10 Big Ideas for 2010
With a new year, and maybe a new Government, drawing nearer we have decided to pull together what we consider to be the most important policy changes Urban Forum would like to see in the coming year. We haven't just pulled these out of a hat - these recommendations have come from research we've done and evidence we've gathered from ‘the frontline' over the past two years.
Our goal - for citizens and community groups to have a greater say over decisions that affect them.
There have been various attempts over recent years to enable local people and community groups to have more influence over local decision making, but significant barriers remain. These need to be overcome if we are to establish an effective system of participatory democracy that sits alongside, supports and reinvigorates traditional representative structures at a local level. Putting people in the driving seat of what happens in their area also means taking action to strengthen local economies, and support communities through recession. This means having a public benefit from the transfer of resources from the public purse to the banking system. We need a system of responsible, properly regulated finance that support rather than hinder our efforts to tackle the causes of inequality and poverty, and works to the benefit of all. Giving people more control of their environment also means putting people and local needs at the heart of local planning, and halting the decline in local jobs, businesses and services. Taking the following 10 steps would go a long way to help achieving this goal.
- Investment by banks back into communities
Almost £200bn of public money has been spent by the government on propping up our banking system over the last two years, severely reducing the amount of public funds now available for essential public services, like health and education. Banks should be required to re-invest at least 1% of profits for public benefit, through grants to community organisations, charities and social enterprises.
- Increase access to credit on fair terms
As recession deepens, increasing numbers of people are forced to turn to both illegal lenders, and legal ‘door step lenders,' at exorbitant rates of interest. There can be no reasonable justification for being able to charge over 1000% for a loan. Action needs to be taken to make it illegal for lenders to charge as much as they like for loans, and support needs to be given at a local level to support alternative sources of responsible credit, through credit unions and municipal and community banks.
- Public disclosure - making banks more transparent
The banking system has been saved from collapse with public money that comes from all of us, which should require banks to ensure they are serving the needs of all communities. However a lack of information on where money comes from and where it goes to makes it impossible to gauge whether banks are providing financial services without discrimination. A Community Reinvestment Act should be introduced requiring banks to publish information to demonstrate they are serving the needs of all communities, without discrimination.
- End discrimination in financial services - banks must provide services for communities
Many people do not have a bank account and many banks have withdrawn facilities in poorer communities, leading to higher utility bills and difficulties accessing employment and benefits and charges for using cash-points. Community organisations face considerable hardship in accessing the necessary finance to tackle the problems they face in their local areas. Legislation should be introduced requiring banks to take steps to eliminate discrimination in how they provide financial services.
- Local planning and rates should support local economies
In spite of the high value most people put on local shops and services, there has been an enormous growth of out of town shopping and steady decline of local businesses and services. The vast majority of people now have to travel outside of their local area to meet their basic everyday needs. Evidence shows the considerable contribution of independent retailers make to generating and retaining wealth in the local economy. Local authorities need to do more to support the local economy, using plans such as the Local Development Framework and the Sustainable Community Strategy to ensure high streets meet local needs through a diverse mix of shops including independent retailers - rebalancing business rates to favour small shops.
- Allowing communities to use and benefit from disused land and property
The recession and property market downturn have added to existing problems of land banking, resulting in an increasing amount of disused sites and boarded up shops - wasting resources and blighting neighbourhoods. Legislation enabling local authorities to bring derelict property and land back into use needs to be strengthened, and local authorities need to make greater use of existing powers such as Public Request to Order Disposal to make this happen. The CLG's ‘Meanwhile Use' initiative (see www.meanwhile.org.uk) for allowing short term use of empty shops by community organisations should be extended to enable longer term community use of disused property and sites at a peppercorn rent.
- Increase the involvement of people in planning and design
Where we live, and our surroundings, matter enormously to our quality of life and well being. Most people place a high value on public spaces but are not happy with their local park. The planning process can seem complex and inaccessible, and the minority of people who engage with it tend to do so when there is ‘a problem'. More needs to be done by local authorities, and by the voluntary and community sector to involve local people in planning and in the design of public spaces at an early stage. Local authority community engagement officers need to improve collaboration with planning, housing, developers and the local community and voluntary sector to involve communities in setting priorities for development and improvement, making planning decisions, and designing new development.
- Increase community access to local policymaking processes
All the evidence tells us that community involvement in policy-making needs to be resourced. There is a real danger that with the squeeze on public finance that this is an area at risk of cuts. We also know that communities can get ‘consultation fatigue', as different public sector bodies and departments run parallel engagement processes. Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs) and their public sector partners should be required to introduce joined-up engagement strategies, and to jointly resource structures for meaningful involvement. This needs to be based on existing best practice, with resources targeted for supporting the involvement of communities currently under-represented in decision-making.
- Community involvement and equality
Women, BME communities and other minorities continue to be under represented in local policy-making forums, and few LSPs carry out equality impact assessments or monitor representation. This undermines efforts to reduce inequality and weakens the quality of decision making. Priority needs to be given to activity that will involve all sections of the community and equalities impact assessments should be embedded into decision making, and community engagement activity, including the implementation of the Duty to Involve, including an equality impact assessment of involvement and decision making. This must be central to performance assessment of partners and agencies.
- Strengthening the relationship between councillors and community organisations
Public faith in the political system is widely recognised to be in crisis, and whilst much of the focus is at a national level, local democracy is equally affected, with low voter turnout, and low awareness of who local councillors are or how they work. Evidence suggests poor communication between the local community sector and the councillors in their area is a major barrier. Developing the role of local councillors to be community leaders, more directly accountable to their constituents, rather than the town hall or the Party, is key to building legitimacy and effective representative and participatory democracy. Local government and the voluntary and community sector must work together more effectively to strengthen relationships and mutual understanding. Activities to support better communication between councillors and community organisations should be adopted as a priority by local authorities, and incorporated into new councillor's induction.
Our 10 Big Ideas are based on recent Urban Forum research, including:
Banking On Change
Places, Bases, Spaces
Where are the women in LSPs?
BME representation in LSPs