'Don't let communities manage public services'

By Ben Walker Friday, 07 March 2008

A controversial academic has urged the Government to halt its drive to devolve control over public services to community groups.

Dr Graham Gardner, an expert in community empowerment, said that the Government is in a rush to devolve control over public services to neighbourhoods, when many services would be better off "in the hands of the state".

He added: "Is there sometimes a dark side to community empowerment? The reality is that its contribution to democracy is highly varied and its contribution to regeneration is at best very modest."

Gardner told a conference organised by regional centre of excellence Inspire East last week that he had visited Kington on the England-Wales border, which he said had been touted as an exemplar of community empowerment.

However, Gardner said that his research, based on 30 to 40 interviews with locals, found that "three separate factions were slugging it out and were so busy they weren't listening to the wider community".

"When I spoke to local people I got reactions ranging from anger to apathy," he said. "Kington was sold to me as a great example of community empowerment, but reality was different from the rhetoric."

He warned that the Government must act now to stop its community devolution drive snowballing. "Elected councillors are hostile (to community devolution) and I have to say to some extent their scepticism is justified. There is a tendency for local groups to think they can do more than they can. The Government is trying to give things to communities that would be better off in the hands of the state."

He cited Buckinghamshire County Council, which he said has offered control of libraries it had planned to axe to residents. Since the takeover, service standards have fallen and in one case a library has introduced charges, Gardner said.

But former Regeneration & Renewal columnist Laurence Demarco, co-founder and director of social enterprise network Senscot, said: "He thinks he is being a radical going against the flow of community empowerment, but in fact he is a bureaucrat and a municipalist."

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