All Power to the Communities! How a Green Council would act.
The next year may see the first Greens led councils, most probably in Norwich and Brighton. In Scotland, there is every possibility that Greens will become junior partners in an Edinburgh administration in 2012. I hope that a Green Council will prioritise a fundamental change in the direction and purpose of local government. Local government started as a free association of grandees seeking to create an infrastructure for growth. Paternalists such as Joseph Chamberlain transformed cities like Birmingham by creating the conditions for industrial expansion. The power of local government was used to the advantage of big business.
The growth of Labour in local government was marked by a municipalism that sought to defend workers from the ravages of the free market by creating a bulwark. This bulwark provided housing (Herbert Morrison is often cited as having sought to “build the Tories out of London” as leader of London County Council), libraries, health (before the NHS) and a whole range of social provision. This was an important precursor of the welfare state introduced after 1945.
In the 1980s Local Government became a battleground. Conservatives sought to roll back the boundaries of the state by privatising core functions (especially housing). Labour’s New Municipal Left led moves on LGBT rights, promoted women’s rights and tried to reduce the impact of the Thatcherite labour market reforms. What do Greens have to offer that’s different to this?
While Labour has championed the role of local government itself, and Conservatives have argued that privatisation is the way forward (see EasyBarnet – the proposal to run Barnet Council like a budget airline), Greens believe in the power of community. Of course, there are important concerns around social and environmental justice, but at the core of a Green strategy should be democratic community empowerment. This would mean that the local authority would devolve spending decisions to local groups. Given this power, people will become much more engaged with their communities – it will allow people to make changes to their communities, and to see those changes followed through. This will profoundly change the way our cities run. It will put power back in the hands of people. This isn’t just about doing things better – it has the potential to re-engage people with politics. This would mean funding community and voluntary groups to create better communities, rather than funding an unwieldy civic bureaucracy.
The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett suggests that it is robust, resilient, cohesive communities that deliver the best outcomes on health, education, justice and a range of other areas of public policy. The way to build cohesive communities is to ensure that it is communities that form the heart of local decision making. It is clear that both Labour municipalism and Conservative privatisation have failed. We have a crisis in democracy because corporations motivated by profit cannot provide essential public services. Too often public sector provision has produced a self serving ethic amongst senior public sector managers. It’s time for something new. Some academics have called it neo-communitarianism.
Greens could use local authorities to put community at the heart of decision making. But what would this look like? The Climate Challenge Fund and land buy outs under the 2003 Land Reform Act give good examples of the way in which communities are successful than the public sector or private alternatives. The Climate Challenge Fund has prompted over 200 community groups to take action on climate change. It has funded exciting projects that are renowned around the world. And it has brought people together in a way that means dealing with climate change is a community priority. The crofting community buy-outs have transformed some of the more deprived communities in Scotland. By giving communities the ability to raise money against an asset, and allowing community benefit from economic activity, islands like Eigg and Gigha have been transformed socially, economically and environmentally.
We must seek to reproduce this throughout Scotland. I’ll go into specific proposals in later posts, but there are some areas that stand out in giving communities a chance to succeed:
– A move to devolve budgets to communities over the period of a council administration (4 or 5 years);
– Transfer of Council and state owned assets to communities;
– More power for communities in determining how budgets are spent, where they haven’t or can’t be devolved;
– More direct control over the benefit derived from community sentences;
– Endowments for communities to spend as determined;
– The right to recall Councillors and officials;
– Access to Local Authority resources;
– A dividend from savings derived from preventing social problems like offending;
– Co-ownership of local facilities such as schools, community centres and social care provision.
There are a range of other policy areas where a radical democratic empowerment of communities will not be enough to deliver the scale of change Greens will demand. I will come back to these. But the good society, the good life and a better world will be underpinned by re-engaging people in their communities and so in politics.