Sean Creighton lists the questions to ask local politicians on their apparent interest in community action, and highlights the gap between rhetoric and practice.
“A key element in the Party political battle leading up to May’s local and national elections was over developing a new role for community and voluntary organisations in running services and in building local civil society. There is much talk about localism and mutuality and the former Labour Government cited Lambeth as a good example of a Council that was developing being a ‘co-operative Council’. David Cameron’s Big Society is a Conservative way of talking about what Labour claimed to be fostering through new mutuality, social enterprise, etc.
Many people active in community and voluntary organisations believe that Government and local government policies severely damage civil society, turn people from citizens into atomised individuals and consumers, and treat community and voluntary organisations with contempt, ignoring them, or trying to erode their independence through the commissioning and contract culture and bureaucratic monitoring requirements which are tanatamount to detailed control. The dramatic cuts programme of the new ConDem Government will make the situation worse, and large numbers of funded community and voluntary groups are likely to collapse.
Alongside anti-cuts campaigns, we need to be clear about the post election agenda for advocating the role and community and voluntary groups and defend their existence and independence. Most community organisations are small grassroots groups which receive little or no support from local or central government. They are not going to adversely effected by funding cuts, but will be by the increase in the amount of work they will have to undertake to support the individuals and families who will be the victims of service and benefit cuts.
Part of that agenda needs to be arguing for the development of mechanisms for local people to be engaged in constructing the solutions to the problems in their neighbourhoods, and to engage meaningfully in the plans for their neighbourhoods being devised by central, regional and local government, landowners and developers.
How these issues are raised in the debates with MPs and local Councils will vary according to the local issues. All the three major Parties’ MPs are committed to Manifestos so the room for them to give explicit commitments to suggestions from local people and their community groups is limited. But there is scope to keep pressure on them and for key questions to be asked. Here are questions that can be addressed to local Councillors. They can be adapted for MPs.
Community Action. Please explain your view of the importance of community action and outline what you are doing to ensure Council support.
Community Groups. Please explain what you understand as being the role of grassroots community groups.
Strengthening Community Action and Groups. What arguments are you putting in Council debates to strengthen community action and groups without undermining their independence and their role in challenging Council policies and service delivery?
Redevelopment. What methods are you advocating for improving the way the Council engages local people and community groups in overseeing the development of overall development planning frameworks and the planning applications submitted under them?
Community Engagement. Are you pressing for the establishment of neighbourhood forums at which you would be required to take part?
Community Engagement. How are you ensuring that the views of local people, who cannot attend meetings and who do not have access to the internet, are being taken into account at meetings of neighbourhood and area forums?
Planning Consultation. What are you doing to improve the way the Planning Department runs its consultations?
Relationship with CVS. How are you ensuring that Council Departments cease to ignore or marginalise local community and voluntary organisations, or treat them as off-shoots of the Council to be subject to detailed bureaucratic control?
Relationship with CVS. Will you propose that the Scrutiny Committee reviews the way in which Council Departments work with community and voluntary organisations to ensure the development of meaningful engagement and partnership on an equal footing and reduce the number of bureaucratic requirements and the degree of bureaucratic control?
Participation in Area Forums. Are you committed to attending at least 60% of the meetings of the area forum, and to at least you or one of your Ward colleagues are in attendance at every meeting?
Developing an Overview of the Needs of Your Ward. Will you convene a meeting of all community and voluntary organisations in your Ward to discuss their concerns about the way Council Departments treat them and their views on the local issues, with a view to compiling an agenda of matters you will take up with Council officers, at Committees, in your Party group, and through questions at full Council meetings, and to agree with those organisations the regularity with which you will hold progress review meetings with them?
Local Businesses. What are you doing to ensure that the Council is working with local businesses to strengthen their economic viability, and their contribution to meeting the needs of local residents, including protecting them from the pressures on them from unreasonable increases in rent and from the activities of the giant supermarkets?
Sustainable Communities Act. What are you doing to ensure that a greater number of local residents can contribute their views to funding priorities in their neighbourhoods under the Sustainable Communities Act?
Section 106. What are you doing to ensure that the Council’s demands on developers for Section 106 contributions be drawn up with local residents, local community and voluntary groups and businesses to give more priority to building community and local business support, and less to general Council and Transport for London’s activities?
Sean Creighton is a supporter of the Coalition with many years experience in the sector. He is Secretary of the Riverside Community Development Trust and Lady Margaret Hall Settlement operating in Kennington and Vauxhall. He is an active local, community and social action historian. His latest publication is Organising Together in Lambeth. A Historical Review of Co-operative and Mutual Social Action (History & Social Action Publications. £2, plus post from firstname.lastname@example.org).