Several hands on top of each other

Building back better starts with community power

Published: 21/01/22 | Categories: Training & events,Volunteering, Author: New Local

Ahead of our ‘Community Powered approaches during the pandemic’ events with The Community Resourcefulness Partnership this January, New Local talk about how communities can lead the recovery from the pandemic. 

2020 was an extremely difficult year. It was also the year that shone a bright light on the extraordinary power and impact of community-led action. Since then, a growing number of local councils have sought to involve communities more directly in the design, delivery and evaluation of public services.

‘Building back better’ from the COVID-19 pandemic must have community power as its foundation.


We’ve seen public services and communities come together before to help others during severe floods or heavy snowfalls, but never in such a widespread manner as we did in March 2020.

When the first COVID-19 lockdown was called, communities throughout the UK answered volunteering appeals from the third sector or organised themselves into informal mutual aid groups. They checked on their neighbours, set up community hubs, delivered essential items to the doors of vulnerable and self-isolating households, and were responsible for many more proactive acts of kindness that made an extremely challenging time easier for people to bear.

Councils that responded most effectively to the spring 2020 lockdown were those that enabled and supported the activities of community groups. They abandoned siloed and bureaucratic mindsets, fast-tracked funding to community groups, and worked in genuine partnership with local organisations and communities to pool together resources, skills and networks to target help at people most in need.


Fast-forward to 2022, and although the vaccination programme is allowing us to get back to some degree of pre-pandemic ‘normality’, a growing number of councils are choosing to reject a return to business as usual.

Instead, having reflected on what worked in the first lockdown, they are now embedding more community-led, inclusive and collaborative approaches into their operations. Some, such as Monmouthshire Council, Essex County Council and Wigan Council, had started working closely with communities before 2020 and have continued to build on those relationships.

Others, such as the London Borough of Newham, Sheffield City Council and One Stockport movement, have cited the experience of the pandemic as the driving force behind new participatory and dialogue-based initiatives.

However, there are still sizable pockets of the UK where public services are not working collaboratively with communities. For example, in the first lockdown, some mutual aid groups saw their efforts to respond to the pandemic curtailed by the indifference or excessively controlling tendencies of their local council.

This experience underlines that local public bodies have an influential ‘make or break’ role in the cause of community power. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, their actions can stifle the spirit and resolve of communities as much as nurture them.


Why does this matter? The true power of community-led action is vastly underappreciated if it is only regarded as a short-term crisis response. Communities know their area more intimately than any public or emergency service and instinctively know what needs doing, who needs helping and which approaches will genuinely make a difference to people and places.

Evidence collected by New Local shows that community power helps give rise to prevention and early intervention approaches in public services, improve individual health and wellbeing, and build cohesion and resilience in communities.

Community-led action produced the most effective local responses to the first COVID-19 lockdown. Building back better from the pandemic has to begin with community power as its foundation. New Local has outlined some practical suggestions for councils to help them start a ‘community power transformation.’ These include:

  • Organisational culture change.
  • Community participation in macro (strategic) decision-making.
  • Transformation of micro decision-making.
  • Transfer of money and assets.
  • Community governance.

With these changes in place, councils – and indeed other local public and third sector bodies – will go some way to ensuring that community power benefits people and places for life, not just during times of crisis.


If you’d like to further explore how communities have come together with the public and voluntary sectors during the pandemic, then The Community Resourcefulness Partnership is hosting the ‘Community Powered approaches during the pandemic’ series of events in January 2022.

The opening event will take place on the 24 January 2022 (10.30am-12pm) where the following speakers will talk about their experiences of cross-sectoral working and share their vision for the future.

Find out more here.