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For those of us that believe in the case of placing more power in the hands of local communities, these are increasingly worrying times. In the face of massive political uncertainty, rising inequality, and a shrinking and centralising state, it is easy to feel our efforts will never be enough.

In the communities I’ve been working in over the past year it feels like it’s never been harder to do things in a community-led or participatory way. Even when communities show leadership, the past 12 months has shown that our legal frameworks, funding, and support are not enough to prevent the loss of high-profile community assets, such as the Ancoats Dispensary in Manchester that has been set aside for redevelopment despite years of activism and hard-won local ownership, or Hastings Pier in Sussex falling into private hands only months after winning a RIBA award for its community-led restoration and transformation. We have also continued to see a fall in the social infrastructure that creates community and connection, with Locality’s Save our Spaces campaign showing that an average of 4,000 publicly owned buildings and spaces in England are being sold off each year. Meanwhile, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s UK Poverty 2018 report, published in November, showed that four million workers are living in poverty – a rise of more than half a million over five years. It’s hard to take responsibility for your community and feel in control of very much at all when you don’t have the places to meet or even the basic means to live.

So far, so depressing. Perhaps all this talk of community leadership and changes in the power dynamic is hot air. I fear it will be if we continue to assume that simply designing structures or processes for participation and involvement will result in local communities stepping up in numbers to change the balance of it all. The bottom line is that too often the outcomes of our work – endless consultations, surveys, community panels – amount to little more than finding ways to legitimise institutional structures that are at the root of the problems we are trying to address. Instead, we need to grasp opportunities to help define the terms of a renegotiation between the state, business, and local communities. I believe we still have a chance and, indeed, now at our lowest ebb might just be our best ever chance.

Community leadership is, though, part of the mainstream political debate again. Central Government’s Civil Society Strategy in August 2018 set aims to give people a sense of control over the their future and community; to create places where local communities are empowered and take responsibility for where they live. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s recent collection of essays, Economics for the Many, says that, ‘we are seeking nothing less than to build a society that is radically fairer, more democratic, and more sustainable.’

The two-year Inquiry into Civil Society launched its findings in November 2018 and focused on four key themes in a pact: Power, Accountability, Collaboration, and Trust. Meanwhile, across social media and conference agendas in all sectors, from government to civil society, from academia to business, we can’t fail to notice the ever-rising rhetoric on movement building, distributed leadership, systems change, and inclusive growth. All of this can easily be dismissed as noise, but there do appear to be some small but tangible shifts.

People power and place-based funding have been growing as themes for the UK’s leading funders for many years. What feels like it might be different over the past year is a realisation that if they really want to see more local power and control then they will need to change their own funding practices, too. Take a look at the Big Lottery Fund. They’ve reconfigured how they work to have locally based funding officers out in the field. For some new funds they have abandoned formal application forms and replaced them with a conversational approach.

Alongside these changes, two of the Big Lottery Fund’s independent ‘spend down’ endowments, Power to Change and Local Trust, are maturing and turning their attention to legacy. Power to Change, a foundation I was part of building in its early days, is now exploring the future of itself and the community business movement, and is investing in major areas of economic challenge, such as housing, energy, and social care. Central Government is also starting to follow through its Community Housing Fund, investing £163m in community-led housing in England over the next two years. At Local Trust, where I am a relatively recent trustee, the Big Local programme – a radical investment that puts 150 communities across the UK in charge of at least £1m – is seeing these resident-led areas increase their confidence in placing bigger bets in similar fields, and starting to reframe the nature of their relationship and partnership with local councils in the process.

Maybe slowly but surely we are seeing the beginning of the end of funders asking organisations to come to them and then prove how they involve and are accountable to their local community, and instead coming to us and recognising the need for core funding to support community-led organisations to do this work on their terms. “Some of the hurdles we have to jump in the name of good governance actually lead you away from genuine community accountability. Where a conflict of interest can be removed by replacing community leaders with a board of distant and independent professionals, or where thousands of conversations with local people are not rewarded or supported because you aren’t the appropriate legal structure”, says Jess Steele, awarded an OBE for services to community assets in the UK, including her part in bringing Hastings Pier into community ownership in the first place. We can hope, too, for more nuanced and collaborative approaches to investing in place, rather than dogged adherence to each funder’s own unique flavour of what community leadership ought to look like. “Increasingly”, says Matt Leach, CEO of Local Trust, “there is recognition that legitimacy may come simply from being a long-term resident of a place, and accountability simply from the possibility of being questioned or challenged by your neighbour.”

Local authorities seem in much greater numbers to acknowledge the need to commission in ways that are not based on paternalistic, pure outcomes-based contracts, but rather based on enabling local partnerships to be responsive to need. Calderdale Council’s Vision 2024, a strategy being built over many years of conversations with local residents and a focus on empowering communities, is one example. Another is Gloucester County Council, which is increasingly embracing the principles of Asset Based Community Development across all of its work. This might simply be the result of desperation as funding continues to be cut and we see local councils like Northamptonshire and East Sussex bankrupt or close to it, but desperation can also be a powerful force for fundamental change.

Perhaps now is the time for approaches such as participatory budgeting – where local people propose ideas and vote on spending – to gain the traction we’ve seen in many international cities, and closer to home in Scotland. We might also go one step further and commit to finding ways to hand over significant resources directly to local people and trust them to spend it, building on the evidence emerging from investments like Big Local. Indeed, if these principles can influence the design of the government’s proposed Shared Prosperity Fund, intended to redistribute investment across the country more evenly after the loss of the European Structural and Investment Funds, then there are seeds of hope.

Though not often spoken of in these terms, there are also clear links between the workplace and community leadership. The Employee Ownership Association’s 2018 Top 50 Report shows that the employee-owned sector continues to grow by more than 10% a year, and in challenging economic times has showed a 7.3% increase in productivity year-on-year (compared to the 0.1% drop in UK productivity). With these results, and with high-profile converts to employee ownership in 2018, such as Riverford and Aardman Animations, will we see the benefits of employee ownership more widely adopted? “The opportunity to, in effect, socialise private business through the extension of employee ownership is a really interesting path and one not yet trodden often enough in England”, says Ged Devlin from the Power to Change Trust, “and there are some trends to see community as the route to succession ownership. Whether this is long established organisations like Fairfield Mill looking to their community to invest and put them on a steadier footing, or George Street Community Books looking at how the community can help keep independent shops alive and serving their community.”

The desire to engage doesn’t appear to be waning either. “The appetite in communities for being more directly involved in decisions which affect them at work, in rescuing a community asset, or recognising something that previously might have been considered someone else’s problem is growing”, says Co-operative UK’s Linda Barlow, “people just don’t seem to want to be passive donors, workers, or recipients anymore.”

You would be forgiven for thinking all of these opportunities are just clutching at straws. If the state continues to centralise and shrink, if poverty continues to rise, what chance do we have? It may seem, too, that more or less the same article as this one could have been written a year ago, or even five. But something feels different now. I think it’s because the challenges are so great that the need to fundamentally reset the relationship between business, government, and local communities and place them on a more equal footing, transferring not just responsibility but genuine power, is increasingly not a choice but an imperative. This is not just felt by those without much power but also those who currently hold it. Therein lie our opportunities, ones we need to grasp wherever we can. And if the last year has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t reliably predict the future. Who knows how the political and economic landscape might change in our favour over the next few years? So when it does, let’s be ready.