UPDATED: 29 NOVEMBER 2012
IS THIS A REAL RIGHT?
Maeve Broderick examines whether the new Community Right to Challenge is going to make a difference
The Community Right to Challenge was introduced when the Localism Act came into force in June 2012. It will allow communities to ultimately become responsible for local services that they believe could be run more effectively by them. Other associated rights introduced by the act are the Right to Bid and the Right to Build. These latest rights are still very new and much is needed in the way of increasing understanding and interest in its implementation among community groups.
So do these community rights really have the potential to successfully empower communities? Are they a step in the right direction for decentralisation or merely woolly, unfeasible ideas, flimsily supported by rhetoric on partnership and communities? Or in fact, does the Community Right to Challenge represent a deliberate attempt by the government to remove its responsibilities to local areas, ushering in privatisation of small companies via the backdoor?
On 24 October, Rory Stewart the MP for Penrith and the Border, hosted a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the issues concerning the Right to Challenge. He was joined by Ben Llewellyn, deputy director of decentralisation and Big Society at Communities and Local Government, Karen Mellanby, director of programmes at Locality and representatives from Uppingham Town Council and West Bletchley Council who debated these questions.
Mr Llewellyn declared that the Right to Challenge represents a “culture change in the way it devolves power to communities and local authorities, so they are able to influence their area and shape their services”.
He continued: “The government now recognises the importance of a partnership between the residents, community/local (parish and town) councils and principal authorities.”
The Right to Challenge allows power to filter down all the way to the community, not just to the local authority, allowing residents to be proactive agents in initiating different approaches to local facilities. If people have innovative ideas on how to run services, they should be listened to, invited to present their plan, and if successful, be involved in every step of the process.
Ms Melanby stated that since the Right to Challenge was introduced, her organisation had received 600 enquires from different sources, asking for more clarification and advice. Sixty percent of queries, she detailed, came from third sector organisations and the remainder from principal authorities, local councils and individuals. She said that although it is too early to identify trends, the statistics show “interest across the board”. However, she suggested that principal authorities are cautious in advancing due to what she described as “grey areas” in the legislation. Moreover, representatives from the local councils present at the meeting noted that although many local councils are indeed looking to secure services from principal authorities, the actual implementation of this becomes difficult when the capacity of the local council is small and the local councillors are volunteers. So although the rights are seen to be in the interest of the councils and their communities, the capacity of the councils may pose an actual challenge and obstacle in itself.
It has also been argued by the rights’ opponents that the new laws could potentially be damaging to local communities. A successful challenge of a service would have to undergo a procurement process, leaving it open to private sector companies as well as community groups. Assuming the private company bids higher and is successful, the local community is once again left without involvement in their local area. Control over the community thus is held not by local or central authorities, but privately owned businesses.
Only time will tell how effective these rights will be. Early indications show a definite interest from local councils and the third sector to give power and independence to their communities to improve services and infrastructure. However, there are warning signs concerning the extent to which local councils and voluntary organisations have the capacity to successfully change and takeover amenities. In the long run this may open the door for the privatisation of services, isolating the local community further.