Neighbourhood governance: Community empowerment or containment?

Madeleine Pill

In the UK, the deprived neighbourhood has long been a site and scale for intervention and action, giving rise to a variety of forms of neighbourhood governance to achieve a range of purposes.  The four predominant rationales for neighbourhood governance are defined by Lowndes and Sullivan (2008): the empowerment of citizens and communities (the civic rationale); partnership to take a holistic approach to an area (social); government through new forms of representation and participation (political); and management in terms of more effective local service delivery (economic).

The relative emphasis upon these rationales changes over time due to policy shifts, exacerbated given central government’s hand in the instigation and operation of neighbourhood-targeted initiatives.  Initiatives have increasingly stressed the civic rationale in terms of encouraging neighbourhood-level ownership of problems and of attempts to resolve these. This, paired with the need for deficit reduction, is demonstrated in ‘Big Society’ policy rhetoric. Its amorphous bundling of approaches seeks the transfer of responsibilities for services to local communities and third sector agencies. Its promotion of social enterprise models contrasts with the neighbourhood management approach of influencing other service providers rather than engaging in direct service provision.

The associated shift to ‘small government’ heralds the end of central government-led initiatives targeting deprived neighbourhoods which have left a heritage of varying types of neighbourhood governance infrastructure. How is this infrastructure affected by changes in its governance context?

An evaluation of neighbourhood management in the City of Westminster, delivered through a third sector organisation, the Paddington Development Trust, enabled exploration of these issues.  The findings show that the Trust was recognised as delivering an effective form of neighbourhood management which emphasised community involvement and the civic rationale of neighbourhood governance, but which absorbed large amounts of officer time and was resource intensive.  The Westminster approach to neighbourhood management was a product of New Labour strategy and of a genuine desire to tackle the problems of the most deprived wards in an otherwise affluent local authority.

While funding was provided, the City Council sustained a strong commitment. But the approach was contingent on the prevailing ethos and funding regimes and remained relatively detached from mainstream services.  It proved easy to decouple the deprived neighbourhood infrastructure from ‘normal’, mainstream service delivery with the advent of the coalition government in 2010.  As neighbourhood initiatives have been largely instigated by central government, it is unsurprising that the principal purposes of neighbourhood governance have been imposed, with additional funding offered as an incentive. In reality, once funding ends, the ability of neighbourhood governance to be sustained, despite the rhetoric about ‘capacity building’ towards neighbourhood empowerment, is very much in doubt.

Herein lies the paradox of the centralised approach to neighbourhood initiatives in the UK: commitments to localism, devolution and community empowerment are largely dependent on central government resource provision. While community empowerment is an important part of the policy rhetoric, in practice a ‘strategy of containment’ operates whereby residents in deprived neighbourhoods have relatively little control.

A full account of this research is available in my recent article with Nick Bailey: ‘Community Empowerment or a Strategy of Containment? Evaluating Neighbourhood Governance in the City of Westminster.  Local Government Studies. 38 (6), 731-51.


Madeleine Pill is a Research Fellow at the Cardiff School of Planning and Geography. Her research focuses on critical governance studies exploring the scope for and limits to community action at neighbourhood level and she teaches on the MSc Regeneration Studies.

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