Plans contained in the Government’s empowerment white paper could prove ineffective because few people are interested in playing an active role in their communities, the former head of the Government’s strategy to regenerate northern England has warned.

Vince Taylor, former director of the Northern Way growth strategy and now head of strategic economic development at Sunderland City Council, told Regeneration & Renewal’s community engagement conference in London that the white paper was “predicated on the assumption that people want to be community minded and will become community minded”.

But he claimed that most people are not interested in playing an active role in their communities, although they want good public services to be provided.

“We think the Government’s approach to community empowerment doesn’t take into account these different customers,” Taylor said. The white paper focused too much on imposing the Government’s view of empowerment on communities, rather than considering how people may want to be engaged, he added.

The empowerment white paper, published in July, included proposals to enable residents to use petitions to force issues onto councils’ agendas. It said that citizens should be given more say in how local budgets were spent.

But Taylor told delegates that the plans would fail to reach most local residents.
“Yes, run things like participatory budgeting sessions, but be aware that half of the population is missing – probably more,” he said. Taking the votes of people who just turn up for sessions is “dangerous”, he warned. “There has to be a variety of ways to reach people that must be tailored to the needs of particular groups.”

Taylor said that, rather than having public meetings or sending out leaflets, more thought should be given to what people are most likely to respond to. He said that, if the Government wanted to empower people, it was important to listen to their needs.

Margaret Wilkinson, head of projects at community consultation charity the Neighbourhood Initiatives Foundation, said she welcomed the Government’s focus on community empowerment. But she said it should not become “too much of a top-down process, where the only agenda the community is asked to be involved in is the agenda set by the professionals. There needs to be real coordination”.