‘Empowerment’ is a term much used by policy-makers with an interest in improving service delivery and promoting different forms of neighbourhood governance. But the term is ambiguous and has no generally accepted definition. Indeed, there is a growing paradox between the rhetoric of community empowerment and an apparent shift towards increased centralisation of power away from the neighbourhood in developed economies. This article explores the literature relating to empowerment and identifies two broad conceptions which reflect different emphases on neo-liberalism. It goes on to discuss two models illustrating different levels of state intervention at the neighbourhood level and sets out evidence from two neighbourhood councils in Milton Keynes in central England. In conclusion, it is argued that those initiatives which are top-down, state-led policy initiatives tend to result in the least empowerment (as defined by government), whereas the bottom-up, self-help projects, which may be partly state-enabled, at least provide an opportunity to create the spaces where there is some potential for varying degrees of transformation. Further empirical research is needed to test how far localist responses can challenge constraints on empowerment imposed by neo-liberalism.