power of people coming together has always driven change. Communities and the individuals and groups that exist in them have demonstrated their ability to step up, and it is about time they were given opportunities to do more to address the issues they are facing. As Margaret Mead said
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
 Community wealth building, Guinan and O’Neill