As I write it is a year since the UK voted by a slim margin to leave the EU; the Conservative government has pledged £1b to the DUP to support a confidence and supply deal that may or may not keep it in power for 5 years; Brexit negotiations have started in a faltering way with a “Could do Better” response from Brussels to the UK’s preliminary offer; there are more questions than answers about the Grenfell Tower fire and the safety of citizens living in social housing throughout the country and to top it all there’s a fear of continuing terrorist attacks. People are feeling isolated from, and misunderstood by, their elected leaders.
At times like these elements in the media lyricise about an emotional response floridly described as the “Dunkirk Spirit”. We are expected to come together, support each other and make the best of bad times. But this isn’t 1940 and neither is it an Ealing Studios propaganda film. This is 21st century life in a rapidly changing economic, demographic and cultural landscape and we are living it.
The absence of coherent national leadership amidst tragic events has left an opportunity for the devolved mayors – Andy Burnham in Manchester and Sadiq Khan in London - to fill the hiatus and show considered leadership during dysfunctional times for their constituents. Local action appears to have been much more instantaneous, practical and considered than the national response.
Events and reactions to them have led me to question whether we even need national government, at least in its current guise, at all any longer. It seems to me that people are most empowered and resilient when they come together at a community level to support one another. Just think of the spontaneous and overwhelming response to the dispossessed in the Grenfell fire and the injured in the Manchester concert atrocity. But this visceral response can be much more powerful and of practical use when it is managed and focussed appropriately.
Let’s look to France. In a bad summer it’s been heartening to watch Emmanuel Macron and his “movement” (not a political party) En Marche seize control of the presidency and also the legislature. Political novices including firemen, nurses and teachers now fill the ranks of the Deputies. This all could yet turn to chaos. But maybe Macron is on to something here and government could become less confrontational and more consensual, less run by career politicians and more by people who are very much closer to the aspirations, fears and challenges of the communities that they represent. He has a mountain to climb. We should wish him success.
Meanwhile, back here there are more questions than answers about the impact of Brexit on all of us, but particularly upon those vulnerable communities that have been reliant on EU funds for their regeneration. There have been relatively muted calls for the Government to guarantee a UK Social Fund that continues to support these communities. It feels as though we are sleep walking in to a very big mess. It’s good therefore to report that there are positive responses to our predicament.
I particularly want to flag another “movement” called the Peoples’ Powerhouse. This seeks to re-focus the Northern Powerhouse - a predominantly pale, male and stale entity with a Chair, George Osborne, who has resigned his northern parliamentary seat and now edits the (London) Evening Standard - and make it relevant to local communities. Its’ premise is that “people regeneration is as important as place regeneration”. As the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham has said: “If we are to build a real Northern Powerhouse it must be equally shaped by the voices of all people…(putting) the voices of women, young people and our diverse communities at its heart.”
The Peoples’ Powerhouse objective is to build a long-term movement for change that supports good and inclusive growth in the North, with a specific focus on people as the key to growth. It intends to harness the combined skills and leverage of the public sector, voluntary, community, civic leaders and business, putting people and communities at the heart of investment and growth plans, and no longer at the periphery.
A website will be the hub of the community enabling organisations and individuals to share best practice across the UK and to learn from the wider sector. There they will find research and policy updates, evaluations and other learning resources, news of networking opportunities, coaching, mentoring, training and events. All this is designed to enable organisations to up their game, learn, enhance good practice, scale and replicate where appropriate, and ultimately serve their communities more efficiently. It’s a grassroots approach that it is hoped will grow organically. Time will tell whether it can flourish but early signs are that there is an encouraging level of commitment to the idea and an energy to push forward on the practicalities.
I am watching En Marche and the Peoples Powerhouse closely and with considerable interest in the hope that these “interesting times” through which we are living have created the building blocks for real, sustained and successful community action, because it’s my contention that it’s up to every one of us to contribute to and shape the communities in which we live and aspire to thrive.
The Peoples’ Powerhouse website will be up and running shortly. You can learn more at an event on 12th July in Doncaster. Click here for details.