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Community empowerment needs a ‘reboot’

Words: Laura Edgar
Community / Shutterstock: 144653342

A think tank has called for a reboot of localism in the UK to empower communities to influence decisions in their local neighbourhoods.

People want more control over the places where they live and work, according to Act Local: Empowering London’s Neighbourhoods, by Centre for London, however, there is a “disconnect” between the desire to get involved and the perceived ability to influence change.

In London, around 35 per cent of Londoners think they can influence local decisions, while 65 per cent agree it is important to be able to.

The coalition and recent Labour governments implemented policies to boost localism and neighbourhood control, including through the 2011 Localism Act.

The Centre for London reports that the legacies from such polices in the capital have been mixed. For example, there are 79 designated neighbourhood forums and 13 completed neighbourhood plans in London, but nine of 32 London boroughs do not have a forum.

Only one parish council has been established in London since legislation was introduced, while 63 Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) have been set up, which have taken on a more place-shaping role as they have matured, highlights the report.

According to the think tank, to continue the work of these initiatives barriers such as resourcing need to be addressed, and there needs to be a reboot of localism, supported by reforms tailored by the needs of communities.

To achieve this, the Centre for London makes a number of recommendations for the government, including:

  • Introducing Community Improvement Districts (CID), which would be a more flexible hybrid of the Business Improvement District model and the civic focus of parish councils. A CID could be set up at the request of a local neighbourhood group, be established through a local ballot with renewal every five years, operate within a defined geographic area, and have the ability to raise a levy on council taxpayers.  
  • Turning the Community Right to Bid for Assets of Community Value into a Community Right to Buy, This would follow Scotland’s lead, and would allow local groups who express interest in a registered building to have statutory first refusal on purchasing the property within an allocated time period.

Joe Wills, senior researcher at the Centre for London, said: “As a society, we believe that decision-making should come closest to those it affects most. Demands for agency and control over the decisions that affect us are being made from all quarters of the UK. There is a sense that our democratic institutions and processes are too distant from those they represent.

“Neighbourhood-level participation can play an important role in shaping places, strengthening communities and enhancing public services, but there is untapped potential.  

“The government must kick-start a new era of localism to empower communities to become fuller partners in defining the future of their city.”

Ruth Duston, OBE, OC, CEO of Victoria BID, added: “BIDs in London have evolved to be powerful and strategic forces for good, and this evolution should continue.

“In my experience, the private sector is now more civic-minded than ever; largely because they recognise that a more collegiate approach delivers the best outcomes and has a positive impact on their business, their staff, and their reputation.  

“It therefore is the logical next step for BIDs to reflect this shift.”

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