We must empower our neighbourhoods

Residential streets in Muswell Hill. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Residential streets in Muswell Hill - Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA

As we reflect on the events of the past year and try to learn what local authorities should do differently as a result, many things come to mind. But I believe one often overlooked takeaway for politicians, at all levels, is that decisions are more often than not, best taken as close to the ground as possible.
It is no coincidence that the UK’s floundering Test and Trace system was driven from the centre, whilst the successful systems in Germany and South Korea were run by local or regional public health authorities. Here in the UK, when the public health team at a local council handles contact tracing, they reach 98% of the people they need to speak to. By contrast, the Serco call centres chosen by the national government manage just 56 per cent. It is unsurprising given councils’ superior local knowledge and connections, and their ability to tailor their response to local need, that their approach will usually be more effective than a one-size fits all approach imposed from Whitehall.

Cllr Luke Cawley-Harrison. Picture: Haringey Lib Dems

Cllr Luke Cawley-Harrison wants lessons learnt from dealing with the pandemic when rebuilding the community - Credit: Haringey LibDems

However, decentralisation should not end with local councils: they should aspire to confer decision making power on neighbourhoods and communities themselves.
The mutual aid groups that formed during the pandemic show that there is an incredible capacity for good in our neighbourhoods. To unlock this, councils must empower those neighbourhoods with the ability to make decision themselves. A promising model for this comes from the Local Trust’s Big Local which distributed National Lottery funding to some of the UK’s most deprived neighbourhoods, then gave residents in those neighbourhoods the final say over how it was spent. This process brought forward innovative projects that responded to what these areas needed rather than what outsiders thought they would need, and it engaged many new people in improving their neighbourhoods. Haringey Council ought to apply that same ethos to its own spending, and especially the revenue from its levy on developers which is ring-fenced for “community infrastructure”.
This outreach to the community must extend to local businesses too. Haringey was slow to distribute emergency Covid-19 grants because it had historically had so little engagement with Haringey’s businesses, so internal data was limited. That must never happen again.
As everyone looks to “build back better” in 2021, it is vital this is done in the way communities want. Which means it must become second nature for the council to engage with local residents, charities and businesses about how best to respond to the opportunities and threats facing them and trust them to make key decisions about how to respond.

  • Cllr Luke Cawley-Harrison (Lib Dem) is leader of the opposition on Haringey Council.