A Community Right to Participate

In considering a Community Rights Act for Northern Ireland (CRACT NI) we need to be clear about the provisions that should be contained therein. If we state that communities should have a right to buy, own, challenge and participate, then what do we mean by this and why are these rights needed? 

This will require a wide-ranging and sustained community conversation on the concept of community rights, which must include:

  • How legislation will advance community wellbeing;
  • How it will allow us to confront and remedy social injustices;
  • How it will improve our environment and our ownership of the spaces we live in;
  • How it will improve our economic circumstances, making NI a better place to live in.

All these issues will require community engagement to help formulate an Act that reflects the real needs and requirements of a forward-thinking third sector. 

So, what do we mean by ‘participate,’ and how do we wish to define ‘community’ in this instance?


Place is an important determinant in understanding what we mean by community. It shapes how public bodies plan for and provide a wide range of services, and it also serves to define our identity and how we see ourselves.  So, when we talk about community in the context of a Community Rights Act, we are talking about a place with which citizens identify. DTNI proposes that the citizens within those places should be afforded specific rights to give legitimacy to their voice.

Where legislation has been developed elsewhere, particularly in England and Scotland, definitions of community have been determined by their geography – e.g. a Belfast community, or a Lisburn or an Omagh community. These defined places can, in turn, be subdivided, e.g. west Belfast, and further sub-divided to the Falls and the Shankill for example. We currently do this in NI through the demarcation of parliamentary constituencies, electoral wards, and super-output areas.

The importance of place however should not discount the significance of communities of interest. The narrow definition of ‘community’ in NI situates people in one or other of the two majority traditions, indicating that you are either from a unionist/orange community background or a nationalist/green one. These definitions fail to account for a wide variety of subsets of communities that straddle the majority national or ‘notional’ identities. We can layer in variables such as income, ethnicity, class, as well as classifications like rural or urban, peri-urban, transient or settled, gender, disabled, sporting and so on. In other words, community labels are many and varied. Our emphasis should be on the importance of including all voices in place shaping, in commissioning, in planning. And it is that purpose, in place shaping, that our sense of community is most valuable. In the places we inhabit, our voices must be heard in determining how they look, how they connect to other spaces, to commerce, to schooling, to health, to regeneration and so forth.


If we are not part of the process of shaping our communities and determining its needs, then we continue to be the passive recipients of services planned and sometimes even delivered by public officers with no immediate relationship to the people and place in which those services are needed –  e.g. where the provision of housing is shaped and built by people who live elsewhere. Traditionally, where we have been engaged as participants in place shaping and in planning, consultations have been perceived as box-ticking exercises where local opinions represent the ratification of decisions already made.

In this model of development in NI, planning by committee is the norm. Communities are not acknowledged as authorities on the places they live in – and that is reflected in the shape of public service provision. Communities are not considered to be decision-makers, but it is they who must suffer the consequences of committee-led planning decisions, which all too frequently fail to deliver for communities. The communities that were socially and economically deprived 30 years ago are, largely, still socially and economically deprived today, their problems seemingly intractable. The role for community organisations within this cycle of policy failure appears to be as management agents of poverty. This is what community development has become; its agents having either unconsciously acquiesced with the conditions of the communities they represent, or never acquiring the tools to transcend it. 

We assert that the tools for change are community rights; rights that allow communities to participate as active agents in determining the shape of the places in which they live and the services they require, be that access to statutory education or extra-curricular education for example. A right to participate is a foundational principle of civic democracy. That new structures, processes and procedures are needed to deliver on that goes without saying. Agreeing how we involve and uphold the voice of the individual and the choir of community opinion is a significant challenge.

Change is underway

Local government reform in 2015 came with a new suite of decision making powers for our eleven council authorities. These powers still fall far short of devolved decision-making vested in Great Britain councils. Central government is still the key decision-maker in NI. Though we have come some distance, we still have some way to go. Local government requires further devolved powers and, in turn, it needs to be supported to engage and work with communities through legislative means. A number of emerging initiatives led by the voluntary and community sector are challenging the existing order of democracy and decision-making, and are opening the door for new forms of citizen action.

Work ongoing by the Building Change Trust has further raised the debate on participative democracy- it has called for engagement standards for NI, the Scottish National Standards for Community Engagement being one example of such a model. It has also been to the fore in piloting  a citizens assembly in NI and participatory budgeting through investment in Participatory Budgeting Works. The challenge functions of a wide variety of local community organisations and regional voluntary bodies, equally continue to impress on the need for change. A legislative right to participate will serve to advance democracy, and along with associate community rights provisions such as the right to challenge, it will transform how we engage communities to commission, to plan and to design to meet their needs.


For further information follow us on Twitter @devtrustsni and at the campaign page @NICommRights and use the hashtag #CRACT