These are interesting times for community empowerment both north and south of the borders. What impacts are the Big Society and Localism agendas likely to make in England, and might an alternative Scottish approach prove more effective? Regeneration expert Annette Hastings tackles these questions for SURF.

How does a government make community empowerment happen?

For some people, there is an inherent contradiction in such a statement: it is not top- down government interventions which make for genuine community empowerment. Instead, empowerment is the result of an organic bottom-up process that happens despite – or even because of – a lack of state intervention.

This view, that governments undermine local collective activity, is one of the rationales underpinning the Local Government and Decentralisation Bill which is currently making its way through the Westminster Parliamentary process. Governments obstruct and undermine genuine empowerment. If ‘Big Government’ could only get out of the way, the ‘Big Society’ will flourish.

Tipping the scales?

The champion of the Localism Bill, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles, suggests that if only central and local government were less involved in ordinary people’s lives, citizens would be energized to act collectively on local issues. In the process, so this argument goes, democracy would be strengthened.

Last year, David Cameron argued that a culture change was needed so that people, “don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face, but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities”.1 To bring about such change, the Bill proposes giving the public the power to veto ‘excessive’ council tax rises. It also gives community groups the capacity to challenge a local authority’s right to run a local service, and offers the public the right to force public agencies to hold non-binding referendums on any local issue. An additional aim is to change the planning system so that it no longer inhibits the creativity and innovation inherent in local areas. In effect, the Bill aims to change the nature of the relationship between citizens and the state, by shifting the balance of power towards citizens and away from government.

A fundamental problem or two

Such ideas might indeed sound like a benign freeing up of the citizen from the fetters of the state. Arguably, however, not all neighbourhood community action is a force for good or ‘justice’. David Cameron gives the game away when he says that he hopes that communities will feel empowered “to help themselves and their own communities”.

We only have to think about NIMBYism and how the public tends to interact with the planning system to recognise that justice for one group can sometimes result in injustice for another. Wind farms and affordable housing have to go somewhere. Should the planners be compelled to listen to the loudest voices?

Some would argue that government intervention is not only about rising above the clamour and the conflict, but might sometimes be necessary as a curb to collective action. But let us assume that we do want more and better collective action. The Localism Bill imagines that there is a level playing field when it comes to a community getting organised and making a difference. We all know that there is not.

The injustice of inaction

While many communities in disadvantaged places have shown that they can get organised when there is an opportunity to be grasped at, or a threat to be rebuffed, not all have the confidence, resources and connections required to get people galvanised.

Disadvantaged communities do tend to need a helping hand – and this is where an enabling state comes in. Perhaps the key role for government to play is in enabling those with less to demand more. This means, for example, putting resources into community development; stepping in, not standing back.

A different approach for Scotland?

The Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill is expected to be put before the Scottish Parliament in autumn 2013. It provides an opportunity for Scotland to take a different path from the one being taken south of the border. The signs are that it will.

The 2007 Community Empowerment Statement places government in a supportive ‘enabling’ role, and the reaction to the Christie Commission on public service reform in Scotland suggests that government will play a key role in making services work for local people. Active government support will always be necessary to make community empowerment happen, and to ensure that it happens for those who need it the most.