Northern Ireland Communities and society, Housing and planning, Welfare and equalities

Community planning in Armagh, Banbridge & Craigavon: Laying the groundwork for a regional wellbeing approach

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Visual minutes from the launch of Armagh Place Plan. Credit @Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council

Alongside a briefing from Professor Colin Knox appraising community planning in Northern Ireland, this article from Armagh City Banbridge and Craigavon Borough outlines key areas of innovation and deployment of community planning partnerships in local government. You can read the briefing here

Community planning partnerships have been delivering an outcomes-based approach to public services with the aim of improving social, economic and environmental well-being since 2015. Although progress has been slower than anticipated, largely due to the challenges outlined in Professor Knox’s policy briefing, a lot has been achieved in nine years.

This sustainable approach of acting to improve social, economic and environmental well-being requires ways of working that include close collaboration, involving communities and citizens in decision-making and action, and evidence-informed policies and programmes. In the absence of a Programme for Government, Armagh, Banbridge & Craigavon (ABC) Community Planning Partnership has focused on developing these ways of working, laying the groundwork for a time when the whole system is working towards collective well-being and shared outcomes under this approach.

Close collaboration

We know that a strong partnership is necessary to improve the collective well-being of our population. Therefore, in ABC our priority has been developing our partnership. Relationships are key. Their importance cannot be understated, and we have invested time to build relationships and trust.

“You really do feel that you’re a meaningful partner and that what you’re bringing to the table is being listened to and heard. And that’s what makes it so special and unique.” Donna Stewart, Manager, Craigavon & Banbridge Volunteer Bureau, Vice-Chair, ABC Shared Leadership & Community Engagement Sub-Committee and Vice-Chair, ABC Community & Voluntary Sector Panel

Our partnership is a broad network of statutory, community, voluntary and business organisations, and, by its very existence, it has impacted the borough’s resilience. As the pandemic hit, over 300 people from 98 organisations sat on our partnership structures. These relationships helped to enable the swift response to the crisis as it developed.

Together, we have agreed on the characteristics of a successful partnership and are working to support, promote and monitor these. The characteristics include creating a learning environment, having clear roles and lines of accountability and influencing the resource allocation of partners. We have found the idea of shared leadership to be useful. Most of the leadership positions in the partnership are held by partners other than the council and we have put in place support for those who step into these roles, such as leading on actions, chairing the partnership and its sub-committees and the Community & Voluntary Sector Panel.

“We’ve taken the concept of shared leadership very seriously within our partnership and many partners have stepped up to take leadership roles.”
Colette Rogers, Head of Health and Social Wellbeing Improvement (south), PHA, Chair of ABC Community Planning Strategic Partnership

Involving communities and citizens in decision-making

Community planning brings decisions about local services and plans closer to communities. In ABC, we are using Participatory Budgeting to give the public a direct say in how public money is spent and to support community action. We are currently delivering our third Participatory Budgeting grants process, whereby any group of three people aged eight and over can apply for up to £1,000 on an idea to bring to life one or more aspects of the Take 5 Steps to Wellbeing. In 2023, almost 4,000 people voted to allocate over £76,000 to 81 projects. Money from the funding pool was contributed from nine partners, including from the voluntary sector, and the biggest age group of voters was those from 8 to 15 years old. We would like to partner with executive government departments to mainstream this innovation, which builds a culture of participatory democracy.

Although we have started on a small scale, the results and outcomes that we’ve seen so far and the difference that we’ve made to the lives of the people of our Borough, I think, would convince anyone to invest in Participatory Budgeting.”
Catherine McFarland, Director of Finance, Audit and Assurance, NIHE Chair, ABC Shared Leadership & Community Engagement Sub-Committee

Using data and evidence: From research to policy and action

Community planning partnerships are currently delivering an outcomes-based approach to improve the collective well-being of a whole population of a place. Every two years, we report on our borough’s progress towards our outcomes at a population level and on the performance of our actions through the publication of our Statements of Progress.

Community planning partnerships are developing policy and research. Place is one of the three themes in our community plan, and ABC Community Planning Partnership has been one of the partnerships to pioneer a new approach to spatial and locality planning. In 2020, we started work on our first place shaping plan for Armagh and have since launched a second plan for Banbridge. These plans build an evidence base at the level of a ‘real place’ – a town or city – and build ownership for aspirations and actions across local people and partners. The partnership’s Place Board oversees this work and is influencing emerging regional economic, social and environmental policy relating to place.

“People across the borough here in Armagh, Banbridge & Craigavon truly value their sense of place and belonging. And indeed, across government, ….. place is gaining even more recognition. Place is one of the three central themes we are working on.”
Ethna McNamee, Regional Manager, Invest NI, Chair ABC Place Board

ABC Community Planning Partnership has an anti-poverty theme. Although partners are still in crisis mode, moving from Covid-19 to the cost of living crisis, and with between six and seven tonnes of emergency food being distributed each month, there is a move towards longer-term, more sustainable approaches.

The decision to try Participatory Budgeting came from our partnership’s Community Engagement Strategy. As well as an action plan, the strategy includes a policy framework for public participation in decision-making, developed with support from policy experts from What Works Scotland. This framework could be adopted regionally to create a shared understanding and standards for public participation in decisions.

Conclusion

There are indeed many challenges facing community planning partnerships.

However, a deep dive into any of the 11 partnerships will reveal dense networks of cross-sectoral relationships making things happen locally, democratic innovations like Participatory Budgeting and Citizens Panels that are hard to imagine at a regional level and functioning outcomes frameworks with regular reporting at population and performance levels. Progress is being made on policy areas such as poverty, place, inclusive growth, public participation in decision-making and more. There is potential to build on these achievements if, and when, we have a Programme for Government which shares this outcomes-based well-being approach to public services.

More from LGIU Ireland…

Community planning in Northern Ireland: Unfulfilled potential?

Housing and planning round-up February 2024

Championing improvement in Scotland’s planning system

Community Planning in Fermanagh and Omagh District Council

Planning and Development Bill 2023

Empowering local government in Northern Ireland – Alison Allen, Chief Executive of NILGA



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