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June 28, 2007

Building a different kind of state

The relationship between state and communities must change – not just because in an age when deference has declined, people want more of a say, but because communities are likely to be more successful socially and economically when power is dispersed and there is transparent accountability. 

Ed Miliband


Building a different kind of state

A speech by Ed Miliband MP, Minister for the Third Sector,
to the Donald Chesworth Educational Trust

Toynbee Hall, London
14 June 2007

Today, I want to argue that to keep true to Donald Chesworth’s values of fairness and equality, we need a different kind of state: one that does more to give individuals a say in decisions that affect them, and does more to adapt itself to each individual’s needs.

In a speech I made earlier this year, I described it as a state where communities and the users of public services are in control. Gordon Brown recently called in a similar vein for the “servant state”.

I want to talk tonight about how we need a different kind of state in three different ways:



The second area I want to look at is how the state must be different in its relationship with communities – more direct and participative, particularly at a local level.

This is important not just because in an age when deference has declined, people want more of a say. It is important because communities are likely to be more successful socially and economically when power is dispersed and there is transparent accountability.

Strengthening the ability of communities to bring about change takes a sense of togetherness, of social solidarity. A sense that a problem for my neighbour, or my fellow parent, or my fellow service user, is also a problem for me. But to survive, this sense of togetherness needs to be constantly refreshed by shared activities – and this is something that modern social trends can make more difficult.

In the constituency I represent, Doncaster North, I see this very clearly. Once, the mines brought different ages and groups together. Now, there are far fewer shared spaces that unite young people and old people, and there is a risk of ignorance leading to indifference.

As a government, I think we have underestimated the extent to which shared public spaces can create this greater sense of community. The interesting thing about Sure Start is not just that it provides better services for parents and young children, but it is a site at which community is rebuilt.

I think the truth is that we need to see community being built in more public facilities, like Sure Start, local schools, local health centres, local libraries.

But building community cannot rely on public institutions alone.

The third sector has an essential role to play in bringing different groups together: through very small community groups, through volunteering, through cultural and sporting organisations.

But to make local civil society strong requires support. Relatively small amounts of money – up to a few hundred pounds – can make a huge difference to whether voluntary and community groups can function.

That is why grants are so important and why we have announced a new £80 million fund to give small grants to community organisations.

As well as grants, community action works best when the community has a long-term stake. 

This must mean better engagement in the local democratic process, which is why recent innovations that empower communities from the bottom up are so important – including the new Community Call for Action, which will enable people to enhance public scrutiny of Local Authorities and other public bodies to account.

The third sector too can play its part in this. It represents an important way in which we can devolve power, not just to local authorities but to neighbourhoods as well.

There is a growing movement, which we are trying to encourage, of community organisations who want to own and control facilities and buildings within neighbourhoods to facilitate change.

Why should this matter to us? Because in the best cases, they provide a place in which community is built, and they give people a much greater control over what happens in their area.

In the Thornton area of Hull, 5,000 people had no GP, almost no affordable childcare, and little public space. A new community-owned building, The Octagon has provided a community space in the heart of the estate. It has also given local people a focus and a stake, and it has kick-started a whole range of other improvements, including a GP, a Children’s Centre, and integrated local authority services.

We should be honest about the tensions that community ownership creates. Councillors I meet across the country can worry about the takeover of buildings which they think should be in public hands, and the skills and accountability of those given control over the facilities.

These are understandable fears but the notion of community ownership is exciting because it is about a participatory form of politics in which people do not have things done to them, but can create and make change happen themselves.  And it can still be accountable: the development trust that runs The Octagon has a board where eight out of 11 members are elected from the local community.

And as a recent government report on community assets has shown, if there are proper safeguards on accountability and a proper commitment to skills of people running the facilities, the fears that exist can be dealt with.

The third sector, with the support it needs from local and central government, can provide the spaces and activities which give our communities shape, character and strength.

The whole article can be downloaded from the cabinet Office website here: