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July 30, 2008

Power to the People

In an article for the Civil Service Network, Sarah Longlands, of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, takes an in-depth look at the recent Community Empowerment White Paper. She asks if it will really address the general malaise of our representative democracy

Sarah Longlands

Britain is suffering political disengagement and a general malaise of its representative democracy – and it is against this background that the Department for Communities and Local Government published last week’s empowerment white paper, which sets out the government’s plans to pass “more and more power to more and more people, using every practical means possible”. The paper has clear implications for a wide range of government departments, which the DCLG will need to win over to its agenda if it is to realise its ambitions.

The paper identifies “empowerment” as the key driver for change, suggesting a broadening and strengthening of systems of participatory democracy in order to address the more fundamental failings in our democratic system. Set on the foundation provided by An Action Plan for Community Empowerment: Building on Success, the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 and Making Assets Work: The Quirk Review, it represents an ambitious attempt by central government to provide strong leadership on empowerment; its chosen tools form a pot pourri of ideas around civic duty and citizen involvement, supported by a number of diverse mechanisms.

The document’s very diversity hints at one of its main weaknesses: that its legislative purpose is relatively unclear. Its ‘scattergun’ approach involves presenting a collection of the DCLG’s best ideas, and setting out its aspirations for further discussion and development in partnership with other departments and agencies. But the lack of a clear focus means that the document risks failing to actively direct other departments towards addressing this important agenda.

In addition, the paper fails to provide enough ‘glue’ to secure a cross-departmental consensus on how to strengthen empowerment. It does provide a useful summary of the progress made in other departments to address the empowerment agenda, including coverage of the new systems of accountability within the NHS, the emerging ‘Policing Pledge’, and work within the Departments of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and of Work and Pensions. However, it does not set out how other departments’ work on these issues will boost their contribution to public service agreement targets or wider public sector reform. Consequently, empowerment could be interpreted as a minority interest whose traction doesn’t extend beyond the DCLG’s portfolio.

The shortage of clear arguments to encourage other departments to buy into the agenda looks stranger still because several departments have been bringing out their own blueprints for empowerment. These include the Department for International Development’s report, Champions of Participation: Engaging Citizens in Local Governance, which is strong on the need for cross-departmental ‘linking and learning’, and the Ministry of Justice discussion paper, A National Framework for Greater Citizen Engagement, which advocates the use of citizens’ summits, citizens’ juries and petitions.

In terms of addressing the state of the democratic system in the UK, the white paper presents a tantalising overview along with some interesting ideas. However, unfortunately it fails to fully address some of the tensions or questions that underpin this debate. Perhaps the document also tries to do too much in knitting together a bundle of different agendas: those of community assets, for example, with those concerning the balance between central and local control, and between representative and participatory democracy.

The white paper assumes that strengthening the mechanics of participatory democracy will encourage an equivalent reinforcement of representative democracy. However, this relationship is by no means a given, and even some of the paper’s own proposals contradict the assumption. Indeed, the paper explicitly backs the idea of city mayors: powerful, centralising, executive figures who do not necessarily foster greater community involvement in local governance. In our opinion, broad and resilient democracies are not well founded on the visions and aspirations of any one man or woman.

The paper is also in danger of trivialising representative democracy through some of its proposals for incentivising electoral turnout, which include the introduction of prize draws and ‘I’ve voted’ badges.

The white paper places a strong emphasis on encouraging the transfer of properties to community organisations, directly supporting such asset transfers through the new Empowerment Fund. This is very welcome, and could provide important resources to enable community-led organisations to play a greater role in their local areas. However, it also makes an implicit assumption which equates the development of ‘community anchor’ organisations with social enterprises: businesses whose main aims are primarily social or environmental. The fact is that community anchors are often more focused on voluntary sector work such as campaigning for social justice and equality or speaking up for the needs of local communities. While many mobilise collective action and contribute to a sense of community identity – thereby playing a wide role in the empowerment agenda – they do not necessarily undertake the service-delivery and asset-management functions often taken up by social enterprises.

As a last point, the white paper contains passages in which the DCLG seems keen to address accusations of over-centralisation and express its desire to ‘pass power’ directly to citizens. However, we believe that caution must be exercised in increasing citizens’ control over local authorities, which are after all democratically elected bodies. Certainly, there need to be more opportunities for citizens to participate in discussion and debate about the shape of places in the future – but this should not come at the cost of undermining local authorities.

This white paper is welcome for the strong focus it places on community empowerment and its guiding principle of shifting power to communities and citizens. It also contains the sensible acknowledgment that there are fundamental issues that undermine the health of our civil society in the UK, such as continued deprivation, voter apathy, centralisation and a lack of interest in civic roles within our communities. However, while it provides potential solutions to tackle some of these fundamental issues, the paper requires a much stronger focus and greater cross-departmental support in order to realise a true shifting of power to local communities.

Empowerment white paper: the key points

• Local authorities should be given a new duty to promote democracy, complementing the duty to involve people in decision-making introduced in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. Seen as an attempt to build on the work being done already at a local government level to promote democratic understanding and participation, the policy suggests providing local people with better information; developing the use of new media; improving youth participation in local democracy; and even rewarding voters with an ‘I’ve voted’ sticker at the ballot box.

• The duty to involve people in decision-making should be extended to cover additional agencies and bodies across England, including regional development agencies, Job Centre Plus, the forthcoming Homes and Communities Agency, probation services and youth offending teams. However, there is a lack of clarity about how
the government expects this to be done.

• A new £70m ‘Community-Builders’ fund is being launched to enable ‘community anchor’ organisations to improve their ability to run local facilities, deliver services, and be run as ‘economically viable social enterprises’.

• A £7.5m ‘Empowerment Fund’ will provide support for existing national Third Sector organisations operating across England. The fund will focus on national organisations that ‘help local communities turn key proposals into practical action on the ground’. A consultation is being launched alongside the white paper, with a commitment to launch the fund in late 2008.

• A new Asset Transfer Unit (ATU) will build on the work of the Advancing Assets for Communities Programme, which was led by voluntary sector alliance the Development Trust Association. The ATU will develop demonstration projects around community asset transfer, and lead a campaign with local authorities and community groups to increase the number of transfers.

• A new Social Enterprise Unit will champion the role of social enterprise models in areas such as housing, health and regeneration. The Cabinet Office also has its own social enterprise unit, but the proposed relationship between the two is not clear from the white paper.