Building a better Brexit

In advance of the VONNE conference 2018 Brexit: Implications for VCSE organisations and their beneficiaries in the North East we are running a series of relevant blogs to help inform the North East VCSE sector. 

This blog was written by Locality, and first published on

When Britain voted to leave the European Union, politicians from all parties – whether they supported the decision or not – recognised Brexit as a moment of profound change.

Beyond the complex technical mechanics of disentangling a 40 year old relationship, Brexit shone a light on the extent to which our economy and our politics have not been working for many people. Policymakers have known for many years that we live in an age of spiralling inequality and deepening social divides; now it was time to do something about it.

And yet, while much has happened in politics since 23 June 2016, we are still waiting for a bold programme of reform to address these fundamental challenges. Whitehall’s capacity – much reduced anyway since the austerity programme of 2010 – is being consumed by negotiations. Parliamentary time is almost exclusively reserved for Brexit bills, and the government has no majority to pass reforming legislation anyhow.

This process will last until March 2019, and it’s difficult to project with any certainty exactly what will happen next. If a deal is agreed, in all likelihood we will enter into some kind of transition period, followed by a general election. If it’s no deal, all bets are off. What we do know is that all the while, politics will be stuck in stasis and the huge challenge of creating a fairer Britain will remain unaddressed.

We cannot just wait patiently while Westminster and Whitehall sort themselves out. We know that we can rely on the incredible resourcefulness of our communities. By establishing community organisations that are rooted in and focused on the local area, local people can respond to local need and drive their own neighbourhoods forward. Locality members do this in a range of different ways, bringing local people together to create the services their community needs most in spaces where everyone belongs. Every week over 400,000 people walk through our doors, and ultimately lives are transformed.

Ever since the referendum, we’ve been speaking to our members about how their communities are feeling, and what they think the challenges and opportunities are for their area at this crucial moment in our national life. Our members are spread all over England, from the areas that voted Leave in huge numbers to the Remain heartlands. Indeed we’ve found the Brexit divide reflected within our member organisations themselves: conversations about Brexit can go very differently depending on whether you talk to a CEO or a local trustee.

What we have discovered from these conversations is that there is a specific relationship between the work community organisations do and the big divides in our society the referendum revealed. A growing sense of inequality, driven by an economic model that has not benefited all communities. A disempowering democratic deficit, with people feeling they lack agency and control over their lives. And an unease about demographic change, with people living increasingly separate lives across age, class and ethnicity, made toxic by a strident immigration debate.

These are the big challenges our country needs to take head on. And at Locality, we believe that our members provide many of the answers. They can be powerful local economic agents, using assets and enterprise to drive regeneration, often in the most disadvantaged areas. Through community development and community organising, they give local people a voice and strengthen community involvement in local decision making. And they bring communities together by providing inclusive places and services.

Brexit offers us an opportunity to harness this power of community, by localising the economy, building power at the neighbourhood level, and providing positive support for integration.

But it is far from inevitable that this will be the Brexit we get. We could well end up with further inequality, driven by an economic model that seeks to win a global ‘race to the bottom’; greater disempowerment, with repatriated powers hoarded in Westminster; and increased community tensions, with immigration returned to the forefront of political debate, and tough border controls causing displacement.

Future Places Network

Our Future Places Network has brought Locality members together to discuss this and think through collectively how we build a better future for our communities. We organised three network meetings – in Leeds, Bristol and Birmingham – to learn how community organisations are building community power, promoting community cohesion and driving community economic development. We wanted to know what our members do, how they can do it better, and what Locality can do to create a more supportive environment.

We present our key findings in the Future Places report, which show the huge contribution our members make – and what we need to do to ensure we maximise the impact of the power of community.