minute read

Power in Places

minute read

Power in Places

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We know geography matters; as the old saying goes ‘all politics is local’. But in the UK we have stripped away the power of many local institutions. The pandemic has shown how broken our local services are and the importance of local action. We have the most centralised government system in Europe, yet it is in our cities, towns and localities that local creative solutions are generated, and relationships built within communities. Every place is different and our sense of belonging and identity is bound up with where we live, and the communities we live among. 

Devolved government 

It is in local government that the new ways of working fit most easily; where connections to local communities are strongest, and distances are shortest. Local politicians and staff can sit down with community groups and work to find new solutions. Local government-led projects have continued to innovate, even as central government initiatives have failed.

Returning decision-making and services to the most local level would create a more resilient system of government. To make this possible we would need, at the very least, to return to local government the resources they could once rely upon. Government funding of local authorities has fallen 50% in the last ten years, at a time when demand has risen sharply. The resulting cuts have not fallen evenly on local communities, but have hit the poorest areas hardest.28 Any future Labour government will need to create a new settlement with local government, not simply devolving power, but seeing local government as a partner in national decision-making. 

As we will explore in the chapter on the state, we need to govern at scale in order to redistribute resources, regulate and prevent abuse from other powerful players. Devolution is not an alternative to working at scale but a different way to get there, building connections from the ground up. Metro mayors like Jamie Driscoll in the North of Tyne and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester have shown that networks and partnerships can act at regional and supra-regional level when needed. Collaboration is uneven but growing. The landscape at local level is no longer that of individual councils sitting within their own boundaries, but a criss-cross of networks. A good democratic process would help set the right balance between local and national and build a political consensus for a way forward. 

But simply devolving power to localities would not on its own bring the level of change.  Local councils are crucial to strengthening communities, but their ability to do so has been massively eroded by cuts in government support to local authorities. It is the discretionary spending which has been hit the hardest, a segment of the budget that covers libraries, sports facilities, community centres, community workers, grants for community groups – the whole infrastructure on which active community life depends. So the central government has a key role in ensuring that community infrastructure has statutory recognition and its funding is ring-fenced. 

The role of community 

“If our politics could reach outside its sectarian interests and start to engage with people in a meaningful way, it would discover the public are a huge resource of ideas, expertise, skills and lived experience that could lead to far more effective decision-making.” 29 

Communities have always organised themselves. After all, the state’s role in welfare is barely a hundred years old. In the late 19th and early 20th Century, working people created a vast independent network of friendly societies, co-ops, women’s co-operative guilds, trade unions and trades and labour societies. At that time, a different image of a socialist society was imagined, one of collectively organised and decentralised working people’s organisations co-operating on a national level.30 Slowly, however, the centralised, industrialised model of state provision gained ground and national programmes took over. 

Communities build a sense of belonging through the process of working together. As Matt Scott points out, one in four people regularly volunteer. There are over a million civil society organisations, most of them informal community groups; “they meet in someone’s front room or place of worship, not in an office.”31

As well as the big charities there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of small organisations where people work collaboratively to create the lives they want to lead – through sports clubs, dance classes, book groups, gardening or volunteering in the environment. These kinds of groups make up the social fabric of an area and function like a “democracy battery”. They may not be explicitly political, but they hold the potential relationships that can be mobilised to generate power for joint action. For example, when a local football club funding is threatened, the community can organise quickly to save it, a form of collective action. Politics needs to be better at recognising these broader forms of democracy. Not everyone wants to attend political meetings, but a strong social fabric ensures the potential for empowered communities.

The way we work when we are self-organising is different to the way we work in bureaucracies. We start with an idea or a shared interest and it changes as we talk and think, laugh and drink coffee. We build a coalition around this idea or interest, working with people who we might not always agree with. We often follow the energy of an inspirational leader and fall in behind. We get involved because we care about solving the problem that needs to be solved, because it means something to our own lives or to our community. This also gives us a way to overcome differences which can become polarising in a traditional political environment. In community arenas, differences are often tolerated as shared interests are constructed in pursuit of a broader common goal.

Case Study: The Walworth Community Pub at the Walworth Living Room

Walworth, a neighbourhood in southeast London, has been witnessing a steady loss of historic pubs in recent years, a trend seen across the UK. In response, a small group of neighbours have come together to stem the tide by focusing on what makes pubs so special: their potential to connect and convene the community.

The Walworth Community Pub project launched in 2022, and quickly uncovered a real appetite for a new model: a community owned pub run for, and by, local residents. Working together with students from London College of Communications the group has begun a series of participative outreach events to get people thinking and talking about what makes the perfect community pub, and how to make a truly inclusive, diverse and representative space for the local area. Outreach has included mapping exercises, alcohol-free beer tasting, designing pub signs, creating a menu of global bar snacks, pub games and decorations. The event pictured was hosted in the Walworth Living Room, a space for the community run by Pembroke House33 which offers a range of participant-led activities and clubs, alongside a community fridge and community cafe.

Through its wider neighbourhood work it also provides an important boost to emerging local projects. As this partnership between the Walworth Community Pub and the Walworth Living Room demonstrates, social spaces rooted in neighbourhoods are crucial for community-led projects. The Living Room acts as an incubator for new local initiatives, supplying a physical space that fosters new connections, and providing a springboard to projects like the Walworth Community Pub to get up and running.

Many community organisers will talk about the difficulties they face trying to work alongside councils and central government. Power is unequal and public bodies have financial power over community organisations. As grants have given way to a process of ‘commissioning’, community organisations become part of the state ‘delivery system’ rather than being able to work autonomously. 

Matt Leach from Big Local has pointed out the decay of social infrastructure in many towns  across the UK, the slow demise of the working men’s clubs and the friendly societies, even the pubs. He talked of the ‘broken state’ and the failure of community in some of the most economically deprived areas – the loss of social infrastructure and the collapse of social capital.34 During the pandemic, the level of mutual aid was lower in these disconnected communities, so instead of assuming community strength everywhere, we need to think about how to re-create social solidarity.

And there is a tragic irony here because we also heard that when these communities do begin to self-organise, they regularly find themselves having to demonstrate ‘neediness’ and social failure in order to attract funding from short-lived government initiatives. They are forced to conform to requirements set by the centre, when what they are trying to do is to demonstrate strength, self-confidence and generosity. The state often tries to take over – turning them into ‘volunteers’ in a government-led project. 

It is important to understand why and how it can be so hard for things to change. At our workshop on this question we discussed a process of double disempowerment: councillors who came into politics to help people have lost power and resources over decades. It’s tough when you feel the need to demonstrate achievements to show your value, to hand over shrinking power to others. Council officers can feel ‘out of control’ if they are not ‘in charge’ of projects. They face pressures to deliver and the messy, lengthy process of building relationships and social infrastructure can just feel like it’s taking too long. Government-funded initiatives are ridiculously short-lived, with no time to listen or learn from the past. Experimentation inevitably leads to redundancy – some things fail – and it can seem ‘too risky’ to use resources in this way. 

The exciting examples of local authorities working in partnership with community are often -short lived. They encounter real difficulties and, in many examples, when leadership changes, attempts to move in this direction have been reversed. 

What is experienced over and over again is the collision of two different working logics, two ways of seeing the world and two languages. And too often the state, with its powerful processes and rules, takes over. 

45° Change in action

This is why 45-degree change matters. 

According to Eileen Conn, an expert on community development: “the two systems cannot be fitted together as one machine-like system but continue to co-exist alongside each other interacting and co-evolving in one shared eco-system.”35

Yes, the state can and does offer protection and rule-governed calm when things get out of hand. Voluntary groups responding to the covid-19 crisis needed access to local buildings as distribution centres and help with supply chains, as well as advice on theft, bullying, and scamming. Official intervention may be needed to put financial support behind faltering organisations, to remove obstacles, find grants, offer specialist advice, provide guidance. 

But government organisations need to rethink their own ways of working, to respond with kindness to match the excitement, energy and speed of communities on the move. The state could come to recognise the value of voluntary energy and commitment and the community sector to recognise when state resource and power is needed. 

It is not simply that local government should not crush community organisations. Nor even that the state should realise how much it has to learn from the dynamics and creativity of self-organising. It is also that by recognising the two systems and their need for co-existence we can create language and tools for co-creating a sustainable equilibrium that neither can achieve alone. 

A new role for local governance?

Local government in some places is learning to play a convening and supporting role – bringing people together, creating spaces for shared decision-making. 

Innovation-led organisations such as Nesta and Collaborate have sponsored and supported projects across the UK which have led to shared learning about what is needed. They talk about the need for a shift to a new operating model that espouses openness, collaboration, curiosity, empathy, kindness, equality, agility and agency.

Case Study: Barking and Dagenham

Barking and Dagenham have made a commitment to: ‘building an individual’s capacity to cope with challenges and moments of crisis’ through supporting citizen projects and creating a platform and alliance of dozens of local voluntary and community organisations – which has been a springboard for action during the Covid 19 crisis. The aim is a ‘a different kind of civil society, one in which we integrate our services with support for the community’.  Barking and Dagenham have been engaged in the difficult business of learning to trust the community and handing over places from where activity can be led. The community infrastructure levy is led by residents who have set up a Dragons Den to decide who to grant it to.36

Case Study: Mutual Aid

In Islington, Brent and Camden councils put their energies behind mutual aid groups during the pandemic – with regular zoom calls to listen to local groups and lots of practical help to support them. Now local groups are talking to the councils about working together on issues such as addressing poverty, climate change and creating ‘the community centre of the future’.37

Case Study: North Tyneside

In North Tyneside the metro mayor has created a process for crowd funding community projects – choices led through responding to the energy of the community. Jamie Driscoll sees this as ‘seeding the eco-system’, building up the links and capacity of interlocking communities.38

But even the most progressive councils are only at the beginning of a challenging process of change. These changed relationships are almost impossible to sustain when the wider system is hostile. Valiant leadership can hold the conditions for experiments for so long, until it crumbles before the onslaught of performance management and government short-termism. Mistakes continue to be made, and the obstacles are encountered daily. But the learning continues. We certainly need more experiments. 

Changing the culture 

To make this change sustainable, we need a deeper shift of thinking, so that we all learn to work in new ways.  

Council staff need the freedom to work collaboratively with each other as well as with residents, the autonomy to think on their feet and try things out. Most people who choose to work for public organisations don’t do it just for the money; they are there to help people. It can feel frustrating and miserable to feel like a ‘cog in a machine’, as Hilary Cottam has revealed in her book “Radical Help”.39   

A different approach would enable council staff to build relationships, keep promises and trust others. A new work environment would give them time to think, to draw on their own values, to challenge, discuss and co-create new solutions. Different channels of communication would enable front line staff to be heard. Matt Scott talks about ‘turning public service organisations upside down’40 so they learn about what really happens, not just what is supposed to happen. 

Colin Millar reminds us how important it is not to dismiss community activists as ‘the usual suspects’ – they have something to say. Power now means moving from a culture of consultation to one of dialogue. A culture of dialogue means sharing the power to build the solution and sharing the agency that makes things happen.41

Public bodies could recognise that not all community-based initiatives last forever, that community leadership comes in waves and that leaders grow tired and difficulties may arise. But this should be seen as an inevitable process, rather than failure. When things go wrong, we should expect local authorities or government to step forward with wisdom and compassion to offer support or training, bolstering local efforts or creating a back-stop if needed. 

When taking up a role of supporter and guardian, rather than commissioner, local authorities can work with their communities to co-create the values and decision-making processes that will safeguard the public domain and public interest. They have a democratic role in ensuring that inequality is tackled and that everyone is heard. This might include setting rules, agreeing behaviours that would be accepted and creating the social infrastructure to enable people to assemble and deliberate. In some cases, this work is itself led by community organisations. 

Capacity building in communities 

In handing people power we cannot just let existing inequalities be replicated or further entrenched. This means ensuring that people can take part in new structures of power, no matter their background. This might also mean stepping in when an initiative is at risk of being taken over by particular interest groups or people who have the most time or resources. A large part of capacity building also means looking into the current state of civil society infrastructure and the accessibility of our existing institutions and groups. It may also mean going to where people are already assembling, such as Facebook groups or local community groups and developing new ways of supporting these emerging political forms. 

If self-organising is to become part of our lives, we need to equip ourselves with the skills to do it well. We need our schools to skill up our children to work collaboratively –and enable them to practise by working collectively to address their own dilemmas. Collaborative leadership should be part of all managerial training and part of the education of all public officials and politicians.  

We all need to develop skills in self-organising. In communities, as anywhere else, people can behave badly and things don’t always go according to plan. We need to learn how to take the appropriate balancing actions, rebuild relationships and tend to our own internal tensions. These skills are as necessary for online communities as they are in physical communities. 

Giving capital to communities 

The inequality in the relationship between local government and community stems from the reliance of community organisations on public sector funding. But that hasn’t always been the case. In the 19th century the welfare state was primarily funded by working people pooling their scant resources to provide the insurance they needed. Ideas such as crowd funding offer modern ways to do this. For example, Wikipedia and the Guardian are both funded by community donations, but this also happens at a smaller scale where many local Facebook groups now crowdfunding for local priorities such as CCTV for playgrounds or money for town Christmas lights. 

Local and regional wealth funds could provide capital for community endeavour. The profits made on land and planning could be used to find capital funding for projects in perpetuity – land could be granted or buildings handed over to communities. Community Trusts are being adopted in several places to ensure that community organisations can develop the way they want to. Clement Attlee cut his political teeth at Toynbee Hall in the East End. Toynbee Hall is still there, serving the community despite the glass towers all around it, because it remains community-owned. 

Funding doesn’t just come from the state. The big social foundations are beginning to explore their own role in this. Lankelly Chase is a foundation leading work to rethink the role of funders and funds imaginative local community activity that tackles inequality and injustice and “reveals, questions and dismantles or heals, reimagines and transforms systems.”42 Similarly, the lottery fund is experimenting with giving £1 million to 150 communities to transform their lives without rules or requirements. 

Local businesses also have a role to play and should be encouraged to support community organisations by offering training and support in finance and planning, incentivising staff to volunteer, support local credit unions, offering the use of buildings and shop fronts and provide grants and equipment to community organisations. 

A vibrant locality with a sustainable local economy needs a partnership of the local authority and public sector, local businesses and social enterprises, and community organisations.


  1. Create community wealth and capital ownership of land, assets, capital and buildings to underpin independent community activities.
  2. Develop strong networks between community organisations and build co-productive relationships between local businesses, local government and communities to strengthen the social fabric. 
  3. Support councils to develop a convening and enabling role, supporting and funding communities to participate as equal players and ensure community representation -within decision making.
  4. Develop a long-term community empowerment funding strategy and national community empowerment quality standards.
  • Local government finance and the 2019 Spending Review NAO (FSR0112) (House of Commons, 2019)

  • Keiran Breen, ‘Change: It’s a piece of cake’,, Compass, 2020, (accessed on 19.06.2022)

  • Goss, S, Local Labour and Local Government (1st Edn, Edinburgh University Press, 1984) and Stephen Yeo, A useable past: A history of Association, Co-operation and un-statist socialism in 19th and early 20th century Britain. Volume 1 (Edward Everett Root, 2017)

  • Matt Scott, paper for the New Power Project Localities Seminar, April 2021

  • Walworth Living Room website - Walworth Living Room (accessed 20.06.2022)

  • Pembroke House website: Homepage - Pembroke House (accessed 20.06.2022)

  • Matt Leach, personal contribution, The New Power Project, Discussion

  • Eileen Conn, ‘Community Engagement in the Social Eco-system dance, Discussion Paper B’, Third Sector Research Centre, 2011, p.8 (accessed on 19.06.2022)

  • Barking and Dagenham, BD-Can Plus (1st Edn, Compass, 2020)

  • Contribution to New Power Discussions, 2021

  • North of Tyne Combined Authority, ‘About Crowdfund North of Tyne’,, (accessed on 19.06.2022)

  • See Hilary Cottam, Radical Help (1st Edn, Virago, 2018)

  • See Hilary Cottam, Radical Help (1st Edn, Virago, 2018)

  • See Hilary Cottam, Radical Help (1st Edn, Virago, 2018)

  • See Hilary Cottam, Radical Help (1st Edn, Virago, 2018)