CURAs Ines Newman writes about the independent London Communities Commission (LCC), which is tasked with looking into how citizens and communities in London’s most deprived areas might be strengthened and supported in these times of austerity.
The LCC was set up in September 2015, with eleven Commissioners from the private, public and voluntary sectors, convened by the Paddington Development Trust and supported by London Funders and City Bridge. Its set up is in response to growing concerns that, without external support and the active engagement of local people, the quality of life there may continue to deteriorate to levels that not only destroy the well-being of tens of thousands of citizens, but pose a threat to the social and economic sustainability of the whole capital.
Local authorities are facing a challenging period with a reduction of central Government grant of 44% in London from 2010-2015. The Spending Review announced further cuts and by the end of this Parliament local authority spending capacity will be lower that of any time since 1948. Not only has this led to a decline in services and under-investment in social housing but research has shown that in areas of greatest need the public sector cuts have led to a decline in bidding for foundation funding and a decline in volunteering. This is because austerity has resulted in a decline in the number of small voluntary and community organisations as well as in a reduction in the capacity of those that survive.
The Commission has highlighted the crucial role of citizens within deprived local London communities. Without local residents being involved in designing the services, which are meant to meet their needs, unsatisfactory solutions will be developed. In this time of austerity, it is essential to draw on potential resources that local communities offer in terms of knowledge, relationships, skills, and their passion and enthusiasm about making a difference to the area in which they live. Citizens are the key assets to healthier social and economic outcomes across London.
With strong leadership, citizens in neighbourhoods can influence new ways of working which not only reduce isolation and ensure access to services but also further develop self-management skills and capacity to increase personal and collective independence. These ways of working can also deal with problems before they become severe: they are the fences on the cliff not the ambulances at the bottom. By identifying and intervening early costs can be saved later. The Commission gathered evidence around new, community-led, ways of working, illustrated in our Report of Evidence. The Commission were excited about these positive initiatives which clearly show how power can be devolved to citizens in areas where there is some sense of belonging and how effective this can be if the devolution is supported by the funders, public, private, and voluntary sector.
However, individual citizens have limited power to change the world. In order to achieve real empowerment, they need to be able to build local support structures through which they can work together and release the value of individual and collective creativity. New citizen-led ways of working also require changes in the way local communities are funded and the terms by which resources get to the acute areas of growing poverty in London.
Commissioning, for example, needs to be radically reconfigured. More than 50 per cent of council spending is on goods and services bought from the private and community and voluntary sectors. Billions of pounds are invested in procurement by councils. In an attempt to save money on commissioning, councils are joining up with other local authorities and contracts are getting bigger and more complex. The result is that only very large organisations have the capacity and financial security to enable them to bid for such contracts. Four major government suppliers – Atos, Capita, G4S and Serco – between them held government contracts worth around £4 billion in 2012-13. The voluntary sector holds only 9 per cent of local contracts by value and 5.6 per cent of central contracts.
The large companies and national voluntary groups who get these contracts sub-contract to smaller voluntary organisation with tight numeric targets on outputs and little money to cover any overheads. Money is paid to the small organisations on results creating cash flow problems and transferring risk. The small organisations have no ability to alter the contract and outputs according to local needs. The funding does not give them the opportunity to build community capacity. They inevitably seek to fulfil their targets by first dealing with cases where they know they can achieve success- picking the low hanging fruit. Those with complex needs are only offered standard services and little time is invested in addressing their needs. Trust and relationships between service providers and those whose needs they are trying to address is broken down.
But commissioning does not need to be like this and there is plenty of evidence of better practice which we discuss in our report. We have amassed a wealth of evidence and are in a position to make recommendations to various bodies and institutions to tackle priority unmet needs and disadvantage in London’s most stressed neighbourhoods. In our recommendations for the Mayoral candidates we suggest that the new Mayor sets out a clear vision and ambition for the future of London to tackle poverty, deprivation, poor health and the increasing polarisation that threatens London’s sustainability. In particular we are recommending that the Mayor, working with the London Boroughs, defines a number of priority areas on the basis of need (Community Action Neighbourhoods). In each neighbourhood, the Mayor would assist the local community in establishing a citizen-led local Joint Action Board (JAB) with partners which would agree the local priority unmet needs together with the actions and outcomes to be achieved over a 5-7 year programme; it would administer, deliver, monitor and be publicly accountable for the programme in a way that ensured the involvement of smaller voluntary organisations. The Mayor would also realise new and imaginative funding mechanisms to support this new approach. Papers for the statutory providers, the corporate sector and the voluntary and community sector itself will follow shortly.
Ines Newman is an Honorary Visiting Senior Research Associate at the Department for Politics and Public Policy at DMU and a core member of the CURA team. Ines is a leading expert in local government and public policy and a trustee of the Paddington Development Trust. Her recent book ‘Reclaiming Local Democracy‘ sets out the principles to inform a progressive future for local government.