Passing 'Go' again
The aim of the Community Rights Made Real project is to test out how the community rights contained in the Localism Bill are being received by voluntary and community groups in Dudley, especially those who have traditionally lacked power. Part of this is about doing research that could be useful for policy makers and others in communities and local authorities. However, this is an action research project and a major priority is to develop and implement action to build better relationships between communities and Dudley Council around the things that community rights are focused on - service delivery, assets and neighbourhood planning. Ultimately there will be a project report outlining what we have learned from the process. The purpose of this blog is to give my reflections on some of the ideas and issues we have come across.
For the first part of our Community Rights Made Real project we have been concentrating on finding out about people's level of awareness about community rights and their initial impressions. We have been carrying out a survey and have run seven focus groups to get more in depth feedback. No policy arrives in a vacuum and, in the same way that you might pass 'Go' several times on a monopoly board many communities have experienced several initiatives that influence the way they respond to the next one that comes their way.
What are these community rights then?
We have not been too surprised to find that there is a low level of awareness around community rights in Dudley. We also found the same thing when we carried out a national community rights survey. Even when people claim knowledge they tend to be somewhat confused. For example the Community Right to Challenge is seen by a number of people to mean the right to challenge council decisions, particularly in relation to planning, rather than what it actually is - the right to express and interest in delivering a council service. This reflects the reality that community groups are busy just trying to get things done at a local level to have much spare time and energy to process the ‘top down' stuff. Urban Forum tries to fill this knowledge gap in the best way we can, for example through our Community Rights policy page which links to briefings on each of the community rights and various news up-dates.
Finding the hook
Because we found it hard to engage people around the concept of community rights we agreed with our partners that we needed to focus on the actual things that the Government is seeking to impact on through the use of community rights, namely service delivery, asset management and neighbourhood planning. We started referring to these things more and more and relating them to what was actually going on in Dudley. Even so it was still hard work to get people to talk to us. However, once we were able to have conversations we received some very useful feedback and interesting suggestions for moving things forward from people who are passionate about improving communities and services in Dudley.
Past experience influences present motivation
It is quite clear that, when implementing policy, local people's previous experiences of government initiatives greatly influences the way they respond to new ones. In Dudley we detected a lack of trust resulting from feeling let down by previous initiatives. People talked about constantly changing priorities from the top, ‘flavours of the month', a lack of a consistent approach throughout the years, nothing really changing on the ground, new initiatives that never build on the good stuff that already exists and the fact that knowledge gained through previous programmes was ignored. Before communities assert their ‘right' to take on more services and assets there needs to be another side of the bargain which is more about them receiving the right support and resources to help them be more effective (and valued) for what they already do.
It's hard to get beyond the 'us and them'
A number of participants saw the whole Big Society and Localism agenda as the government ‘throwing things at us' but in a way that was problematic. Many people still expected the local authority to do things for them. There were others who did want to take up the challenge to do more but they thought there were still too many barriers preventing them from doing it. There was also a strong feeling that if ‘we' took things on and it all went wrong it would be seen as ‘our' fault not ‘theirs'. This was exacerbated by the introduction of the localism agenda at the same time as cuts. One person commented that what the government were proposing ‘on a bad day feels like abdication of responsibility'.
You don't become empowered by just having a right
A common theme throughout the discussions has been the acknowledgement that communities are all starting from different places. Some may already have the capacity to consider taking up these rights whilst others have problems engaging people in anything. People are busy, many live fragmented lives, communities change as people come and go and as a result groups struggle to get members and they wax and wane. Community engagement is an intensive business and people don't necessarily get mobilised just because there is policy change. People thought that the ‘well to do' would be able to press the right buttons but the vulnerable would fall behind. One person commented that ‘you don't become empowered by just having a right'
Food for thought for local authorities
Throughout the project so far representatives from Dudley Council have voiced a willingness to develop better relationships with community groups with the leader of the Council showing a personal interest in our project. The focus groups certainly threw up some key issues that need to be addressed if this relationship building was to be really effective. People were quite aware that ‘the council' was not a homogenous thing and shared their experience of ‘one part of the council saying something different to another part' and ‘different parts not knowing what the other is saying'. As part of this people emphasised that the intentions of the policy makers (whether they agreed with them or not) was not always reflected in the practice of the officers working at the delivery end. There was also a degree of antagonism towards consultation with people feeling that they didn't have any influence as decisions had usually already been made. Finally there was the worry from some people that the decision makers had inadequate knowledge of the contributions and potential of the voluntary sector and did not fully appreciate the unintended consequences of cuts. They were worried that there might be a lack of strategic thinking as council officers went ‘back into their silos' to ‘count the pennies'. There was a plea for proactive collaborative work rather than ‘waiting to see what happens' with the localism agenda.
In the next part of our project we aim to co-design some action to make this collaboration more of a reality.