Control freakery: Understanding who really gets to take control

Steve Rolfe

When Michael Gove reiterated the Brexiteers’ mantra of ‘taking back control’ at the recent Conservative Party Conference there was a strong sense of déjà vu about the whole performance. And not just because we’ve all heard the ‘taking back control’ message over and over again in the last 18 months. The repeated rhetoric of control also has strong echoes of an earlier Conservative policy idea – the notion of a ‘Control Shift’ at the heart of Localism and the Big Society. And the parallels go further. Just as campaigners have questioned what it might mean to ‘take back control’ after Brexit and who ends up in control, so my Local Government Studies paper, ‘Divergence in Community Participation Policy: Analysing Localism and Community Empowerment Using a Theory of Change Approach’ questions the policies which ostensibly aim to give power and control to communities.

Back in the early days of the Coalition government (remember those innocent pre-EU-referendum days?), the ideas of the ‘Big Society’ and shifting control to communities through Localism were big news, even if nobody could really work out what David Cameron meant by the Big Society. A whole raft of ‘new community rights’ were created, giving communities opportunities to challenge and take over public services, buy local assets, create their own Neighbourhood Plans and even develop local housing. Alongside this, the Localism Act aimed to ‘strengthen accountability’ of public sector organisations through directly elected mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners, plus referenda on ‘excessive’ council tax increases. At the same time, the Scottish Government were using similar language to set out their Community Empowerment agenda, giving communities rights to participate in service improvement and extending rights relating to control and ownership of land and assets. Both these policy frameworks are still in place, shaping community participation across England and Scotland, albeit that anything non-Brexit gets very little media attention these days.

On the surface, Localism and Community Empowerment seem to share many common features. Both see community voices as an important tool to improve public services, and community action as a means to fill some of the gaps between such services. Moreover, the language of ‘devolving power to communities’ sounds very similar on both sides of the border. However, as I try to argue in my paper, a more detailed look at the assumptions underlying Localism and Community Empowerment suggest that the UK and Scottish Governments have quite different ideas about how communities should participate and how they should relate to public sector agencies.

Crucially, the Scottish Government’s agenda emphasises a positive-sum conception of empowerment, where communities and public sector agencies each gain power by working together collaboratively. By contrast, most of the elements within Localism operate on a zero-sum basis, focusing on taking power away from the local state to give it to communities. Clearly there are risks in both approaches. In the Scottish partnership approach local authorities may simply hang on to power and refuse to collaborate – the evidence from decades of community work in Scotland provides many examples of intransigent bureaucrats, although also many tales of productive cooperation. In England, analysis of the policy detail suggests there are more complex and subtle risks involved. Hidden beneath the rhetoric of community rights are mechanisms which turn communities into ‘market-makers’, forcing local authorities to put services out to tender and challenging limits on house-building. Hence control is not so much shifted to communities, but rather handed to the free market and private businesses.

Interestingly, however, the more recent evidence about the use of Localism’s ‘new community rights’ suggests that communities are savvier than David Cameron perhaps expected. The Community Right to Challenge (the most blatantly market-focused element) has been hardly used in the six years since it was instituted. And whilst Neighbourhood Planning has proved very popular across England, most communities are attempting to use it to exert some control over the local housing market, rather than letting it rip.

So perhaps those fans of Brexit who continue to trumpet the idea of ‘taking back control’ may need to reflect a little on who is actually gaining control as we leave the EU. The evidence from community participation policy suggests not just that the rhetoric may be concealing the intended winners in the process of shifting control, but also that such processes are often unpredictable as multiple actors attempt to impose their own notions of control.


Steve%20Rolfe%20pic.jpgSteve Rolfe is a Research Fellow at the University of Stirling. His research interests include community participation and empowerment, social enterprise and housing. Before entering academia, he worked in local government for 15 years in a range of community development and policy roles.

The Big Society lasted 1000 days. Will we ever see ideas of its like again?

Stephen Jeffares

The FT’s Chris Giles recently wrote:

Mark Carney Bank of England governor, has signalled that his policy of linking interest rates to the unemployment rate [Forward Guidance] will be buried less than six months after its birth…his big idea for monetary policy has bitten the dust” (FT, 24 January 2014).

This is not the first time in the last year we have heard reports of “big ideas” “biting the dust”.  The same has been levelled at Cameron’s purported big idea in politics: The Big Society.  How funny that sounds just a few months after thousands of policy actors were deliberately inserting Big Society terminology into their strategies, job descriptions and articles. A friend who recently attended a meeting at CLG told me that the last remnants of the Big Society team have now left their posts; organisationally, at least, the Big Society is dead.

As the title suggests,  and in a new book, I argue that Big Society lasted around a 1,000 days.  That is rather neat, I admit.  Wayne Parsons has argued that you need a sensitive measuring device to understand the death and termination of public policies, but as a starting point you can think about newspaper citations.  Although a crude measure, this reveals the date when a policy idea first entered the public realm, the peak of discussion, and the point after which it is never uttered again.

It reminds me of Frazer’s description of how Saharan Tuareg tribes would up camp when somebody died, and never mention the deceased’s name ever again. Although government actors do not quite up camp, they shuffle around, renaming units and amending job titles, renewing websites and pulping documents.  As for the newspapers, for a while they write of the policy’s death, of u-turns, and discuss hints of decline (as in the article above); more important is to focus on the point where they stop mentioning it – that is when the idea is dead.  It is also a point in time seldom acknowledged.

So where does my 1,000 days come from?  Well, counting citations in British Broadsheet newspapers (see Figure 2.1) you can see that in 2008 there were no mentions of the Big Society, a few hundred in 2009, great excitement by 2011, and just over one mention a day in 2013.


My prediction is that at some point in 2014 we will not speak of Big Society again – it will be the end.

But will we see anything on the scale of Big Society ever again? If Forward Guidance is anything to go by, it is quicker and easier than ever to discuss, endorse, but also critique and deride policy ideas. But it is also quicker and easier to coin and foster them too.

Some critics of the Big Society pointed to how many times it was relaunched, but like iPhones or Apps, we are in an age where we can release beta versions, test things out, get feedback and quickly offer updated bug fixes or new versions. We cannot measure the longevity of a policy idea by expectation alone – no, we can speculate about decline but it is not until the tribe up-sticks and moves to a new part of the desert, vowing never to mention its name again, that we can be sure that it is truly dead.

An earlier version of this blog appeared here 27 January 2014.


Stephen Jeffares is a Lecturer based in INLOGOV. His fellowship focuses on the role of ideas in the policy process and implications for methods.  He is a specialist in Q methodology and other innovative methods to inform policy analysis. Stephen’s book, Interpreting Hashtag Politics: policy ideas in an era of social media, will be published by Palgrave in April 2014.  Preorder or follow @srjeffares

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.