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Market Town Awards 2010: Community involvement

By • Aug 19th, 2010 • Category: Awards

“How well do the community and local authorities work together in your town and how does/could the community influence the delivery of services?”

Market Town Awards debate - community involvement

These are questions we asked delegates attending the Regional Market Town Awards Showcase events in June and July 2010.  The ‘wordle’ above illustrates the strength of the responses grouped by categories.  Below is a little more detail about the type of points made for the top 5 of these categories.

1. limited-community-&-principal-authority-relations

  • Variable
  • Could always work better (they are patronising)
  • Third sector organisations do not seem to work well with local authorities
  • Limited local knowledge at district council
  • Some principal authorities are over bureaucratic and unhelpful
  • Difficulties experienced with some local authority departments even if others are supportive

In contrast, a significant number of comments defined the relationships as good.

2. new-governance-structures-&-mechanisms

  • Rule book discarded – current confusion as to way forward
  • Ability to let others take lead and/or back seat
  • Partnership engagement and local governance structure
  • Use local referendums to seek public opinion
  • Possibility of a scoring/weighting system to improve employment, limit landscape damage

A separate and significant group of comments pointed to the introduction of new area-based forums as suitable structures for providing a focus for good working relations between community partnerships, town councils and principal local authorities.

3. better-integration-of-interests

  • Less fragmented
  • Local, strategic, district and county partnerships need to maintain links
  • Need to investigate how well we can work together to achieve local aims
  • Understand that community consists of community groups, business community and non-active part of community
  • How to prevent single interest domination from either local or national groups
  • Remembering the needs of sustainable developments

4. politics-&-personalities

  • You have to play political game and in small towns personalities get in the way
  • Need to try to stop being political
  • Problem of “own” agendas – historic experience
  • Same people take a lead
  • Personalities can cause problems

5. improved-communications

  • Different media suit different people
  • Create different channels to access info:  exhibitions, website, telephone
  • Use of technology, for example: Twitter
  • Use of other situations to have discussions with the community, for example: stalls at events, rural cinemas

Analysis and conclusions

(Debbie McGrath, Towns Alive Programme Manager and Alison Eardley, Policy Manager)

Improving working relations
The answers prompted by this question are quite wide ranging/locally specific so it is more difficult to draw a conclusion, except that the underlying desire seems to be to improve working relations between the community and local authorities and there appears to be an acknowledgement of the benefits of this.

The quality of the relationship alters so much from place to place and seems to a large part to depends on the skills and personality of the individuals involved.  This brings us back to the importance of training – not just for communities but for the local authority involved.

It is also apparent that there are many of examples of good practice across the country in terms of both reference to structures such as local area forums and more broadly through good communications and shared expectations.

A new era of community empowerment
Big Society‘ has been heralded as one of the key solutions to the period of ‘overspending’ and ‘tendency to live beyond one’s means’ that the Conservatives accuse the former Labour Government of overseeing.  The Prime Minister has said groups should be able to influence and indeed run local services including post offices, libraries, transport services and housing projects. The concept is intended as a significant advance for people power.

It is clear that those communities who can get this right will be more likely to receive support.  Therefore, while the need for community and local authorities to work together has always been a topic that has received much attention, now is the time to make it work, and speed is of the essence.

Local democracy
A situation where a community has greater powers to initiate and develop projects from the bottom up raises questions about how democratic such an approach is.

  • How do you ensure that a community group is truly representative of the community and able to act in a way that does not over or under-represent specific elements of that community?
  • What should the role of the elected politician be and how can they be upskilled to ensure that they are in a position to democratically represent their community (even those who did not vote for them)?

The key is to ensure that a national policy that sounds and looks good – on the surface appearing to empower local people – does not have unintended consequences for the more disadvantaged or indeed the more advantaged members of the very community it seeks to assist.

Accountability
In turn this leads to the question of who is accountable if ‘community’ is to take on a greater role in shaping and delivering services.  Within a top-down local authority structure, it is the elected member, but what about in a bottom-up structure?

The role of Community Led Planning
Recognising the potential of local knowledge, the importance of participation, youth involvement, consultation and engagement suggests the need for a broad and inclusive dialogue and a place for mechanisms that enable this through Community Led Planning (CLP).

This is an existing form of bottom-up, ‘community-led’ framework where local communities have a real involvement in the way their town is developed, and inform the statutory system. It is a structured process, involving local community groups, activists and volunteers in creating a vision for the community and an action plan to achieve it.

AMT supports CLP and believes that it is very much aligned to the Government’s thinking behind ‘Big Society’.  Town Action Planning has been developed as a methodology for those living in small and market towns and sits within the LEAD framework which has been jointly agreed with ACRE, the other leading partner in promoting CLP.

Support through Towns Alive
There is a lot of work being undertaken by a range of organisations on the topic of how communities and local authorities can better work together and the issues that are part of this.  Through Towns Alive there is the scope to tailor this to a small town setting, understanding how CLP can offer a solution and addressing the issues of democracy and accountability and how this relates to the Government’s Local Enterprise Partnership agenda.

A joint project with ACRE seeks to explore how local authorities can better engage in the Community Led Planning process.  Much guidance exists for communities on how they can best effect CLP but less exists for the local authority.  The project will address this and develop information for local authorities as part of the LEAD framework which underpins CLP.

In addition, work is to be undertaken to explore the how councils and community partnerships can combine forces effectively while ensuring that local democracy and accountability are not infringed.

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is As Online Communications Coordinator, Katie is responsible for the running of the AMT website and has taken the charity into the world of social media. Her particular focus is to expand and promote AMT's database of more than 400 case studies of town and community projects - regularly cited as one of the most valuable aspects of AMT Membership. Katie's previous experience ranges from PA to an internationally-renowned architect in London to Manager of the Responsible Tourism Awards for responsibletravel.com in Brighton. Katie works on Tuesdays and Thursdays and can be contacted at katie.fewings@towns.org.uk
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