Cllr Gerard Hargreaves is the Lead Member for Communities and Culture on Kensington and Chelsea Council.
As 2019 takes shape and we begin to look at the next financial year, many local politicians are faced with making decisions that can strain the trust of local communities. Stopping bus routes, reducing spending on arts and culture, or closing local police stations, are the sort of choices that provoke angry debates about how decisions get made. Obviously, there is an important role for national politicians to be clear with councillors about what our long-term financial situation will be, as setting budgets has never been more difficult in our sector. However, we can play our part through our role in actively involving local people in making the tough decisions still to come.
Our borough is still recovering from the Grenfell tragedy and its aftermath. It’s something we can never, and will never, forget. We’re continuing to do everything we can for those affected but we know this tragedy caused some in our community to fundamentally question the way local democracy operates. Re-establishing this trust is one of the core priorities for the whole Leadership Team and myself as lead member for communities. We’re still on a long journey towards this goal but I hope it might be useful for anyone responsible for maintaining public trust to understand what we’re putting in place to try and repair such a serious breach.
Last year an independent review of our decision-making spoke to many parts of the community and asked them how we could get better. This led us to publicly adopt twelve principles to help improve our decision-making and a new set of values for both council staff and councillors. We were clear our first mission must be to listen, and not only listen, but hear to what is being said.
There’s been some practical changes to the way we do this. We’re using digital tools like Nextdoor to facilitate some really helpful and targeted local discussions. Residents can find places to engage with us on specific issues that matter to their streets, their estates, or the wider borough. We’ve currently running one of our biggest consultation programmes ever to identify our borough’s local priorities ahead of creating our Council Plan. The work is centred on a programme of targeted events backed by personal interviews, councillor-led discussions, social media conversations, and an online survey. Making sure backbench councillors know how they can translate what people tell them on the door step into material captured by the survey was very important. We’re aiming to give everyone every chance to let us know what they think. Though online interactions can be convenient we can never forget the value people place on the chance to talk to their representatives face-to-face.
Over the next six months the pace of this work is increasing. We’ve set up a series of Listening Forums so people can raise local concerns directly with the council’s Leadership Team. We’re working hard to share information on our longer-term decision-making timetable and details of how people can get involved. We are reviewing the way we take decisions and looking at what more we can do – with our residents involved at every step of these discussions. It has started on the Lancaster West Estate – the home of Grenfell Tower – where we’ve begun a co-design process that truly puts residents at the heart of redesigning their estate and their future.
Obviously listening to people is just the first step. We can only rebuild trust with full transparency and by backing words with deeds as people want to see action. We’ve started with small changes that could have a big impact, like testing the speed of traffic in particular spots and plans for ways to stop lorries mounting the pavements on particular streets. We listened to residents who felt ignored by the organisations that owned their homes, then took forward the conversation about the duties housing associations owe to their tenants with a letter to be sent to housing association chiefs asking them to sign up to a series of pledges.
Fundamentally this work is designed to make sure people know they have a proper say in what’s happening on their own doorsteps and in their own lives. It’s a not a quick or easy process but we’re committed to never stop learning or improving. The trust people place in their politicians is already fraying given the huge challenges 2019 has in store. Remaining connected to the people they represent should be a core priority of whoever calls themselves a politician this year.