Instead of returning to the status quo, let’s put communities in the driving seat

Joe Fortune

Building community power is a politics of empowerment. It needs a new settlement, where democratic power lies with local communities rather than top-down reorganisation, opaque backroom deals and remote decision-making. We need to tackle regional inequalities by investing in sustainable, resilient co-operative growth and rebalancing power beyond the M25 to every region and community.

Levelling up has to mean more than some pork barrel handouts to Tory target seats. And it has to be more than some well-branded Westminster funding that pits town against town, region against region – it is something more vital, more radical. It’s about power, who has it and how they use it to make decisions. For co-operators, the answer is obvious: power comes from the bottom up, so it’s time we put local communities in the driving seat.

But it’s more than just formal regional devolution – it needs us to widen ownership in our economy, so that communities can take control of their future and people have a voice in the decisions that affect them. This means a more co-operative economy, characterised by more employees owning a stake in their workplace, communities owning a stake in our energy system and high streets, and customers rather than remote shareholders and investors having a say on how business is run.

Fundamentally, we need to trust local communities to draw on their lived experiences of services and the local economy to lead change. It’s local communities who see the decline in their town centres every day – so to revitalise high streets, we need to empower those communities to buy back and breathe new life into shuttered shops.

Community-based co-operation doesn’t wait for permission – it just gets on with it. People will, and already do, work together for the benefit of their community. Delivering change from the bottom up – an approach so central to the co-operative movement – is what saw many communities through this crisis. Whether it was co-operative pubs delivering food to local elderly people, credit unions helping families avoid loan sharks, or co-op supermarkets campaigning to end holiday hunger, people have been able to count on the support of our movement when they needed it most.

At our conference this weekend, we will be hearing from so many of these examples – from Kitty’s Laundrette, a worker and community owned co-operative in Liverpool offering affordable ecological services and social space to Co-operative Care Colne Valley, challenging our broken care system to provide high quality care to older and disabled people and fair employment to staff.

When lockdowns came to an end, polling showed that 68% of people want to keep the renewed sense of community found during the crisis. But while a third of the UK public report that they know their neighbours better than they did before the pandemic, that hasn’t translated into feeling more in control of the places and decisions that affect their lives.

New figures from Power to Change and The Cares Family show that today less than a third feel like they have control over the important decisions that affect their neighbourhoods and communities, despite 63% of UK adults saying that levelling up should involve giving local people more power over the decisions that shape where they live. Only 8% of the population think national government and politicians in Westminster should have the most say over what happens in their local area.

Building community power, at its heart, means giving this new co-operative spirit the institutional support to continue before it is defeated by a return to the status quo. It is our responsibility to nurture and protect it from cuts to public services, market forces and Tory cynicism. This weekend, at our conference, we’ll be exploring how we do this, so that we can co-operate and grow stronger communities and a fairer economy together.

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