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November 28, 2007

Views on Government’s Empowerment Action Plan

At a recent empowerment conference Stephen Thake, a member of the Quirk Review on community assets, spoke of the mentality of local government. "There are thousands of naysayers and a few people who say ‘we can do this!’ The issues are in people`s heads – they are cultural not substantive."


So what do the punters make of the government’s empowerment action plan? If indications from New Start’s conference on empowerment today are anything to go by, most are sitting on the fence.

Given that we’ve been talking about empowerment since at least 1999, when Policy Action Team 9 reported (remember the famous seven principles of empowerment?) we seem to be spending a long time making our minds up. Asking for a show of hands on the issue revealed that most people prefer not to show their hands. The few who did were pretty evenly split between the enthusiasts and the cynics.

It’s been a long march that has given us the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal (2001), the establishment of community empowerment networks and local strategic partnerships, the single community programme (2003), the Together We Can action plan (2005), the local government white paper (2006) and the action plan for community empowerment (last month). But perhaps it’s been less of a relentless advance than a replication of Mao’s circuitous and costly Long March of the 1930s.

A couple of comments from two of today’s speakers may shed some light on this. Here’s Stephen Thake, member of the Quirk review on community assets, talking about the mentality of many in local government: ‘There are thousands of naysayers and few people who say, “we can do this”. The issues are in people’s heads. The issues are cultural, not substantive.’

And here’s Hugh Rolo of the Development Trusts Association: ‘Central and local government say “we want to empower you”, but what’s happening is completely different. Central and local government are hierarchical organisations. The people we see are disempowered. They can’t do anything without referring right back to the top of their organisations.’

That said, there are plenty of examples of communities that have become empowered. How? For the most part, by deciding to get things done despite the policies of local and central government rather than because of them. Liverpool, for example, can offer a long list of such exemplars of empowerment.

Perhaps Malcolm X was right: ‘Power never takes a back step – only in the face of more power.’