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Strong communities for a strong economy

The social and economic landscape for many communities and households across the country looks bleaker by the day but the voice of dissent and calls for an alternative are growing. They are coming from politicians, faith groups, charities, the voluntary and community sector, trade unions, local authorities and some business leaders. And they are coming from communities.

The volume needs to be turned up, and a wider coalition needs to emerge, singing from the same hymn sheet. It needs to focus on the underlying macro-economic and ideological social policies as much as on specific issues.

However, increasingly there is recognition that voice alone will not be enough. Communities – with the support of the local voluntary and community sector, charities, faith groups, local and national businesses and others – are beginning to take direct community action, exemplified by the growth in food banks, the opening of shelters for the homeless and the myriad of new self-help groups emerging.

More action is required but it is difficult for the voluntary and community sector to provide services without financial resources. The sector is keen to avoid taking over services previously funded by the state without a transfer of adequate funding from the public sector and does not wish to appear to be colluding with a reduction in public provision.

Volunteering has always made a major contribution to public services, and active programmes to encourage and facilitate volunteering are to be welcomed. However, volunteering is not a substitute for paid employment but, rather, a supplement to it. Managing volunteers also requires resources; it should not be regarded as a ‘free good’.

It is increasingly recognised that empowered communities can deliver a great deal for themselves, and that a well-resourced and empowered local voluntary and community sector can add much value. Therefore, plans designed to revive the economy and address contemporary social challenges should in part focus on communities and local voluntary and community action.

Communities and neighbourhoods comprise various mixes of residents, workers, businesses, faith groups, and formal and informal voluntary and community organisations. There is often a shared set of interests between these stakeholders but this is not automatic and should never be presumed – rather, it must be fostered. And community leaders, including ward councillors, community organisers and local governance arrangements, all have roles to play to secure a common vision and sense of direction.

There is mutuality between these stakeholders too. For example, local business employers and professional experts can support and work with local voluntary groups – providing financial but more often than not support ‘in kind’. Employers can offer employment, work experience and training to local unemployed people. And the public sector can make assets available or even transfer them to community groups.

So, while there is a strong case for immediate changes in national and indeed international economic policy and in many of the government’s social reforms, there is also much that can be achieved in communities.

Government rhetoric repeatedly focuses on the importance of communities and ‘localism’ but all too often its policies and expenditure cuts undermine those very same communities. This has to change. If the economy is to grow, many of the new jobs will come from small employers in the social, voluntary and business sectors – and they will be locally based.

Public services will be increasingly delivered by a range of public, social, third and business sector organisations and through collaborative permutations from these sectors. Some services will be co-designed and co-produced with service users – individually and collectively. Others will be developed and shaped to meet the needs of specific communities and delivered by a diverse range of community based bodies.

Of course, not all local voluntary action depends on public sector financial support. Indeed, the majority of local voluntary groups do not even wish to seek public funds. However, this is not an excuse for the public sector to withdraw resources unilaterally.

Strong resilient communities and neighbours require pro-active local authorities and central government. And much delivery of public services, taxation, redistribution and regulation has to take place at national, regional, sub-regional and local authority levels. The role of empowered communities should complement rather than substitute for effective active government at these other levels. In effect, some form of subsidiarity, which builds up from communities rather than drops down from central government, is required.

Communities are different and have their own priorities and needs. They have differing capacity and resilience. Resources are not evenly or uniformly distributed. National and local redistribution and equalisation of financial resources is essential.

In this context, a paradigm shift in favour of communities is required to mitigate the worst impact of austerity and begin to build for the future.

A strong national economy requires effective public infrastructure, social justice, opportunity for all, greater equality than at present, effective regulation, and strong responsive public services. It requires government leadership; and strong local government. It also requires citizens and communities to be empowered; and resilient communities underpinned by effective local community and voluntary action. These opportunities need to be pursued urgently as a counter to the current economic and social malaise.

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