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How many councils are truly collaborating with their local communities?

John TizardWe hear much about the importance of communities and neighbourhoods, whether it is their role in creating economic growth, addressing social cohesion, improving the local environment or, increasingly, co-producing or even taking over the running of public services.

The theory sounds great – but in times of reduced public sector budgets, rising social need and demographic-led demand for services, what might this look like in practice?

Of course, almost by definition, no two communities will be the same, and it follows that standardised approaches may not always be appropriate. However, it would be both wasteful and short-sighted not to consider how successful initiatives in one place might be replicated elsewhere.

It would be equally short-sighted not to recognise that the public sector (and especially local government) has a key role to play in supporting the development of communities and neighbourhoods.

Every community will have both formal and informal networks of volunteers, community activists and voluntary and community groups. These groups are fundamental to the health of any neighbourhood. They offer voice, solidarity and protection for local people, especially marginalised and disadvantaged members of society.

They may or may not offer services for local people but service delivery and in particular the delivery of former public services is not usually their main purpose, interest or strength. And if they do provide services, while these may not be ones that the public sector would regard as core to its offer to local people, they are more than likely ones that local people most respect and value. The public sector has to recognise and respect this reality.

It is also a reality that not all such groups have ever received or even wanted public money. More typically, these groups may have received grants from their local authority and enjoyed an informal relationship with officers and councillors. Today, however, these personal relationships have commonly been replaced by a colder, more methodical, contracting approach. This has resulted in many groups that once received public money receiving much less, or more frequently, none. The fact is that most such groups are simply not equipped to bid, and nor do they wish to do so.

One has to ask how any local authority can seriously seek to set the outcome specifications for communities and in so doing, claim to be both localist and wanting to empower communities? Ridiculous.

Collaboration, mutual support and grants are vital,

and should not simply be jettisoned in the pursuit of market-based models

While there has been a move towards contracting across the public sector, the truth is that this is usually not appropriate for community groups or as a means of building community capacity. To this end, collaboration, mutual support and grants are vital, and should not simply be jettisoned in the pursuit of market-based models. Such a narrow and blinkered approach can only end up damaging communities – not saving them.

The irony is that local authorities have the capacity to support communities in a whole variety of ways. They can make public assets available and, where appropriate, transfer these to community groups. They can encourage local schools, GPs and local businesses to share resources and expertise. And they can introduce programmes of co-production of services, ranging from social care to park management.

It is clear to me that local ward councillors need to be continuously reminded of their lynchpin role as placeshapers and members of their communities, and advocates and ambassadors for them. This means working with, listening to and advocating for local community groups and local residents. Of course, it must never be about trying to control or direct. Rather, the approach has to be based on mutual trust and respect. Councillors should expect to disagree and even to be campaigned against by local groups, while retaining respect for those same groups. Of course, if the campaigns become personal or evolve into direct attacks, the mutual trust is unlikely to survive, any more than if councillors adopt arrogant stances to communities.

I would also remind council leaders that they too are ward members, and should not be exempt from these approaches. Indeed, the corporate role should benefit from the ward role.

Councils and political parties should support councillors to fulfil this difficult but vital role – one that enhances each councillor’s credibility, their ability to represent their wards in the council chamber, and to demonstrate their valuable contribution.

Unfortunately I know of very few councils that do this.

I also know of too few councils that ‘genuinely’ seek to engage the public, local communities and community groups in their strategic reviews, policy making and resource allocation decisions. This omission, in my view, typically weakens the quality and legitimacy of these decisions, means that valuable and often practical experience and ideas are missed, and creates an unnecessary and undesirable gulf between the council and community. After all, what better place to commence dialogue and engagement than at community level?

The next few years are going to be deeply challenging. There will be much talk about localism and communities, the voluntary and community sector and new ways of working across the public sector.

A good starting point for most, and perhaps all, councils and councillors, would be to strengthen their political, practical and financial support for communities and neighbourhoods. Above all, we need collaboration, not competition, or worse still, competitive contractual relationships, between communities and councils. Too many social, political, economic and environmental goals depend on local collaboration and co-operation for these to fail or be ignored.

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