There is a strong evidence-based rationale for community capacity building and community empowerment as part of a strategic response to reduce health inequalities. Within the current UK policy context, there are calls for increased public engagement in prevention and local decision-making in order to give people greater control over the conditions that determine health. With reference to the challenges and opportunities within the English public health system, this essay seeks to open debate about what is required to mainstream community-centred approaches and ensure that the public is central to public health. The essay sets out the case for a reorientation of public health practice in order to build impactful action with communities at scale leading to a reduction in the health gap. National frameworks that support local practice are described. Four areas of challenge that could potentially drive an implementation gap are discussed: (i) achieving integration and scale, (ii) effective community mobilization, (iii) evidencing impact and (iv) achieving a shift in power. The essay concludes with a call to action for developing a contemporary public health practice that is rooted in communities and offers local leadership to strengthen local assets, increase community control and reduce health inequalities.