Locality, the non-profit support body for the UK’s community businesses, held its annual convention last month with a call for local empowerment.
The event took in challenges such as the recovery from Covid-19, inequality and climate change and called for a rethink of public assets, institutions and spaces, echoing much recent thinking in the co-op movement.
CEO Tony Armstrong told delegates the sector’s pandemic response, by rethinking ways to offer vital services during lockdown, “showed the vital work of community organisations … It showed the power to power of community”.
Pointing to the challenges facing society – around the economy, racial inequality, climate change, public services and Brexit – Mr Armstrong said community businesses face “a daunting prospect in the work that we’re trying to do“.
He said there were different ideas in local and central government about what the “levelliing up” agenda means, but warned that it would “really come to nothing unless we see a huge transfer of power to local communities and to neighbourhoods”.
“There’s no point letting large amounts of money wash through local areas – short term funding that does a specific thing for a specific period of time,” he added. “We’ve all been around long enough to see different pots of money come and go. But actually this real change doesn’t stick. Because you haven’t shifted the power. You haven’t just shifted the decision making. We need local decision making on how to spend that money. We need to create institutions that are strong, and able to be there for the long term.”
Mr Amstrong said current funding streams fail to benefit local communities, and Locality has received feedback from its members saying it is hard to access the Community Renewal Fund or the Community Ownership Fund.
The first round of the Community Ownership Fund “was so tightly drawn that most of the fantastic projects our lenders have just weren’t able to apply,” he said. “Only about 20 projects were ultimately approved and they need to do better if we are going achieve levelling up. The money’s there, but it’s not being spent in the best possible way.
“We want to have local decision making powers. We want to have local people in control over funding. We want to have a greater say for our members in local economic developments.”
To highlight these issues, Locality is joining a campaign, We’re Right Here, with a coalition of national organisations and local leaders, to call for a Community Power Act, creating a stronger framework for community empowerment.
The conference drew speakers from across the political spectrum, including Andy Street, the Conservative metro mayor for the West Midlands, who said community businesses had a role to play in tackling inequalities.
“Strong community organisations are building resilience in communities from the bottom up as people get new jobs, good jobs,” he said. “That is a critical part of our recovery.”
Sophia Parker, director of emerging futures at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, talked about her experience at Little Village, a baby bank set up in 2016 where people can donate baby items for families in need, which came under huge pressure during the pandemic, and at a time of growing inequality.
“Change is possible,” she added. “There is an alternative to how things are now. And I think that alternative seems fairly unlikely to emerge from the kind of consumerism and individualisation that has characterised lots of kind of the late 20th century western values … That alternative needs to be grounded in those values that we all share – mutualism and solidarity.”
Rebecca Debenham, CEO of Northfield Community Partnership, which works with a community in south Birmingham, talked about ways to change the perception of an area. She gave the example of a five-day arts festival her organisation runs to bring people into to the Northfield area to see what it has to offer, alongside the formation of a local stakeholders group. “We look at issues that are becoming a problem, we look at collectively how we address those, we look at joint funding opportunities.”
Polly Billington, CEO of UK 100, a network of local government leaders, discussed the climate change agenda and the drive for Net Zero.
Local authorities are on the frontline of these efforts, and she said this will need the “co-operation and collaboration of civil society,” including Locality members.
“There are three big things you can do to transform the place and the community in which you operate. The first is demonstrate leadership. The next is help build public consent and support. And the third calls for the big stuff to just get done.”
Community organisations have the opportunity to demonstrate their capacity in all three of these areas, she said, wether that means switching to green energy or delivering retrofits or more efficient transport.
“You probably provide services to the local authority,” she added. “You’re going to be better placed to be able to secure those contracts if you can demonstrate that you can meet their needs in terms of sustainable procurement.
“Work on working with your local authority to design that sustainable procurement strategy so that you can do things well.”
Dan Stone, project manager for the Centre for Sustainable Energy, said the drive to net zero would mean huge behavioural change which means there is a need for consent, and community organisations can help by “normalising and supporting” this process and contributing to neighbourhood plans for the carbon transition.
He suggested ideas such as working with parish councils to give every household a tree to plant, and to improve the sustainability of the assets they manage – such as allotments, burial grounds and bridleways.
The net zero transition also needs to be inclusive. JudyLing Wong, honorary president of the Black Environment Network, gave the example of local tree planting initiatives, saying these would be more effective in urban areas if they involved the full diversity of communities.
“London has largest urban forests in the world,” she said. “I would like to inspire you to do more in cities, where most minorities and disadvantaged groups live.
“Black Lives Matter initiated an extraordinary worldwide impetus to action for diversity equality and inclusion, with many disadvantaged groups actively campaigning for change,” she added. “Just as our diverse communities in the UK has increasingly found voice. diverse nations at COP 26 has similarly asserted the dimensions of a just transition to zero carbon.”