I went to an excellent and interesting conference run by the Environmental Law Foundation earlier this week on community empowerment. As seems to be a running theme with this blog, this is another often-used but possibly seldom-understood phrase – a buzzword which could be so much more.

In the last couple of years the government has, to give it credit, produced some legislation to accompany the continual talk of devolving power that has persisted ever since Scottish and Welsh independence. The Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 and the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 have established a ‘duty to involve’ local people in decision-making, including under-represented groups, and a ‘duty to promote democracy’ and increase public understanding of governance structures.

The meaning and impact of this legislation is still percolating through local government, partly because councils are large organisations and this is a major policy shift, but also because the terms of these duties have been phrased deliberately vaguely. This is ostensibly to allow local councils to interpret and innovate, but there is some concern that this will end up perpetuating a model of local consultative governance which, at the moment (from what I read and also from personal experience both as a resident and as a consultant) largely favours representatives of formalised community groups with specific – by no means usually bad, but nevertheless specific – policy agendas.

The Sustainable Communities Act aims at ‘double devolution’ – from central government to local councils, and onwards to local people. Councils ‘opting in’ (last year I helped coordinate a petition to Kingston Council to urge them to do so) must use citizens’ panels of some description to generate ideas for national legislation that would help make the local community more environmentally, economically, socially or democratically sustainable – from tax breaks for local green or independent businesses to special protection for allotment land. Ideas from areas all over the country are whittled down to a shortlist by a board appointed by the Local Government Association and then presented to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (currently John Denham), who must enact them or tell Parliament a good reason why not. Information, including proposals submitted, can be viewed here. You can sign up to support the campaign here.

A project on the Act has found that panels were much more successful at submitting a large number of well-developed ideas before the deadline when they consisted of a new and often larger set of local citizens than when an existing group of customary, quasi-professional ‘stakeholders’ was used. Hopefully this new research will influence the direction of local and national consultation policy in the future.

One thing I didn’t realise is that the Duty to Involve allows councils to devolve budgets to ward level. From a quick Google search, the use of this appears to be confined largely to street maintenance budgets, and within that, to capital spending; of course, money spent by agencies other than the Council is not involved. The Sustainable Communities Act goes further, stipulating that Local Spending Reports be published that detail all money spent in a given local authority area, by all public bodies – including quangos previously unencumbered with the need to be accountable to particular communities in this way. Once spending levels are established, the proposals process detailed above can be used to request the transfer of particular budgets to bring them under democratic control.

Unlike the proposals process, which is making significant progress, this commitment on Local Spending Plans has met with some difficulty. According to Steve Shaw of LocalWorks, who spoke at the Environmental Law Foundation conference I attended, the reports released thus far mainly included known spending by bodies such as councils and Primary Care Trusts.

Government inaction is a major threat to what, in a world where financial resources are the biggest constituent of power, may be the most truly empowering initiative that has been seen for some time. Of course, it doesn’t solve all our problems: there’s still the issue of how communities get together and decide how to spend what’s available. But unlike the participatory budgeting pilots held around the country from 2007 (see www.participatorybudgeting.org.uk) there is a sense that we could be moving away from tokenistic and towards genuine budgets. After all, ’empowerment’ is about getting things done… right?

PS: Please consider helping the Act carry on working – whether there is regime change or not – and making sure that there are proper Local Spending Reports in the future by lobbying your MP: http://www.localworks.org/node/76. I’ve also been reading more about the work of the Environmental Law Foundation – another organisation well worth checking out / considering supporting!