Introduction: Neighbourhoods in context

Act Local: Empowering London’s neighbourhoods

Introduction: Neighbourhoods in context

As a society, we believe that decision making should come closest to those it affects most. Demands for agency and control over the decisions that affect us are being made from all quarters of the UK. There is a sense that our democratic institutions and processes are too distant from those they represent.

London is no exception. With a growing population of nine million residents, complex, difficult trade-offs must be made to ensure that London can become a fair and prosperous city. Remote, top-down decision making can only take us so far – and Londoners agree.

While local government is traditionally the most trusted of all government levels, 1 there is evidence of a disconnect between Londoners’ desire to be involved in local decision making and their simultaneous perception that they lack the necessary influence. Over the last five years, almost 65 per cent of Londoners have  consistently agreed that it is important to be able to influence local decisions – but
only around 35 per cent thought that they were able to do so. 2

When it comes to new development and planning in London, the feeling of disaffection is particularly strong. Recent research has shown that only two per cent of people trust developers to act in an honest way when planning and executing large-scale development. Similarly, only seven per cent of people trusted local authorities to act in the best interests of their local area. 3

This essay collection examines the role of neighbourhoods in shaping the city, strengthening community and enhancing public services. It brings together expert perspectives on neighbourhood planning, technology, social infrastructure and London’s local governance, outlining the challenges faced in translating community initiative into impact.

First, however, this introduction reviews the case for neighbourhood engagement as well as some recent policy initiatives, drawing on a literature review and interviews with local authority ward councillors in London, senior local authority and Greater London Authority officers, parish councillors, community activists, civil society organisations and Business Improvement Districts.

The case for neighbourhoods

In London’s current democratic setup, the default unit of governance is the London borough. While the Mayor’s office is responsible for setting out the strategic vision for the capital, the vast majority of decisions that impact Londoners’ lives on a daily basis are taken at borough level. The modern boroughs were explicitly designed to be big enough to raise money for services, and prestigious enough to attract good quality politicians and staff. 4

With the exception of the City of London, boroughs now have an average of roughly 275,000 residents. Boroughs may be an efficient scale for service delivery, but this role should not obscure the importance of neighbourhoods as spaces for accessing jobs and services, anchors for identity and social integration, and places of participation.

The function of the neighbourhood as a place for making social connections and meeting basic needs has particular importance for policy. The importance of neighbourhoods – the scale at which much of everyday life takes place – is backed by substantial evidence. Our immediate locale and the interactions within it affect the jobs we can access, 5 the goods and services we make use of, 6 our health and wellbeing, 7 and our social capital and connections. 8 For those on lower incomes, geographical proximity to jobs and services is particularly important. 9

London’s neighbourhoods are also places of identity, with the smaller pre-1965 metropolitan boroughs continuing to dominate. 10 Identities are not fixed or exclusive, however: the intersections of class, ethnicity, age, sexuality and employment status 11 all play a role in determining the extent to which Londoners define themselves as being “from” or “belonging to” a neighbourhood, as do the local specificities and histories of each place. 12 For Londoners, neighbourhoods are also the spaces of predictable encounters, fulfilling basic needs such as shopping, healthcare, housing and education – and identities are additionally shaped through these functions. 13

Given its role in forming identity, the neighbourhood has particular relevance for encouraging social cohesion and integration. Local institutions at a neighbourhood scale have particular potential for creating spaces where people can share experiences and build positive relationships. The Mayor has recognised this in the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) Social Integration Strategy, which defines its core concept as:

“Social integration is the extent to which people positively interact and connect with others who are different to themselves. It is determined by the level of equality between people, the nature of their relationships, and their degree of participation in the communities in which they live”. 14

Neighbourhoods are also the spatial level at which many citizens are best able to participate in governance. For many years, the parish was the default unit of governance, also functioning as the focus of community and voluntary institutions aimed at meeting social need. Today, it is argued that bringing decision making closer to people improves public participation, accountability, responsiveness, and effectiveness – even creating some efficiency gains. 15 People care about issues that impact them directly and show preparedness to organise around them; with greater public participation, needs can be better understood, and decision makers held to account more effectively.

In view of neighbourhoods’ relevance to people’s daily lives – as a source of identity, a locale for integration, and a focal point for public participation – how has neighbourhood governance evolved in recent London history?

How are neighbourhoods represented in decision making?

This section reviews how neighbourhoods are engaged in local governance – through the existing democratic structures of councils, through ad hoc partnerships and initiatives, and in recent years through legislative innovation.

Local authority structures

The nearest proxy for a neighbourhood in local government is the borough ward. Outside the City of London, each ward in every London borough has three councillors representing it, and typically 10,000 to 20,000 residents. Each councillor is elected first and foremost to represent their ward constituents in council decision making: however, in practice, the extent to which this voice is heard can vary dramatically. Recent national research found that minority group councillors – and councillors without leading executive or scrutiny roles – often find it difficult to access information, administrative support, and skills training. 16

One of the reasons for this stems from the sometimes conflicting roles that councillors fill – as representatives of wards, members of a political party, and holders of executive and/or scrutiny roles which were separated through the provisions of the Local Government Act 2000. While reforms under the Local Government Act 2000 were considered to have strengthened the executive and leadership role of local government, backbench councillors did not find their role enhanced. 17 Similarly, those reforms didn’t impact significantly on public involvement in decision making. 6 One senior borough officer interviewed for this report observed that the resources allocated to train and support ward councillors vary widely between London boroughs, and that different councillors undertook varying amounts of outreach, surgery and public accessibility work.

Most boroughs have (or have had) ward-level committees and decision-making forums, with varying levels of budget for ward projects. Again, however, this provision varies substantially between authorities. Where ward budgets do apply, they tend to be of a relatively small value – ranging from £10,000 p.a. in Waltham Forest to £46,000 in Westminster (reduced from a 2010 level of £100,000 p.a. in the latter case).

Local authorities are also required by law to consult on local plans and new developments. Nonetheless, there are recurring complaints about the extent of influence residents actually have in these processes. One frequent issue is that consultations are seen as box-ticking exercises – with opportunities for residents to comment after plans have already been developed, rather than having an influence on the plans at an earlier stage.

It is important to note here the broader context in which local authorities are operating. The ability to support ward councillors, provide dedicated funds and engage meaningfully with communities in planning processes is impacted heavily by resources, which have been heavily constrained since 2010.

However, there also exist long-standing cultural tensions that can stand in the way of local empowerment. Government institutions and community organisations have not always worked together well; and the culture of public service provision – whether paternalistic or consumerist – can be at odds with community organisations, who consider their legitimacy to arise from their embeddedness in a place, their connection with an issue, or their common vision, rather than from a particular governance structure. This can make for an awkward fit and a reluctance on the part of local authorities to share power – though one officer we interviewed noted that where there were more active community campaigns and organisations, ward councillors were incentivised to respond and engage more, particularly in inner London.

1960s-1980s: The rise of urban policy

In recognition of the importance of neighbourhoods, a variety of public policies have sought to enhance community and neighbourhood involvement. Attempts to tackle “problems of the inner city” 19 in the late 1960s gave way to the Community Development Projects of the 1970s, gradually becoming more strategic programmes aimed at neighbourhood regeneration. In the case of the Single Regeneration Budgets and New Deal for Communities of the 1990s, they were also increasingly focused on participation and partnership working among different actors. 20

2000s: Business Improvement Districts

Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) are designed to better involve businesses in neighbourhood governance. 21 BIDs are business-led partnerships in small defined geographic areas where businesses agree to pay a levy to raise extra funds for improvements to the area, in order to support trade and the local economy. Every five years the BID must be subject to a ballot of local businesses to renew its mandate.

BIDs were introduced to London through the Circle Initiative, a programme of five pilots supported by Single Regeneration Budget funding in the early 2000s. They were placed on a statutory footing in the following years, and the first BID went live in Kingston upon Thames in January 2005. 22 Since their introduction, the number of BIDs in London has steadily grown to 63. Across the city, BIDs have been responsible for significant projects targeted at public realm improvement and local economic growth 23 – though critics have questioned the balance between public and private governance, and what this means for accountability. 24 The traditional conception of the BID as providing flowerpots and benches for the high street may be true in some instances, but there are examples of more innovative practice. For example, Camden Collective, a project of Camden Town Unlimited BID, provides free hot-desking space and subsidised offices for creative startups in repurposed, formerly empty buildings. Providing incubator space while finding a new purpose for vacant buildings shows how the BID model can be used creatively to support local economies.

2000s: New parish councils

The Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 enabled the creation of new parish councils in London for the first time in over 75 years. Restoring a local tier of permanent representative democracy with tax-raising powers and the ability to determine expenditure in local areas was much heralded at the time as a remedy for some of the democratic “distance” between communities and power.

However, to date, the new powers have not been taken up widely in London. There have been only two attempts to establish parish councils in the city. One was successful: Queen’s Park Community Council in the City of Westminster, which maps onto the Queen’s Park ward boundary. The other attempt, covering Spitalfields and Banglatown wards in Tower Hamlets, was not successful, with the local authority refusing the application.

Slow progress in London has been attributed to a lack of awareness about parish councils and ward governance, and the long years of community organising and development required to navigate the bureaucracy of establishing parish councils. Others have cited the difficulties involved in neighbourhood organising within a city as transient, diverse and unequal as London. 25 There is also a perception that rural, homogenous and affluent communities may be more suited to ‘parishing’. 26 That said, several Community Councillors in Queen’s Park expressed almost precisely the opposite view: one said that “economic empowerment and political enfranchisement go together”; another that “a reason I joined was that you’re fighting for a better life for the people of Queen’s Park who live in a very disadvantaged and poor area”. 

Case study: Queen’s Park Community Council

Three factors may help explain why Queen’s Park’s Community Council has been successfully embedded. First, local context matters. The Chief Officer for the Community Council explained that despite being socially mixed, Queen’s Park has a particularly well defined urban fabric and geography that lends it a distinctive neighbourhood character.

Capacity building has taken time. In Queen’s Park, the Community Council’s legitimacy is seen to have stemmed from good existing partnership working, and an established democratic civic culture. For example, having managed Neighbourhood Renewal Funds, the existing neighbourhood forum had several years’ experience of regular elections as well as years of support from a long established voluntary group, the Paddington Development Trust. A City of Westminster ward councillor for Queen’s Park ward explained to us that this is “fundamental to its success”.

Finally, political issues have been addressed. Queen’s Park is also a Labour ward in a Conservative-controlled borough. The local ward councillor explained to us that the local Labour group decided not to stand for the parish council on a party ticket, to avoid building in oppositional politics.

2010s: Localism

One of the more significant recent developments in neighbourhood governance was the Localism Act 2011. A close relation of the 2010- 15 coalition government’s “Big Society” agenda, “localism” was understood as serving the goal of decentralisation 27 – a shift of power away from the central state and towards local councils, civic society and voluntary organisations.

The Act created three “Community Rights”, the effects of which we will look at in detail:

  • Neighbourhood Planning and Community Right to Build
  • Community Right to Bid
  • Community Right to Challenge

Neighbourhood Planning and Community Right to Build

Neighbourhood planning allows neighbourhood groups to create a third “tier” of planning regulation. Groups can set planning policies for their neighbourhood, provided a required governance process and structure is followed. Similarly, a Neighbourhood Development Order (the Community Right to Build) allows groups to grant planning permission for particular developments they would like to see.

In many respects, this has been by far the most successful of the Community Rights. To date, there are 13 adopted Neighbourhood Plans across seven boroughs in London. There are also 79 community groups officially designated as neighbourhood forums, at various stages of the approvals process. Neighbourhood planning potentially offers significant community impact on the physical fabric of our neighbourhoods, harnessing local knowledge and creating a more participatory local civic culture.

However, take-up has been inconsistent between and within boroughs. Almost half of the plans made are in Camden, and there are nine boroughs that have no designated neighbourhood groups at all. Those areas that have managed to see their plans through to approval have tended to be in wealthier neighbourhoods, raising questions about the relevance or accessibility of neighbourhood planning for more deprived areas

A recent report also highlighted concerns about the amount of time, resources, skills and bureaucracy required to successfully “make” a neighbourhood plan. 28 Similarly, attitudes towards and support for neighbourhood planning wary widely between boroughs and planning authorities, in some cases limiting uptake.

Community Right to Bid: Ownership of local assets

The intention behind the Community Right to Bid was to allow local communities to protect land or buildings with a community use and value. If a property is listed as an “asset of community value”, it becomes subject to a six-month delay period before it is sold, to allow community groups the chance to raise funds and bid for the property. As of September 2018, 337 assets of community value have been listed across London.

However, there is little accurate data available on the assets that havem actually been purchased by community groups, as no central register is kept by government. Attempts at estimating the number of listed assets which are purchased by community groups nationally suggest it is as little as 15 of every 1000 assets listed. 29 In London, only one Asset of Community Value has been bought and operated by the local community under the 2011 Act – the Ivy House pub in Nunhead – though the designation has helped other venues to resist changes of use.

Take-up has been low partly due to the high costs of land and property in London. Organising funding in six months is another hurdle, especially for community groups in more deprived areas. Even if funding can be organised, the owner is under no obligation to sell to the community group. This is in contrast with similar legislation in Scotland, which allows community groups first refusal on sale of land which they have registered an interest in protecting.

However, despite the limitations of the Right to Bid, local involvement in owning and managing neighbourhood assets does in fact take place across the city. Community Asset Transfer predates the Right to Bid, and involves transferring the operation or ownership of physical assets from public bodies to community groups. Originally proposed as a way to use existing public assets to support social action, 30 financial pressure has changed the focus – with councils citing both cost considerations and community engagement as driving factors 31 despite the questionable compatibility of these goals.

Community Right to Challenge: Community-led public services

The Community Right to Challenge was intended to enable local groups to bid to take over local public services. Of all the Community Rights, the Right to Challenge has been the least successful, with almost no take-up across the capital – rebutting the idea that the provision of services by the state was holding back a tide of voluntary action in our neighbourhoods.

Nonetheless, there are some examples in London of a changing relationship between local communities and public services, in response to financial challenges, demographic shifts and changing expectations on the part of citizens and communities. Building on earlier rounds of smaller, discretionary participatory budgeting programmes across England, including a programme in Tower Hamlets, 32 more recent attempts have focused on direct resident input into mainstream budgets. For example, NHS Newham Clinical Commissioning Group undertook their first participatory budgeting exercise between Winter 2018 and Spring 2019 to determine local healthcare priorities. In this instance, a community organising approach was used where local civic institutions engaged with local people and sought their views in a forum they were comfortable with. Similarly, and in the same area, Newham Council have decided their budget priorities for  2019/20 by holding a series of citizens’ assemblies based in different neighbourhoods. In Lewisham, the council are increasing the allocation of the neighbourhood portion of the Community Infrastructure Levy and taking decisions on what projects to fund through local ward committees.

Others are going further. Barking and Dagenham are in the process of designing a participatory network that aims to go beyond greater citizen participation in the commissioning cycle and toward a model of “co-production” for preventative services and outcomes. They consider the role of the local authority as “facilitative”. By providing open community spaces and buildings – with support for residents to collaborate on neighbourhood projects such as developing small businesses, hosting social events or developing green spaces – they aim to promote a sustainable local economy, community resilience, social connections and ultimately wellbeing.

Another area of public services which has seen developments in line with the aspirations of the Localism Act, is housing, a significant recent development has been the introduction of ballots for estate regeneration. Since July 2018, any development plans which involve the demolition of any socially rented homes must be approved by residents of that estate in a ballot if the scheme is to receive funding from City Hall. This is an important move that will place residents at the heart of decisions on their neighbourhood.

New directions for neighbourhood governance?

There is an interesting disconnect between the expressed appetite for greater community involvement and the limited impact of policy initiatives to date. One apparent theme is the challenge of navigating the processes involved in establishing new parishes or community plans. When these processes intersect with London’s complex community politics, and with sometimes reluctant local authority partners, the challenges intensify. On the other hand, some councils are clearly embracing neighbourhood governance and community engagement more wholeheartedly, with innovations such as citizens’ assemblies being established across the capital.

The essays that follow set out some of the lessons learned to date, before drawing together some conclusions for policy and practice.

Endnotes – Table: Recent policy developments for neighbourhoods: a summary of take up

Rhodes, J., Tyler, P., Brennan, A. (2007). The Single Regneration Budget: Final
Evaluation, Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge
ii. Rhodes, J., Tyler, P., Brennan, A. (1998). The Distribution of SRB Challenge
Fund Expenditure in relation to Local Area Needs in England, Department of
Land Economy, University of Cambridge
iii. Rhodes, J., Tyler, P., Brennan, A. (2007). The Single Regneration Budget: Final
Evaluation, Department of Land Economy, Univer sity of Cambridge
iv. Ibid.
v. Turner, C. (2018) Business Improvement Districts in the British Isles 2018,
British BIDs.
vi. Future of London (2016). The Evolution of London’s Business Improvement
vii. MCHLG (2019) Notes on Neighbourhood Planning, Edition 22, May 2019
viii. Lichfields (2018) Local choices? Housing delivery through Neighbourhood Plans, Lichfield Insight, May 2018
ix. Archer, T., Batty, A., Harris, C., Parks, S., Wilson, I., Aiken, M., Buckley, E., Moran, R. & Terry, V. (2019) Our assets, our future: The economics, outcomes and sustainability of assets in community ownership, Power to Change and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
x. Ibid.
xi. House of Commons, Communities and Local Government Committee, Community Rights, Sixth Report of Session 2014-15
xii. People Power, Findings from the Commission on the Future of Localism, Locality

  • 1
  • 2 Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (2018). Community Life Survey: 2017-2018 Statistical Release. Retrieved from:
  • 3 Grosvenor Group (2019). Rebuilding Trust. Retrieved from:
  • 4 Travers, A. (2015). London Boroughs at 50. London: Biteback.
  • 5 Cheshire, P. (2007). Segregated neighbourhoods and mixed communities: A critical analysis. London: LSE. Available at:
  • 6 Ibid.
  • 7 Marmot, M. (2010). Fair Society, Healthy Lives: Strategic Review of Health Inequalities in England post-2010. London: Institute of Health Equity. Available at:
  • 8 Putnam, R. D. (2001). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • 9 Hunter, P. (2019). The Unspoken Decline of Outer London. London: The Smith Institute.
  • 10 Centre for London (2018). London Identities. Available at: https://www.
  • 11 GLA (2019). Survey of Londoners. Available at: dataset/survey-of-londoners-headline-findings
  • 12 Tomaney, J. (2014). Region and place 2: Belonging. Progress in Human Geography, 39(4), 507-516.
  • 13 Lowndes, V. & Sullivan, H. (2008). How low can you go? Rationales and challenges for neighbourhood governance. Public Administration, 86(1), 53-74.
  • 14 GLA (2018). All of Us: The Mayor’s Strategy for Social Integration. p.18. London: Greater London Authority.
  • 15 Lowndes, V. & Sullivan, H. (2008). How low can you go? Rationales and challenges for neighbourhood governance. Public Administration 86(1), 53-74.
  • 16 Local Governance Research Unit (2017). The Voice of the Councillor: Final report of the De Montfort University and Municipal Journal Councillor Commission. De Montfort University.
  • 17 Stoker, G., Gains, F., Greasley, S., John, P. & Rao, N. (2007). The New Council Constitutions: The Outcomes and Impact of the Local Government Act 2000. London: Department for Communities and Local Government. Available at: councilconstitutionsresearch1
  • 18 Ibid.
  • 19 Forrest, R., Lloyd, J., Rogers, N., & Williams, P. (1979). The Inner City: In Search of the Problem. Geoforum, 10, 109-116.
  • 20 Bailey, N. & Pill, M. (2011). The Continuing Popularity of the Neighbourhood and Neighbourhood Governance in the Transition from the ‘Big State’ to the ‘Big Society’ Paradigm. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 2011, 29, 927-942.
  • 21 House of Commons Library (2003). The Local Government Bill, Bill No. 9 of 2002-03. Research Paper 03/01 6 January 2003.
  • 22 Cook, I. R. (2008). Mobilising urban policies: The policy transfer of US Business Improvement Districts to England and Wales. Urban Studies, 45(4), 773-795. Retrieved from: uploads/2012/03/Cook-2008-Mobilising-urban-policies-Urban-Studies.pdf
  • 23 Future of London (2016). The Evolution of London’s Business Improvement Districts. Available at: of_londons_bids_march2016_web_020316.pdf
  • 24 De Magalhaes, C. (2014). Business Improvement Districts in England and the (Private?) Governance of Urban Spaces. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 32(5), 916-933.
  • 25 London Councils (2012). Parish Councils in London: a Member Briefing. Available at:
  • 26 Travers, A. (2011). Engaging London’s Communities: The Big Society and Localism. Available at: fid/4144
  • 27 Department for Communities and Local Government (2011). A plain English guide to the Localism Act. Available at: government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/5959/1896534.pdf
  • 28 Neighbourhood Planners London (2019). Neighbourhood Planning In London: investigating its potential in areas experiencing high levels of deprivation. Available at: london-investigating-potential-areas-experiencing-high-levelsdeprivation/
  • 29 Archer, T., Batty, A., Harris, C., Parks, S., Wilson, I., Aiken, M., Buckley, E., Moran, R. & Terry, V. (2019) Our assets, our future: The economics, outcomes and sustainability of assets in community ownership, Power to Change and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
  • 30 Quirk, B. (2007). Making Assets Work: The Quirk Review of community management and ownership of public assets. Available at: http://library.
  • 31 Gilbert, A. (2016). A common interest: The role of asset transfer in developing the community business market. London: Power to Change Research Institute. Available at: uploads/2016/11/2016-A-common-interest-The-role-of-asset-transfer-indeveloping- the-community-business-market.pdf
  • 32 DCLG (2011). Communities in the driving seat: a study of Participatory Budgeting in England – Final report. London: Department for Communities and Local Government.