For those of us that believe in the case of placing more power in the hands of local communities, these are increasingly worrying times. In the face of massive political uncertainty, rising inequality, and a shrinking and centralising state, it is easy to feel our efforts will never be enough.
In the communities I’ve been working in over the past year it feels like it’s never been harder to do things in a community-led or participatory way. Even when communities show leadership, the past 12 months has shown that our legal frameworks, funding, and support are not enough to prevent the loss of high-profile community assets, such as the Ancoats Dispensary in Manchester that has been set aside for redevelopment despite years of activism and hard-won local ownership, or Hastings Pier in Sussex falling into private hands only months after winning a RIBA award for its community-led restoration and transformation. We have also continued to see a fall in the social infrastructure that creates community and connection, with Locality’s Save our Spaces campaign showing that an average of 4,000 publicly owned buildings and spaces in England are being sold off each year. Meanwhile, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s UK Poverty 2018 report, published in November, showed that four million workers are living in poverty – a rise of more than half a million over five years. It’s hard to take responsibility for your community and feel in control of very much at all when you don’t have the places to meet or even the basic means to live.
So far, so depressing. Perhaps all this talk of community leadership and changes in the power dynamic is hot air. I fear it will be if we continue to assume that simply designing structures or processes for participation and involvement will result in local communities stepping up in numbers to change the balance of it all.
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