Jennifer Glover is a policy researcher at the Local Government Information Unit.
Local government is going through a challenging period, with escalating strain on adult social care services, ongoing budgetary cuts, and uncertainty surrounding the future source of their finances. Combined with the broader sense of mistrust in politics and public institutions among the populus, councillors certainly have their work cut out for them. To ensure that the relationship between councils and their residents does not deteriorate in these trying times, we must commit to investing in the health of our local democracy and bringing conversations out of the town hall.
With this in mind, LGiU has been working with Local Trust to ask how councillors can reshape their relationship with citizens in a genuinely collaborative way. Although an essential part of a councillor’s role is leadership, we wanted to emphasise the value in facilitating and supporting residents to pursue their own community initiatives. Similarly, while much excellent work is being done to bring citizens into the council’s own discussions and decision-making, we believe that councils should seek to participate in community-led debate as well.
As part of this work, we gathered case studies of councillors across the country who have put this concept into practice; these informed the four practical steps outlined in our recent report ‘Community Collaboration: a councillor’s guide’. In it, we argue that community engagement should run through all parts of a council’s work and that councillors should endeavour to reach out to and support residents in addressing the challenges of their community.
As examples in the report show, this community involvement is not confined to ‘low-risk’ challenges and is far removed from tick-box consultation exercises. Councillors in the case studies have supported residents in tackling domestic violence and mental illness, promoting tourism and volunteering, and securing a future for local green spaces.
Handing over the reins can often be uncomfortable for councillors who are used to making an impact by being the driving force behind projects or who oversee high-stakes service areas. However we argue that it is a necessary transition, not only for the purposes of fostering mutual respect between citizens and their elected representatives, but as a way of discovering new locally-specific ideas, improving community resilience and cohesion, and unlocking resources and capacity.
Work such as that of the Kirklees Democracy Commission, which published its findings in June, demonstrates that citizens have ideas for their community and want to be more involved with local democracy, but are not clear about the role of their councillors or how to access the support of their council. This represents a moment of danger, but also a moment of opportunity. If we continue with the status quo, it becomes increasingly difficult to communicate the challenges faced by local authorities to an audience who are experiencing the results of budget cuts on their local services. But if we change the dynamic, and not only encourage community engagement but actively support resident-led work, a more respectful and collaborative environment can be cultivated.