A selection of images representing communities.
|Date of speech||17 July 2008|
|Location||Great Russell Street Hotel, London|
|Event summary||Empowerment in Action: Accoutability - Consultation - Leadership|
Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version.
It's a pleasure to be here - and to see so many people interested in empowerment, up for playing an active role in their community, and keen to be part of the debate about where we go from here.
"Democracy should be a daily practice, living, vibrant and diverse, strengthened by the contribution of every member of society."
Last week the Government launched a White Paper - Communities in Control, Real People, Real Power.
It has a simple aim - passing more power, influence and control direct to local communities.
I've always believed that democracy should be more than just putting a cross in a box every five years.
And I've always believed that politics should be more than just the preserve a well-meaning elite.
Democracy should be a daily practice, living, vibrant and diverse, strengthened by the contribution of every member of society.
And politics works best when it puts real power in the hands of people.
Giving people a real say helps improve public services. No-one knows better what the people want from their police, their NHS or their schools than the people themselves. Often you find the public are very careful about spending public money, and canny about getting a bigger bang for their buck.
Giving people real power and a real say is also the only way we can get to grips with complex challenges like climate change or childhood obesity. The key lies in people changing their behaviour. If people don't feel they have a say, it's hard to get them motivated. But give them a real sense of control, and they see it's in their power to make a difference.
And finally, I believe plugging people in to local decision-making is key to bridging the democratic gap. People aren't apathetic about political issues - the huge impact of campaigns such as Make Poverty History shows that, along with the fact that three quarters of us volunteer at least once a year. But the formal structures of local democracy turn people off, with turnout at local elections languishing around 35 per cent.
All in all, empowerment isn't just the right thing to do. It's the smart thing to do.
That's why I believe the White Paper marks an important moment for local democracy.
It's all about turning the ideas of empowerment, engagement and consultation, into very practical action.
It sets out our plans for funding, support, guidance and legislation in a whole range of areas. I want to highlight some key points.
We're opening a new £70m fund for 'community builders', social enterprises that play a hugely important role in their neighbourhoods. Last Wednesday I visited one called Cambridge House in Southwark. Based in a 120-year old hall owned by the local community, it provides services itself - including a summer playscheme for local kids - but it also rents space to a whole range of other local groups, from carer support networks, to Alcoholics Anonymous, to advocacy for people with learning difficulties. With the new £70m fund, we can help more places around the country follow Cambridge House's lead - acquire an asset, develop stable income streams, and be more confident about their long-term future. That way they can spend more time developing links with other local charities, less time worrying about where the next cheque is coming from.
We're providing support and guidance for more local authorities to explore techniques such as asset transfer, or participatory budgeting. These are ideas that have been around for a while, here and there. Cirencester's historic open air swimming pool was transferred into the hands of local people 35 years ago, ensuring it remained well-loved and well-used, rather than falling into disuse and disrepair. In Porto Alegre in Brazil they started letting people vote on how budgets should be spent nearly 20 years ago. But in the past year we've seen interest really start to surge Nearly 40 local authorities are now getting support to explore the potential of asset transfer. 22 are leading the way on participatory budgeting. I hope their experiences will inspire many more and help this kind of practice become the rule, rather than the exception, in the future.
We're introducing a new duty on local councils to promote democracy, so that everyone understands the difference their vote can make. And politics isn't a dirty word. We need to rehabilitate it. That's why we plan to relax the Widdicombe rules so that more council officers are also able to play a role in local politics.
Finally, some people say that participative democracy undermines representative democracy. I don't buy it for a minute. The two strengthen and enrich each other. As a local leader, the more you understand local people's needs and concerns, the better a job you can do. And the health of local democracy requires on us getting the best people for the job. That's why we're supporting new programmes to get more people interested in standing as councillors. Several town halls already run shadowing schemes for young people so they can see what being a councillor's about. Some have young mayor schemes. I want to see more. In Whitehall I'm hoping to start shadowing with Government Ministers, too.
So what next?
When we launched the White Paper, someone asked me in parliament, when people get up tomorrow, will they feel the difference?
Now I have a great faith in the power of politics, but even I think it's a tall order to expect a white paper to revolutionise life overnight.
I think it would be more realistic to judge its impact over years, not months.
I will count it a success if five years from now we have more people coming out to vote, more people understanding local politics, more people having a real say in decisions they care about, more people stepping up to stand as local councillors.
But it's not enough just to print a White Paper. Not nearly enough, if it doesn't lead to practical change that people can see and feel and touch - especially given the urgency of issues such as stark and long-term decline in party membership.
So in a sense the hard work starts today. So I hope plenty of you will be inspired to read the White Paper, to see how it could make a difference to you, and to take up some of the new opportunities it offers. Whether it's petitioning your council, applying for new funding for your community group, or standing for your council.
I also want to make sure that in Whitehall we recognise the potential of putting people in control. It should infuse all our policies.
We've seen some big steps forward with what we're doing on community policing or how, on the 60th anniversary of the NHS, we're making hospitals and GPs more accountable to local people.
I'm delighted today to be going a little further still with the start of consultation on our new regeneration framework.
One of the Government's overriding priorities for the past eleven years has been to spread prosperity and opportunity to every neighbourhood. Bringing jobs to deprived areas. Investment to run-down towns. And a sense of purpose and pride to people who had been without one too long.
Go around the country and you can feel the difference just walking down the high street.
At the start of the 90s my home city Salford was on its knees. Today, there are smart new buildings like the Lowry and the Imperial War Museum, jobs to go with them, and investment in skills and training so that local people can end up working in the boardroom and not just the kitchen.
Alongside this, billions of investment has been targeted at places facing the biggest challenges through Regional Development Agencies, English Partnership, and programmes such as the New Deal for Communities or the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund. This investment has restored buildings, cut anti-social behaviour and left people feeling much happier about where they live.
I'm proud of how far we have come.
"We want to make sure that regeneration is about empowering people as much as it is giving buildings a facelift."
But today, we're looking ahead to the next stage of regeneration: how we can sustain the success so far, build on what we have learnt, and spread opportunity still further in the ten years to come.
Between 2007 and 2011, the Government will invest over £13bn in programmes that will contribute heavily to regeneration. The new framework is designed to make sure we use it in a way that makes the biggest difference possible.
It is based on 3 key principles that mark a new, smarter way of doing things.
First, we want to make sure that investment is more responsive and flexible to the very different challenges that need to be overcome in different places. We should be placing less of an emphasis on the processes and programmes for deciding how money gets spent, more on the kind of difference we want it to make. This would allow for greater flexibility and ingenuity to really home in on the problems.
Second - it's time to make regeneration more local, with less of Whitehall calling the shots, more influence and control at local levels. It's about turning our assumptions upside-down, letting local communities, councils and regions say what they need first of all, and drive the debate, rather than asking them to bid for support that comes in ready-made packages from central Government.
Third - we want long-lasting regeneration that will help people and deprived neighbourhoods stand on their own two feet, take responsibility and enable everyone to rise as far as their talents can take them. Improving economic prospects is the key. If you deal with pockets of unemployment, improvements in crime rates and peoples' health will follow. Getting a job is the best way to escape the poverty trap, and the most effective way to give people real power. People with jobs are more likely to feel in control of their lives and futures and bring new money into the local economy.
That's why I'm pleased to see 122 of the 150 upper tier local authority areas have prioritised employment in their Local Area Agreements. If they meet the goals they have set themselves, it will mean an additional 126,800 people off benefits and into work over the next 3 years. I really welcome that level of ambition.
In short, we want to make sure that regeneration is about empowering people as much as it is giving buildings a facelift. About asking them - how do you want to turn your neighbourhood around? Rather than giving them a set solution from government.
With the regeneration framework - as with the White Paper - the hard work is just beginning.
I look forward to hearing your views on both.
Have we got the right approach? Could we go further? What more could we do to help you fulfil your aspirations for your neighbourhood?
When people have the right opportunities, support and encouragement to come together, I genuinely believe there is no limit to what they can achieve.
I look forward to seeing that potential unfurl in the months and years to come.