by Henry Tam
30th July 2021

Have a look at the accompanying policy briefing.

Whenever communities respond to crises with the help of dedicated volunteers and extensive neighbourly support, politicians line up to praise their community spirit. But in reality, how much – or little – communities can do about the problems they face depends on what approach politicians have taken.

Some politicians, out of cynicism or naivety, insist that the more is left to communities to sort out for themselves, the better it is for all concerned. Public expenditure can be reduced, taxes cut and people will learn to rely on themselves. In practice, the more communities are deprived of wider political and economic support, the less likely they can ever escape from poverty, poor health and their generally unenviable quality of life. The mantra of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps rings hollow to those who are having to walk barefoot down a stony path.

No one wishes to deny that communities can do a lot for themselves, but ultimately whether that is enough to lead them towards a better future is connected to the type of backing they get from public bodies at all levels. There are politicians who assume that this must mean setting up large-scale programmes in communities with centrally directed funding, targets and monitoring to drive improvements. However, all too often such top-heavy intervention ends up alienating communities. Rigidly set targets fail to reflect people’s complex experiences; vast sums are spent on high-profile projects that do not meet myriad local needs; and token consultation exercises breed disillusionment.

So if neither a hands-off nor an overly hands-on approach by political leaders is suitable for enabling communities to cope with intensifying economic, public health and environmental challenges, what should be the way forward? The answer is to be found in the accumulating evidence of successful community-based transformation that has been taking place over many decades – namely, fostering genuine collaboration between communities and public bodies, allowing each to play to its strength, and ensuring all commit to a long-term partnership.

Some might say that’s all a bit ‘motherhood and apple pie’. On the contrary, that has been the basis of virtually all successful community-based projects around the world. With public investment and the proper statutory framework, community organisations have developed community land trusts to provide genuinely affordable housing, set up anchor facilities to meet local needs and run community enterprises that generate income to help pursue neighbourhoods’ priorities. Mutual support schemes such as time banking thrive when they are financially backed rather than left to their own devices with no public funding. Regeneration programmes deliver more cost-effective outcomes and higher satisfaction when public agencies ensure they are shaped by the informed input and continuous feedback from the communities concerned.

But isn’t it rare that such collaboration with and across communities can be achieved? That depends on the extent to which one is willing to learn from the many instructive case examples that have been identified. It is now widely known that the suspicion and misunderstanding that so often undermine partnership working between government bodies and community groups can be significantly reduced through the use of inclusive dialogue techniques, responsive engagement processes and shared objective-setting. Community learning, backed by trained facilitators, can help people explore the real causes of the problems they face, and work together in formulating viable solutions. And trust can be built by replacing rigid target-setting and inflexible monitoring with adaptive planning processes and responsive evaluation.

Whatever the sceptics out there may think, the facts speak for themselves. State–community coproduction, guided by the aforementioned collaborative approaches, has led to a wide range of improvements such as: higher levels of both actual and perceived community safety; the development of multi-stakeholder cooperative models in the health and social care sector that result in better care and greater affordability; more effective outcomes and enhanced dignity in tackling food insecurity; and sustained progress in dealing with environmental challenges relating to energy, transport and air quality.

Communities should be encouraged to do what they can to improve their quality of life. But how much they can actually do is inseparable from the political choices that are made. Political leaders who want to work with communities as partners and are prepared to listen as well as propose when it comes to solving problems, will find that their joint endeavours have a much better chance of bringing about the kind of transformative changes informed citizens seek.

Last but not least, they should not be put off by the knee-jerk rhetoric about how this would cost too much money – when what is ‘too much’ or ‘not enough’ in the context of public policy can only be determined if communities’ own perspectives are adequately taken into account. It may well be the case that leaving people to suffer high crime rates, lack of decent housing, poor health, etc. is what is too high a price to pay. By contrast, investment in community-based transformation tackles short-term damages, minimises long-term resource-draining problems and improves revenue-generating capacity. This is what extensive research findings have shown, and what should guide political decisions.

Henry Tam is a writer, educator and former head for civil renewal under the last Labour government. He was previously a lecturer at the University of Cambridge.

Tomorrow's Communities coverTomorrow’s Communities: Lessons for Community-based Transformation in the Age of Global Crises edited by Henry Tam available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £21.59.

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