Heading upstream: Barnsley's quiet revolution that lets communities take power

Flag of Yorkshire. From Heading Upstream report cover

Flag of Yorkshire. From Heading Upstream report cover

More indicators that the real sea-change for a new politics may be at a much lower geographical level than the national operatics of major parties, contending for state governance.

The Centre for Welfare Reform has just brought out a fascinating new study, Heading Upstream: Barnsley's Innovations for Social Justice.

Backing up the work that our friends at Flatpack Democracy, as well as those in the Preston Model (and the Cleveland Model before it) have been doing, the report asserts that:

  • Local people and employers can help people find work better than the privatised providers who have been parachuted into local communities by Whitehall
  • Local families can be empowered to organise more effective health and social care for themselves if they are given clear entitlements and the right kind of suppor
  • Local people can improve their own communities, if local government works in partnership with them and focus more on the smaller communities where people live

The challenges to this are well known: "Local government and poorer communities have been the primary target of central government cuts. Resources and power are centralised in London and in other non-accountable bodies. And the current distribution of resources severely disadvantages proud Northern towns like Barnsley".

But the report is at pains to assert that:

  • There is an enormous reservoir of citizen capacity within our communities, which can be galvanised by the kinds of strategies developed in Barnsley

The report's author, Dr Simon Duffy, elaborates on this for his introduction:

Barnsley has recognised that social justice does not just mean spending more money on public services. Social justice means enabling every single person in Barnsley to be able to live a good life and to contribute as a citizen. Social justice demands that people are full and active citizens; and social justice also requires people to think as citizens in order to take responsibility for each other and their local communities.

A thriving and innovative welfare state is not created by treating people as passive recipients or as consumers; a strong welfare state is one that is supported, challenged and sustained by its own citizens.

This certainly means ensuring that people get the support they need to be citizens, but it also means expecting people to play their full part as citizens. And the central challenge for making this real is not to change the people of Barnsley; for it turns out that there are plenty of people willing to act as citizens. The central challenge is to change the culture and behaviour of the council, and other public services, and to shift away from the paternalistic habits that have developed across much of the welfare state.

The welfare state is essential to social justice; but the risk is that the wrong systems and services become institutionalised. In particular there is a grave danger that money and power become entrenched in those services that do least to encourage citizenship. In fact resources and attention often seem to drift downstream to services, such as hospitals, prisons, schools or care homes, that merely react to crises or only meet the immediate symptoms of a need. It is much harder to head upstream and to look at the underlying causes of need.

There are no vested interests to advocate for and protect the interests of citizens, families, communities, society or the environment; yet it is these that provide the essential ingredients for social justice and our well-being.

This problem is an opportunity. Instead of responding to austerity by cutting services Barnsley Council has endeavoured to go upstream and work with its communities so that new kinds of solutions can be found. In this way resources, even the reduced public funding now available, can be invested more effectively upstream. This approach welcomes and encourages citizen action across the life of the community.

In fact the potential for citizen action is very significant, if it is respected and supported. This report calculates that the level of care offered by Barnsley’s citizens to each other is already worth about £435 million. In addition to this there is a further £1.3 billion’s worth of potential time and energy available to Barnsley from those citizens who are not currently working excessive hours, nor caring, and who may have some time to commit to further community action. 

The report is featured here, and here's the PDF of the full report