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March 12, 2008

A new white paper on Community Empowerment in England

A new white paper on Community Empowerment in England was announced last week by Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary. A launch document ‘Unlocking the Talent of our Communities’ has been published, outlining the different ways that citizens can contribute to the development of this policy


Hazel Blears will announce a “community empowerment” white paper – to be published in the summer – that would give a local dimension to proposals set out a year ago by the prime minister to create a new democracy in Britain. The paper is likely to extend the principle of statutory rights to information, accountability, and sometimes redress, to a gamut of public services – including neighbourhood police and primary care trusts.

Ministers are also looking at providing forms of compensation if local services fail to meet commitments on standards. Blears is interested in extending the principle of rewards, such as discounts in rent or housing points, if individuals or communities act as good citizens, for instance, by controlling their children, or looking after their home.

“It will not just be about what you get, but also if public services deliver, then what should citizens deliver,” Blears said yesterday.

She is looking as well at developing community contracts, whereby councils and local communities strike a bargain on how each side will behave in return for decent services.

Petitions by groups of 250 people, or 1% of a neighbourhood, would also require a statutory response by the council, or public service provider.

In probably the most sensitive area, the white paper will look at new ways of making the police and the health service accountable to neighbourhoods and local councillors. Ministers admit they have failed to provide a solution to the debate on how to make the police accountable, and the recent Flanagan review failed to provide an answer.

“Everyone now recognises that people want more accountability, but we need to make it clear to people at local level what is the offer as a local resident from the local authority, health bodies and from the police,” said Blears. “People need to know what the offer is across the local services, and there is a desire among local people to have a say in shaping priorities.

“It’s not about telling the police how to catch criminals, but saying we have got a real problem about kids in local shopping centres, and asking them to sort it out, and come back in a month to say what they have done. Access to real time local information across the services is going to be a big force for change in all this.”

One minister involved in preparing for the white paper said: “It could be a way of putting pressure on GPs to respond to demands to keep their services open at evening and weekends. It would also be a way of ensuring neighbourhood policing is a reality … We have to find a way of putting pressure on public services to deliver, and ensure they put information in the hands of the public.”

Ministers are also looking at the idea of extending the concept of community kitties by giving local areas, potentially the size of three council wards, access to £1m annual budgets to spend on priorities selected by local bodies.

Ministers regard the community empowerment proposals as potentially the best way to re-engage the public with politics – such as by placing a duty on local government to promote democracy. A new government survey to be published tomorrow will show six-in-10 people do not feel they are given an adequate say on how council services are run, while more than 90% of people believe the accountability of councils could be improved.