"Community empowerment is about people and government, working together to make life better. It involves more people being able to influence decisions about their communities, and more people taking responsibility for tackling local problems, rather than expecting others to."
The above is the definition of Community Empowerment as given by the Department of Communities and Local Government.
This is not to say that DCLG's definition is necessarily the best one, of course, neither should we accept without question the right of a government department to impose its interpretation upon us all. Nevertheless, as an attempt to put flesh onto the bones of an abstract concept it is a surprisingly good starting point.
Yesterday Councillor Paul Fisher and I attended a one-day conference at London's Cavendish Conference Centre on the theme "Community Ownership of Assets - Creating Strong and Sustainable Communities", which discussed and debated the innovative Quirk Review into asset ownership.
Community Empowerment has, of course, been the core objective of the ICG since the day it was formed. Back then in 1994 the concept was unfashionable, particularly in the context of our own local authority, where organisational Stalinism was to survive Labour's lurch to the right of the political spectrum in policy terms.
It is gratifying to know that our vision has come into vogue even though, other than perhaps in Hounslow, it is unlikely that we as a Group actually contributed in any way towards this new departure.
As I see it there are essentially two schools of thought on the question of Community Empowerment. At the recent Housing Conference in Harrogate I was appalled to hear a speaker delivering himself of the view that all the community aspired to was good services, and that in the event of such being delivered members of the public were happy to sit back and let the political elite get on with the business of making decisions on their behalf. It is a view which I personally would always instinctively associate with New Labour, but in this instance I had been surprised to learn that the speaker was in fact a Liberal Democrat.
That is one school of thought. The other is that which would tend to be associated with the ICG, that holders of political office are morally, if not legally, delegated to act as those who elected them instruct, and that the true source of power lies with the community which put them where they are. Whilst it is necessary for the efficient working of local government for holders of political office to make decisions on a day to day basis, all reasonable efforts should be made to involve the community itself in the decision-making process, in a meaningful as opposed to a tokenistic way, to the greatest extent possible.
Yesterday's conference seemed to flow from the assumption that the second school of thought has it right. Several speakers gave their views as to how this might best be achieved. Most of it was very interesting.
However, one disappointing aspect of the whole debate for me was the fact that every speaker, without exception, seemed to equate Community Empowerment solely with grant funding. The more money which is given to communities and their organisations, so the logic went, the more free and independent they become.
It is undoubtedly true that community initatives do need funding. It would be absurd to argue against this. However it is equally true that funding can actually work against the whole ethos of Community Empowerment. We have seen this in Hounslow, indeed I have seen it in Isleworth - on my own estate - where grant funding is given which the recipient becomes dependent upon, and then the political conditions become evident which, if not fulfilled, lead to the threatened withdrawal of the funding and, if the threat is carried out, the subsequent collapse of the group.
This is not Community Empowerment. This is Community Enslavement.
There is a certain breed of political animal which seems to talk about nothing but grant funding, revenue streams and so on. They seem to speak in a language all of their own. I confess to finding such people tiresome.
Community Empowerment is an ideal, not a commodity which can be purchased. Community Empowerment is about creating irreversable channels through which the community can direct government, local and national.
If, having created those irreversable channels, you then still wish to give us your money, it will seldom be refused.