England & Wales, Global Communities and society

Connecting with the people


Image by Sabine van Erp from Pixabay

We’ve been thinking a lot about the future recently. To mark LGiU’s thirtieth birthday we asked thirty leading thinkers and practitioners to tell us how the council of thirty years time might look different to local government as we know it now.
The results can be seen on our websiteand will be published as a collection on 9th December.

For our part, we think that as a society we face a series of profound and complex challenges: how to reset local economies, how to care for an ageing population, how to provide young people with the skills they need and decent homes to live in, how to build resilient supportive communities and many, many more.

At LGiU, we believe that these challenges are too complex and too particular to be solved by broad brush national solutions.

Equally, they cannot be solved by government or by citizens by themselves. We will need to draw on the creativity and civic energy of local communities and we will need to generate innovative new forms of partnership across the public, private and voluntary sectors and a new conversation about the respective roles and responsibilities of citizens and the (local) state.

We will need to enable communities to share ideas, exchange resources, aggregate influence and increase their collective intelligence.

We call this Connected Localism: connected across services, across places and across the public realm.

But while it is useful to paint these sorts of broad pictures of the future, we also need to look through the other end of the telescope and ask ourselves what these ideas might mean in practice and how they should influence the ways in which councils work right now.

Recently we’ve been looking at this in relation to housing, and particularly the relationship between tenants and social landlords.

We all need a decent place to live. It’s a fundamental condition of our well being, but tenants in social and council housing are more likely than the wider population to struggle with rent and the cost of living so having the support of a strong and resilient community is particularly vital for them.

We are currently seeing massive changes to welfare provision, which disproportionately impact upon people in social and council housing. These changes sit alongside other significant long-term trends such as an ageing population, a drive towards energy efficiency, and digital inclusion. All these change demand households to adapt significantly.

There’s already great deal of important work on the subject of tenant participation in governance structures and on tenant consultation, but we wanted to look specifically at the methods landlords are using to support such adaptions within households, at the communications between landlords and tenants, and at landlords’ work with partners and stakeholders to extend the reach and impact of their contact with tenants.

Working with the Mears group we undertook a survey of registered social landlords, ALMOs and retained stock authorities, the results of which are published in a new report, Strong Foundations: Building better dialogue between tenants and landlords.

As this research shows, there is a risk that vulnerable people and those already difficult to reach will be hit hardest unless we are able to find new ways to support them and to help them support themselves. We found that while spend on tenant engagement has increased in the last financial year, three quarters of respondents agreed that residents will need additional advice and support services in future.

Purely transactional relationships between tenants and landlords will not suffice to provide this support. Change is needed on both sides, to build new patterns of mutual support and responsibility.

In recent years there has been a surge in popularity of ‘nudge’ or ‘behaviour change’ policies that seek to influence individual behaviour. Whilst such approaches are interesting, they do not help to build the strong relationships that will be required to build a truly collaborative approach. So landlords and tenants must look at how they adapt together. Relationships – not transactions – are the key.

Practical models for this are indicated by the examples within the report, including:

  1. working with tenants to build relationships
  2. using customer contact points and data effectively – which leads to joined-up support, saving money, and improves services and participation
  3. targeted communications and digital inclusion
  4. engaging through community champions.

We see these interventions as connected localism in action; developing new forms of relationships that support and empower people and communities and that define a quite different approach to the work of public bodies, one that is about building capacity and resilience rather than just delivering or commissioning services.

It’s also encouraging to see examples of councils and their partners beginning to develop these approaches from housing association Moat’s approach to tenant and landlord rights and responsibilities, to the London Borough of Lambeth’s multi-agency response to welfare reform.

In that sense, at least in part, the future is already here.

Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.


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