Community empowerment is at the heart of the government’s Localism Bill. On the face of it, the community rights in the bill present a massive opportunity for older people to be more involved in the future of their neighbourhoods and local services. But when we were asked by Inside Housing whether it was realistic for older people in sheltered housing to use the community right to challenge to run warden services, unfortunately we had to say no.
The community right to challenge is designed for voluntary and community groups, charities, parish councils or local authority employees to submit an Express of Interest to run any local authority service. A local authority must consider and respond to this challenge. Then, if they accept the challenge, they will conduct a procurement process. This is part of the government’s ambition to encourage greater plurality in local service providers.
Greg Clark, Decentralisation Minister, had suggested the community right to challenge could be used for wardens services in response to a direct question about the provision of wardens from Adrian Saunders MP. In theory, Greg Clark is right. The problem is that in practice the rights are not going to be simple to use.
When we were considering whether sheltered housing residents could use the community right to challenge, I started setting out a number of questions they would have to answer and processes they go through. It quickly seemed that the likeliness of success was slim. You can see for yourself – below is a map of the hurdles you would have to go through to get from conceiving the idea through to winning the tender to deliver. As it stands, there are going to have to be some dedicated people to get the community right to challenge to deliver its ambition.
The community rights are not a lost cause. Localism can and should be designed so that everyone has a chance to be involved.
As you can see from the community right to challenge map, if you were going to submit an expression of interest there are a range of skills needed. You are likely to need to know: how to set up a community organisation; do business planning; access capital or revenue funds; and engage with service users. And if you don’t have them already you need to know where to find them.
With this in mind we were pleased to see the Government amended the Bill during the House of Commons’ Report Stage to give the Secretary of State the power to provide communities with advice and assistance in relation to the Community Right to Buy and Community Right to Challenge. The question is what will this package of support look like? Can it meet all the demands that the process presents?
If the government wants localism to be inclusive, and to meet the needs of more vulnerable groups, they will need to develop these advice and assistance measures with a strong regard to equality. They need to ensure that the powers given by the Localism Bill are accessible to the whole community, including to disadvantaged areas and groups.