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Devolution could be transformational if leaders have long-term vision

We are constantly told that devolution is needed to give power back to local communities. While an admirable statement, it implies that communities are currently disengaged and unable to offect change. This is not the case. Local communities are already actively shaping the places in which they live. What’s needed from devolution is greater investment in building social capital to allow communities to do what they do best more effectively – find innovative solutions to local challenges.

Those leading on the devolution agenda could learn a lot from existing initiatives such as the Department for Communities and Local Government’s First Steps and Community Economic Development programmes, or Big Local, a £200M programme managed by Local Trust and funded by the Big Lottery. Here, local people in 150 areas in England come together to take responsibility for priorities for their area. This is firmly resident-led, based on an inherent belief that those who live in an area have the capacity to identify and address their own local issues. Big Local takes a contemporary approach to development, recognising that building community capacity is vital to ensure projects are sustainable. The second differentiator is that the areas have until 2027 to spend the money they have been allocated.

It is this long-term view which is essential for devolution to be a success. Building social capital and empowering local communities must not be subject to short-term political and budgetary whims. We need to ensure that programmes designed to benefit the community have longevity beyond the next election. For this to work local authorities, as well as national government, will need to let go of both power and money. They must allow communities and grassroots organisations in their area to take responsibility for solving local challenges, support them to do this and act as equal delivery partners.

This requires those acting at a local government level to believe that grassroots community organisations are the ones who can genuinely affect real change. As Big Local Partnership plans are demonstrating, grassroots groups are able to get to the heart of community needs and develop activities across multiple policy areas, from housing standards to healthcare to entrepreneurship. Devolution is a huge opportunity for local government to achieve its challenging goals, but it must look beyond the town hall.

Most of all, for devolution to be a success we need visionary leaders at all levels. We need members of Parliament, mayoral candidates, local councillors and community representatives to champion devolution as a way, perhaps the only way, to achieve genuine transformation. Too much of the current discussion is focused on the details of processes and policies, which leaves most people feeling uninspired and disengaged. We need leaders with real vision and passion who can build bridges between different groups, who will encourage creativity and take action, and who can concede power as well as use it responsibly. Ultimately, we need leaders who can look beyond what is achievable or popular in the next few years to what a community could become in the long term, and then give everything they have to achieving that goal.

This article was first published by the Institute for Social Renewal, University of Newcastle