Communities in Control

How can communities can be put more in control?

19 September 2013

Civic Voice’s update 27, August 2013, requested ideas from members on how “communities can be put more in control”. This paper presents a suggestion by Oxford Civic Society.

There are many components to a well functioning civic city or town. One component – and some would argue this is the key one – concerns community.

Communities take many forms. They can be:

  • communities of place: people living in geographically distinct area;
  • communities of identity: such as ethnic groups, older people, younger people, people with disabilities, religious groups;
  • communities of interest: people involved in groups which might intersect with other communities, such as council tenants, allotment holders, cyclists, etc.

The type of community being addressed in this paper is the first. A community of place, in which different communities of identity and interest interact in a tolerant, harmonious and creative manner, well engaged with local authorities, is surely of paramount importance.

Reality is usually very different, with:

  • a big disconnect between people and local authorities;
  • a perception (a reality?) that local authorities are not interested in proper consultation and engagement with communities;
  • an absence of self help in communities;
  • a lack of neighbourliness and even an element of distrust of one’s neighbours;
  • interest groups seen as pursuing selfish goals.

A further issue in most ‘communities’ is the proportion of the potential membership actually willing, able and interested in making any meaningful participation is very low. Thus one needs to be a bit careful about characterising, even only by implication, those engaged as being representative of whole populations of areas.

This paper presents a approach which might go a little way towards reducing the above problems. It entails the development of what we have called Community (or Neighbourhood) Partnerships. It draws on ‘good’ components of Neighbourhood Planning, Community Led Planning, Neighbourhood Action Groups and Parish Councils.

Community Partnerships?

Much is currently made of the Localism Agenda, at least by Government, as expressed in the Localism Act of 2011. The flagship components of the Localism Act are the Neighbourhood Plan (NP) and the Neighbourhood Forum, which are seen as a means of transferring power to the community and away from the local authority. But the Neighbourhood Planning approach, whilst useful for some, suffers from huge weaknesses as a tool for putting the community ‘more in control’.

  • It is, by definition, restricted to land-use matters;
  • In areas with detailed Local Plans there is little room for manoeuvre;
  • It is likely to lead to disenchantment, as it is a mechanism to produce more development not a mechanism to stop developments ‘in the back yard’;
  • The development of NPs requires substantial energy, time and money – beyond the resources of many communities. It also requires expertise in setting policies, which may have to be externally sourced.
  • The process for producing a NP is complex and the timescale is long;
  • It can lead to tensions between local authorities and residents (it is understandable if Local Authorities, and local Councillors, view the process with detachment at best, and probably as an unnecessary imposition).

During the past ten years or so many communities – usually rural ones – have been encouraged to follow a Community Led Planning (CLP) approach. Such plans are developed by local people working in conjunction with local authorities, the police etc, to produce a set of objectives and projects to benefit the community. The plans have no legal force, and this is their inherent weakness. Nevertheless, it is an approach which attempts to address many of the weaknesses of NPs and whilst not putting communities in control is an attempt to make communities more involved.

The CLP approach seems to be little used in cities and larger towns, and we are not aware of a review of effectiveness in rural areas. But we do believe that a strengthened form of CLP could help put communities more in control. There is some evidence for the effectiveness of such an approach in our city of Oxford which is using a ‘Neighbourhood Partnership’ approach in regeneration areas. If the approach is successful in engaging residents in poorer areas surely it would be effective in any area?

So, we advocate the creation of Community Partnerships:

  • underpinned by a formal structure for engagement with the local authorities (district and county in two tier areas). The formal structure should mandate meaningful local authority dialogue, consultation and feedback;
  • a membership structure similar to that of Neighbourhood Forums, consisting of local councillors, residents, interest groups and businesses, guided by the district authority, and accepted as reasonably representative by the district authority;
  • charged with the development of community led plans (they could also provide a starting point for the development of NPs);
  • charged with developing neighbourliness and community self help (with guidelines and good examples to support this).

The structures of a Parish Council might be a good starting point to work out the details of Community Partnerships. Parish Councils do have ‘legitimacy’, however, in that their members are elected by the whole population. They also have certain powers to raise and spend money. We are not advocating election of members of Community Councils, nor decision making or revenue raising powers as we believe these to be politically difficult to implement. The challenge would thus be to create Partnerships which are reasonably representative and which do not just become a ‘talking shops’. Overcoming issues of apathy and low involvement, perhaps the number one challenge, can only be addressed through success.

Richard Bradley