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October 8, 2008

Community Empowerment – updates on progress needed

Earlier this year Scottish Government and COSLA made a joint statement committing them both to take forward this crucial agenda. Prior to this a lot of people on the ground had contributed to a consultation exercise to help shape what eventually happens. Although we know an Action Plan is being prepared, it is discouraging that there is no mention of this work on either the COSLA or Scottish Government websites. The UK Govt seems more explicit about its commitment

Speech by The Rt Hon Hazel Blears MP

‘Confident Communities’
Date of speech 17 September 2007
Development Trusts Association Annual Conference 2007


It’s a pleasure to speak to you, to celebrate your wonderful work, and to look forward to what I believe is an exciting time for everyone who wants to be part of building flourishing, confident communities.

I’m delighted to be in Oxford – not just because of this amazing venue, the seat of civic life for more than a century – but because sixty years ago and five minutes’ walk from here the first OXFAM shop opened, born out of a desire to make a practical difference to those in need; destined to do so much to realise what John Smith called “the extraordinary potential of ordinary people”; and disproving utterly the tired old myth that people are apathetic about social change – when the fact is, they leap at the chance to get involved when given the right opportunity.

So what better place to look ahead to what the Prime Minister has called “a reinvention of the way we govern.”
The Rationale

Bringing Government closer to people, passing power from Whitehall to the town hall and direct to local communities, isn’t just the right thing to do.

It’s the best way to revitalise the local roots of our democracy.

It’s the surest way of making local services reflect people’s needs.

And it’s the only way we can get to grips with some of the biggest challenges we face – from climate change to childhood obesity – where people making little changes in their everyday life is a vital part of the solution.
Personal Commitment

All my life I’ve been a firm believer in local activism. Not just my CV, but also my whole political approach, fashioned on the streets and estates of Salford, is anchored in localism and devolution.

I believe that the best experts, advocates and leaders for local communities are local communities themselves. And there isn’t a single service or development in Britain which hasn’t been improved by actively involving local people.
Praise for Existing Schemes

Your work is a wonderful example of this. For fourteen years your members have brought new hope and new life to towns and villages up and down the country – from Plymouth to Sheffield, coastal Hastings to rural Leicestershire. For example:

* In Maltby, near Rotherham, you’ve transformed a disused Wesleyan Chapel into a lively centre providing managed workspace and conference facilities
* In Nottingham, thanks to you, an old school complex is now home to a youth and community centre, a refurbished sports hall and a business centre
* And over the years your local member, East Oxford Action, has transformed Manzil Gardens from a place people consciously avoided into a green space everyone can enjoy, and started the Cowley Road Carnival – now an annual celebration of one of Oxford’s most diverse areas

Your annual survey, published today, paints an astonishing picture of the scale and range of things you do – 5,000 staff. 15,000 volunteers. A combined income of £240m. And support for everything from allotments, to community newspapers, bakeries, nurseries, after school clubs, street wardens, and recycling facilities, often in the heart of some our most deprived neighbourhoods.

Every story one of commitment, energy and civic pride.
What Government has Done So Far

Over recent years, in recognition of your excellent work and of many others’, we have seen significant steps from a Government increasingly aware of the need to pass more power to local people.

The Local Government White Paper made clear that unprecedented freedom for local authorities needed to go hand in hand with strong links to local communities.

We’re paving the way for the new statutory duty to engage local communities that comes into force in 2009.

Tomorrow I’ll be talking at the Local Government Association about how local people need to be involved in setting the vision for an area – and as I work with local authorities, I’m greatly encouraged by the fact that very many see community empowerment as an opportunity – and very few as a threat.

Indeed it is the efforts of pioneering local authorities like Newcastle, Bradford and Sunderland with “community kitties” that inspired government to help spread the lessons about the benefits of involving local people in budget decisions.

And finally, I am a big fan of Barry Quirk’s review about asset transfer, a topic, I know, very dear to your hearts.
Time To Step Up a Gear

This is all great work and we’ve seen good progress – but it’s time to step up a gear. To go further, faster. And to be more ambitious about what we can and should achieve.

I’m part of a Government proud of our civic heroes, and led by a Prime Minister who wants an end to “Whitehall knows best.”

The Green Paper The Governance of Britain is the first step on that journey. Its proposals include

* New powers for parliament.
* A Speaker’s Conference – all parties coming together to examine how the machinery of democracy, such as the voting system, could work better.
* And citizens’ juries on the issues people care about, starting with health, crime and children, with Whitehall listening and learning from their views.

But the kind of change we envisage – “politics that embrace everyone in the nation, and not a select few” – means change at a very local level. Devolution right to the doorstep.

I see it as my job to make that change happen, working closely with people like you, with local authorities and a whole range of other partners. I want to make the Department for Communities and Local Government the Department for Governing Differently.
Where Next?

It’s time for a little less conversation, and a lot more action. Today I want to set out some of my ambitions and practical proposals to turn all the rhetoric into reality.
Asset Transfer

First, as I’ve said, I warmly welcome Barry Quirk’s brilliant report into asset transfer. Not only were the Development Trusts Association the host for the launch of our implementation plan, you have been an intimate part of turning the ambitions into reality. And already we’re seeing good progress.

Demonstration projects off the ground in 20 areas, from the rural district of Restormel in Cornwall to the largest local authority in England, Birmingham. Local authorities are exploring what is possible in a way they simply weren’t before, thinking about the potential for iconic places like an old town-centre court house, disused markets, and even piers, to be part of community life again. And new guidance is taking shape.

I want to keep working with you as we think together about the next steps, and I want to be ambitious about where we go from here. One question in particular I want to explore with you is how we make sure that asset transfer isn’t just a flash in the pan.

There’s no use starting up a centre if it doesn’t develop the links it needs to thrive under its own steam: no good if it just withers once the tap is turned off. I don’t need to tell you here the importance of building in viability from the start, through enterprise and strong partnerships. And so today I will be writing to the CBI and other business organisations to encourage them, as part of their work on corporate social responsibility, to see what more support and advice they could offer to help local groups run their assets successfully.
Participatory Budgeting

The second big change I want to see is an increase in the use of participatory budgeting. First pioneered in Porto Alegre, Brazil, among some of the world’s most deprived people, participatory budgeting means giving the local community a direct say in how money is spent. It means giving them the choice over whether they want to prioritise street cleaning, leisure facilities for young people, traffic calming or whatever the local concerns might be.

While it doesn’t mean everyone gets what they want, it does bring transparency to the way difficult decisions about how to use limited resources are made. It encourages debate between local people about the future of their area, and helps to build links between them. And it gives more people the confidence to be able to say “this is my community – and I want to do something about it”. In some cases it’s even the doorway to standing as a councillor, school governor, magistrate or other role.

We are supporting the work of the Participatory Budgeting Unit and I see no reason why, in five years’ time, there shouldn’t be a “community kitty” in every local authority in the country.

Third, I want to look at how we use petitions.

One in five of us sign a petition each year. The European Social Survey showed that out of 21 different countries, only 2 signed more petitions than we do. It’s an easy way for us to voice our opinion on an issue we care about. For example, the McClintock family in Taunton Deane collected 11,000 signatures [after their daughter Louise was blinded in one eye by a shattered pint glass] and this has resulted in the Taunton Dean BC’s ‘Drink Safe Be Safe’ scheme, encouraging responsible landlords. And for many more it’s way of raising local issues crying out for action – whether that’s

* sprucing up a run-down street
* installing better lighting to make estates safer
* Or getting rid of the blind corners in parks or estates which can be a magnet for criminals and drug dealers

But some of us will sign a petition and never be quite sure what happens next. We have a rich history of writing petitions, but do we have a rich enough history of answering them?

I plan to consult in the coming months on how we can make petitions a more effective tool in enabling communities to raise issues with local councils. Through the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, we are already introducing a power for elected councillors to call for action. And as the Governance of Britain Green Paper has set out, we want to explore a similar power for communities. But we want to get the balance right. For a petition to be one to which statutory bodies are to be duty bound to respond, there must be a sensible threshold for the number of backers for the petition.

If the number is too low, say, just 25, a small group of people could waste the time of the wider community by demanding attention from public services, but if the number is too high, for example, something like 500, it would make it very difficult for communities to get enough signatories to guarantee that the issue they want raise will get due consideration. This is why I want to consult and hear your views before fixing on a policy position.

I also want to consult about what kind of response a petition would trigger. Now of course I’m not suggesting an automatic change of policy – democracy defined by Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells is no democracy at all. But if enough people agree, I think there’s a very strong case for the council to take a hard look at their policy. I’m interested to hear what you and the wider public think so we will be launching a formal consultation this autumn.

This is not just a local issue; we will also be looking hard at how central government can more effectively respond to petitions.
Community Land Trusts

Fourth, I’m keen to explore further the potential role of community land trusts in supporting the affordable homes desperately needed by young families today and in the future. I will be watching with interest the pilots led by Salford University and the Housing Corporation – seven in rural areas, seven in urban areas. There’s potential for us to learn from a model that has already proved, in places like Letchworth, that the right circumstances can make it a great way for communities to take control of their future and make an investment that benefits generation after generation.
Community Anchors

Finally, I want to take a good hard look at the role of community anchors. As this audience knows only too well, anchor organisations can be a vital part of bringing together everyone in a local area, giving a home and support to a whole range of people and groups – whether it’s workshops for developing adult skills, a young mothers’ association, refugee organisations, or lesbian and gay youth groups. Look, for example, at the Goodwin Trust in Hull, that for 12 years has helped people on the Thornton Estate access vital services more easily – from postnatal support, to skills training, to community wardens – and has a turnover of £9 million, 200 staff, and a presence across 38 different sites. As a result of the Trust’s actions, crime has fallen, and 99 per cent of residents feel their quality of life has improved.

It’s because a community anchor can be a support to so many people, can build a sustainable future not just for their own organisation but those which they support too, can strengthen the links between different groups within a neighbourhood, and be a way of reaching those that central government simply can’t get to successfully on its own, that we should be ambitious for their future. And I hope very soon to announce plans for increased finical support.

Now the measures I have outlined today – from asset transfer, to participatory budgeting, to petitions, to land trusts and to community anchors – are wide-ranging.

To ensure a joined-up approach, I am delighted to announce the formation of the National Empowerment Partnership, led by the Community Development Foundation and bringing together practitioners including the Community Sector Coalition, IDeA and the Urban Forum – who will play a crucial role in making a difference on the ground in every region.

The measures I have outlined today are also the first steps, not the last. There will be a lot more that I will talk about in the months to come that will help give power to local leaders and communities, including the concordat between central and local government, and new ways to support people who want to serve their communities as local councillors, coming out of Dame Jane Robert’s Commission.

100 years ago the socialist writer GDH Cole – just up the road in Balliol – called for the

“widest possible diffusion of power and responsibility, so as to enlist the active participation of as many as possible of its citizens in the tasks of democratic self-government.”

A century later we have every reason to be positive that it is in our reach. And though there are significant challenges ahead, if we work together just think what things could look like in ten years’ time.

* When Government at any level and in any place is designing policy, instead of asking “Why should we involve local communities?” it will be asking “How can we”?
* When a community sees a way of making their area better, they will have the confidence and support to get things done
* And when someone wants to get involved in civic life, they will know the opportunities open to them – and we will be ready to make the most of their enthusiasm

I look forward to it – and invite you to be part of it too.