Quick picks from Communities in Control

Just had a chance to have a run through the executive summary of the white paper Communities in Control, published today by the department for Communities and Local Government, with a highlighter pen and picked out a few juicy bits. I suspect most of my interest will be in Chapter 3: Access to Information, and you will all no doubt be delighted to note that some discussion of the detail of that will be forthcoming…

For my more cynical readers, please note that I am commenting on all this stuff in a very positive frame of mind!

First up, some bits talking about money on page 3:

We will also set up an Empowerment Fund of at least £7.5m to support national third sector organisations turn key empowerment proposals into practical action…

we are establishing a £70m Communitybuilders scheme to help them become more sustainable. Grassroots Grants, developed by the Office of the Third Sector, offer small sums of money from an £80m fund – in addition there is a £50m community endowment fund – to help locally-based groups to survive and thrive…

Excellent news. One of the issues being raised a lot at 2gether08 was the fact that there wasn’t the money to get community action going. What’s also needed, though, as well as the money existing, is for the funds to be marketed in such a way that people know it’s there, and how to bid for it.

Tracey and others might be interested in this on p4:

We will support community effort in tackling climate change. A ‘Green Neighbourhood’ scheme has been launched which will demonstrate how communities can take action to adopt low carbon lifestyles.

Also on page 4:

The Internet offers huge opportunities and we want to encourage public bodies to authorise the re-use of information. We are improving the information available to local citizens and service-users. But there is a correlation between social and digital exclusion. We will ensure all sections of society can enjoy the benefits of the Internet, and other methods of communication.

A strong independent media is a vital part of any democracy. We will continue to support a range of media outlets and support innovation in community and social media. We will pilot a mentoring scheme in deprived areas on using the Internet.

This is good, positive stuff. The digital divide is not, as far as I am concerned, a reason (excuse?) not to engage with people online. Instead, make it a part of any initiative to get people online. Run some classes. Take some laptops with 3g dongles to a community centre. Do something!

Page 5:

Petitions have become easier on the internet…To make it easier to influence the agenda at a local level we will introduce a new duty for councils to respond to petitions, ensuring that those with significant local support are properly debated…Petitions should be taken into account in decision making in public services.

Petitions are an interesting thing, they’ve been popular on the Number 10 website, and have certainly raised the profile of certain campaigns. Whether they really encourage real participation, rather than just a single, throwaway response at a friend’s email request, I’m not sure.

Again from page 5:

Citizens should have a greater say in how local budgets are spent. Participatory budgeting – where citizens help to set local priorities for spending – is already operating in 22 local authorities. We want to encourage every local authority to use such schemes in some form by 2012.

This is interesting and Participatory budgeting is something I would like to have more of a look into. The biggest question people have about their local authority is ‘what does my council tax go on?’ and anything which makes the budgeting process a little more transparent has got to be a good thing. I guess the trick is to avoid it becoming gimmicky.

Page 5 must have been a good one:

Local authorities should do more to promote voting in elections, including working with young people through citizenship lessons.

Music to Tim‘s ears I am sure. Mind you, I did Politics at Uni (a 2:1 from Hull in case you’re interested…) and the idea of citizenship classes gives me the willies. Later the idea of incentives to vote is raised, even a prize draw. Oh dear.

Finally we are onto page 6:

A quarter of local councils use neighbourhood management to join up local services including health and transport and help tackle problems in deprived communities…The third sector also has a unique ability to articulate the views of citizens and drive change, and we will work with them to develop principles for their participation in Local Strategic Partnerships…

we want local people to have more of a say in the planning system so we will provide more funding to support community engagement in planning

Again, good stuff, sounding like we want to get the people involved in the processes that affect them. I do worry in the growth of levels of governance here though: we have central, local, town and parish, now neighbourhood councils and management. Good that the third sector is being involved, though the mention of LSPs reminds us all of just how damn complicated the service delivery landscape has become in this area.

Page 7 has a lot of stuff about getting young people involved:

We will establish direct access for young advisors to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and set up a programme for young people to ‘shadow’ government ministers and elected mayors. DCSF are establishing a £6m national institute for youth leadership

Getting younger people involved in local democracy is a great initiative to take forward, and of course it is already happening in pockets around the country, say with I’m a Councillor amongst others. I am no expert on the likes and dislikes of young folk, though (as the contempt in which I am held by my son proves), but I do worry that a ‘national institute for youth leadership’ might be a bit too dorky to attract a representative group.

Page 7 also has a bit on Scrutiny. Yay!

We will raise the visibility of the overview and scrutiny function in local government, which is similar to Select Committees in Parliament.

My first proper job in local government was in scrutiny, so I have bit of a soft spot for it, and nobody knows what it is about. I also don’t think it is accorded the respect it needs as a process in a lot of councils. Built into it from the start was the ability for residents to get involved, so it’s a prime area to be developed furthr as part of the empowerment agenda.

Page 8 must have been boring, straight onto number 9 (I can’t believe I am doing this voluntarily, my fingers are aching from typing and I am starting to feel a little sick):

We will amend the Widdicombe rules which forbid council workers above a certain salary band from being active in party politics.

I would really be interested to know how big a problem this is. Also, what about civil servants who want to get involved locally? Anything that frees public servants up to participate as much as they want to has to be a good thing though.

More from page 9:

We will give backbench councillors more powers to make changes in their ward with discretionary localised budgets that they can target on ward priorities.

Just backbench councillors? So those with cabinet members representing them lose out? Anyway, this is a nice idea to give backbench councillors something to do, which many lost following the large scale move away from committees.

Page 10 now (last one, phew!):

We want to make it easier for people wishing to serve on local committees, boards or school governing bodies to know what the role involves and how to go about applying for vacancies.

It’s too hard to get involved, I think most people agree. It also needs to be easier for those who want to help but can’t commit the time to do an entire role, though. Maybe job-sharing governors or councillors?

Last gobbet:

We want to see more people involved in starting and running social enterprises, where the profits are ploughed back into the community or reinvested in the business. A new Social Enterprise Unit is being set up in Communities and Local Government to recognise the social enterprise contribution to the department’s objectives. We will also encourage local authorities to ensure social enterprises are able to compete fairly for contracts.

Nice bit to end on. There was mention of the third sector before, but I don’t think that is a sufficiently all inclusive term. What about individuals who have ideas, people sat with laptops in bedrooms, groups who emerge and want to do specific work in the community. I think we are into Clay Shirky territory here, where social enterprise can be started by people without the backup of a pre-existing organisational structure. Such people may need help identifying other people can help, or where funding is. Maybe they just need a room they can borrow to meet up in. But they need support, whether from central or local government, that the sorts of organisations that did this stuff in the past never needed.

Anyway, that’s me for now. Would be good to hear other people’s thoughts in the comments. I’m off to read the rest of the white paper now…

Comments

  1. says

    Completely agree with your last main paragraph, he typed on his laptop (though at his kitchen table).

    I am a bit worried that between the Empowerment Fund (targeted at big organisations) and CommunityBuilders/Grassroots Grants there’s an innovation/thinking shaped hole.

  2. Simon says

    And on page 60, paragraph 3.34 – Supporting Innovation
    We want to support innovation in the use of new technologies . . . . We will work closely with the Office of the Third Sector, Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Justice, DIUS and other partners to explore ways of doing this. We will also provide funding for media and technology through the Empowerment Fund.

    Then in 3.35 there’s the ‘Digital Mentor’ scheme . . . . UK online centres??

  3. says

    All good stuff – summarised for easy perusal.

    My only concern is; if the third sector and local communities, community activists etc are given more power, more control will they have the resources to deliver it.
    The Digital Mentors will go someway, but inevitably won’t reach everyone, creating an unintentional exclusion and leaving some communities not able to bid into public service delivery. I agree its two way thing. Third sector orgs have got to want to adapt and start using technology to participate, but without enough people to show and hand-hold they could lose out.

    Social Enterprise support is most welcome – organisations (in the losest sense), groups of individuals working with the community and for the community, employing local people furthest from the job market and with the greatest understanding of their niche service and the local community needs.

    Great document!

  4. Tiago says

    If you would like to have some more info on Participatory Budgeting, check some of the posted links on the Participatory Budgeting group on facebook.

    BTW, very blog. Will become a frequent reader from now on.

  5. says

    I’ve been sent a copy of some Participatory Budgeting material, but I didn’t understand it (too much unexplained jargon) and the feedback I’ve had so far is that people appoint representatives so that they don’t have to participate in the difficult budgeting decisions, so I’ve not really dug further yet.

    Also, I wouldn’t describe UKOnline Centres as community-based online centres. They seem like state-funded private-sector-vendor training providers to me.

    Have I got the wrong impression of both of these?

  6. says

    It’s taken me a while to catch up on this conversation, having just organised a networking event for 15 low carbon community projects in the Cheshire and Warrington area I’m a bit behind on reading and emails. The prospect of digital mentors intrigues me and I’m sure I know lots of communities who could benefit. I’m going to go away and read the summary now and see how low carbon communities / climate change groups can benefit. Using online tools is another way we can reach communities and allow them to participate in climate change initiatives, it’s an extra dimension to the methods of participation we already use and we need to support groups to learn how to use the technology to their best advantage. Tonight I’ve got a telephone meeting with a community project in London who are interested in participating in the Low Carbon Communities Conference in October. They can provide a venue and willing volunteers but they’ll need a “digital mentor” of some kind to help them with the technology and tools they’ll need if the event is going to be more than just an opportunity to watch events from a distance.

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