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A local, community powered future?

Kate Swade

Two timely and interesting reports came out this week, looking at how community organisations – particularly those that own assets – have responded to COVID-19. Kate takes a deeper dive…

COVID-19 and the lockdown have landed most of us right back in our communities, and brought the “local” into focus for maybe more of us than ever before.

The amazing surge of self-organised mutual aid groups at the beginning of the crisis has highlighted how grassroots organisations can both respond more quickly and in more personalised ways than the state – but what about more established community organisations? What role have they played in the crisis and what can we learn from it?

Locality have just published “We Were Built for This”, a report outlining its members’ response to the pandemic. Community Land Scotland and the Community Woodlands Association also released a report recently – “Built in Resilience”.  

Both show in a really compelling way how existing community infrastructure – in the form of locally rooted, often asset owning organisations, has been vital to coordinating crisis response. Local systems are often functioning remarkably well, with collaboration replacing the competition too common under competitive tendering and competition for resources. In the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, the relative density of social enterprises (the region has 21% of Scotland’s social enterprises compared to 6% of the population) has provided an infrastructure to enable rapid and agile community support, helping even those in very remote areas meet their basic needs. 

Both reports paint a vivid picture of what a more locally and socially focussed, community powered future could look like. They show how community organisations are genuinely agile – with many of them completely rearranging how they work in a very short period. I know this as a trustee of Toynbee Hall in east London – where the team is genuinely, radically innovating every day.  The community sector is too often seen as a poor relation in terms of ways of working and effectiveness (and lumped in with much of the poor practice in the larger charity and NGO sector). We know that is not the case. As the Built in Resilience report puts it:

 

Community bodies across the land came up with plans that would literally save lives, giving the lie to the common assumption that the word ‘community’ indicates something amateur or lacking fleetness of foot. These bodies’ roots went deep into local life. None more so than those which already owned local land, buildings or other assets.
- David Ross, in Built-in Resilience

There’s a window of opportunity here to move into a new, community powered, future, where Whitehall resists its centralising tendencies and instead invests in local networks and infrastructure. The Locality report calls community organisations “cogs of connection” – key nodes in a network that bridges on the ground action and the systems of power. This role is vital but too often overlooked, or only happens by accident. It could be the basis of much more dynamic local economies and democracies better able to respond in times of crisis or emergency. 

Both reports make a strong case for the need to invest in what’s been there all along – the “power of community”. Public policy needs to catch up with what’s actually happening on the ground. In England and Wales there are calls to bolster the promised Community Ownership Fund with Dormant Assets funds, to properly capitalise community organisations, and in Scotland there is a plea to extend the Scottish Land Fund. We would strongly support both of these; the need for working and investment capital is one of the things that holds common good land users of all sorts back. 

There’s an irony in that many of those organisations who have “done the right thing” and developed trading income, moving away from dependency on grants and donations, have been hit harder. Both reports are still strongly in favour of social enterprise, but recognise that some things are just not market-driven. If funders and governments want to see genuine long term change, recognising that with substantial, long term grant support to the right organisations will be key. 

art at Abriachan Forest Trust
art at Abriachan Forest Trust

There’s also an important acknowledgement that communities of colour have been hardest hit by the virus, and when combined with the lack of assets held by those communities, we’d argue that some of that funding needs to be ringfenced (perhaps through supporting initiatives like the Black Land and Spatial Justice Fund and Resourcing Racial Justice Fund). 

The Scottish report draws a clear link between remembrance of the trauma of the Highland Clearances and support for community land ownership in the Highlands and Islands especially. Likewise our work on the Urbanising in Place programme has highlighted that more recent political and financial crises in their countries mean that partners in Latvia and Argentina have a much more immediate understanding of the need for resilient food systems. In England we had not had to face a crisis of this scale in most of our lifetimes, and we rarely talk about histories of dispossession and exclusion from the land but they exist, both for people with deep roots here and for those with roots elsewhere. The experiences of this period may offer a way into new but overdue conversations about what “local”, “community” and “ownership” mean and who needs to be involved.

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