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A British contributor to e-urban writes:

Despite the turbulence of the Blair years in th UK government, one of the policies that has been carried forward with quiet persistence is that of local community engagement and empowerment.

strongprospcomm%206c20%20UKGov.jpgPerhaps the very fact that this is not an issue that catches the headlines in the way that Iraq or the National Health Service do, has protected it from too many shifting trends. On the other hand it has not progressed as fast as its advocates would have liked.

The big question in this field for the next couple of years is whether community empowerment will be further increased and make a decisive impact under Gordon Brown or will be pushed aside by other issues. There are signals in both directions.

On the positive side, the long-gestated new framework for local government which includes a duty to involve local citizens in the authorities' work, and a number of mechanisms for doing so, is scheduled to come into operation from April 2008. Less impressively, the resources allocated to new forms of citizen involvement in the health service are very small.

And negatively, a large slice of money generated by the national lottery for 'good causes' has been diverted to plug the ever-growing gap in the cost of preparing the London Olympics, with immediate effect in slashing what was one of the most widespread sources of funding for local community groups.

Much may depend on what direction is taken by the Department for Communities and Local Government under a Brown administration. Created little more than a year ago out of what was formerly the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, this is the first Ministry which has announced 'communities' as its priority and which contains a unit dedicated to developing policies to improve 'community empowerment'.

Technically, empowerment is judged by whether citizens say, in local surveys, that they feel able to influence what goes on in their locality, and whether they participate in local decision-making through such activities as contacting councillors, signing petitions, going on demonstrations or taking on representative roles. But behind this lie the larger questions of what motivates and enables people to be active in these ways, whether local groups are vigorous and effective, the state of social capital and local conditions as a whole.

The issues that most animate local interest are mainly, as of course in all countries, the fundamental conditions of life - safety, housing, employment, health, education and transport. A theoretical issue with great practical consequences is whether deliberate policies of 'empowerment' can materially affect these issues, or are merely a cosmetic 'feel-good' factor that can slightly mollify them.

The Blair-Brown government has prided itself on producing 'evidence-based' policy, and Treasury allocations come in three-year tranches tied to objective targets. A new three-year settlement is imminent. It is clear that improvements in housing, health, employment etc are themselves empowering, but it has yet to be shown by objective evidence that improvements in empowerment, in areas where people are particularly disempowered, can either take place despite the poor material conditions or, ideally, can contribute to improvements both in material conditions and morale.

Evidence, however, is beginning to emerge, particularly in the 39 'New Deal for Communities' neighbourhoods, covering the 2% most deprived populations, which control considerable extra resources through local committees with strong resident involvement. Here the latest evidence shows that material improvements, population involvement and morale have markedly improved hand in hand. But it has taken, so far, seven years and a lot of money.

Empowerment advocates will be trying to find ways to produce comparable effects in much larger areas with more thinly spread money over the coming years. And the Department for Communities and Local Government will aim to transmit good practice lessons through all local authorities and their local partner bodies. Specialist local animateurs ('community development workers'), who have long been dedicated to this agenda, are still too thin on the ground, and there are no specific plans to increase their number - rather they tend to grow indirectly through other policies, precisely because there has been, till recently, no independent 'empowerment' narrative in the policy discourse.

So a critical factor will be whether the community workers' experience and the new 'evidence-based' lessons can be injected into the remit, management and working style of the army of other front line local workers on social issues - teachers, nurses, doctors, health visitors, regeneration project leaders and many others. (See the British Government White Paper: The Community Development Challenge [Link Updated 21.6.07])

We hope to revisit this scenario about two months into Gordon Brown's premiership to assess whether momentum is increasing.

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