England & Wales, Global, Scotland Communities and society, Covid-19, Democracy, devolution and governance

Engaging communities in recovery

On Tuesday, 15th September LGIU hosted the second webinar in its Post-Covid Councils series, this time focused on Place and Community. We were joined by councillors and senior policy officers to discuss how local government can engage communities in recovery. Attendees heard from Tom Lloyd Goodwin (Associate Director, CLES) and Pippa Coutts (Policy and Development Manager, Carnegie UK Trust) and from Janet Sillett (LGIU’s Head of Briefings) and Jane Sankarayya (LGIU’s Communications Manager). You can watch a recording of the speakers here.

The session was chaired by Jonathan Carr-West, Chief Executive of LGIU, who briefly introduced our Post-Covid Councils project and how we hope the work will feed into councils’ recovery plans. The group then heard from Janet Sillett who discussed the overarching aims of the theme. She stated that Place and Community essentially breaks down into three elements: the evidence and what it tells us; the differential impact on specific groups, individuals and places; and, finally, questions around progress and implementing the learning from the crisis. The evidence is, of course, fast-moving and sometimes hard to interpret, but there are some indisputable conclusions non the less. Consequently, one of the questions raised at the meeting asked: “how do we make sense of the complexities around recovery?”, especially as situations that were already difficult have worsened. Janet Sillett said that one clear example of this is health inequalities where the pandemic is bound to make them worse.  Engagement – the focus of the session – is easy to commit to but much harder to deliver.

Jane Sankarayya briefly spoke about equality in recovery and urged attendees to read a new contribution from Black Thrive. She stressed the importance of not falling back on assumptions and perceived stereotypes but instead responding to knowledge and information from a community perspective.

One of the work’s contributors, Tom Lloyd Goodwin of CLES, highlighted why local government needs to harness the power of the community when thinking about the local economy. With the current global situation, experts know that economic recovery will be a long and painful process, and ideally, we want to avoid an ‘Amazon Recovery’. CLES has seen a commitment from local leaders to leaving trickle-down economics behind and moving towards community wealth-building. Rather than wealth and resources being extracted locally and sent elsewhere, local SMEs, cooperatives and community enterprise should be supported as part of this strategy. These approaches have been adopted in Lewes, the Wirral and Wigan which is well known for its local Deal. Here, the Deal has been established with the idea of building communities by creating hubs for financial and technical support, focusing on recruitment and encouraging commercial enterprise in partnership with other key institutions. Energy has been channelled into growing employee ownership, however, this also requires a transfer of landed property and unleashing credit networks such as community banks. CLES has been working with local authorities to deliver recommendations and help them make use of new Covid-19 procurement rules. Also needed are more direct lines are power – communities and local governments must to be able to counter the double threats of centralisation and underfunding. Ultimately, local government should be a bureaucratic manifestation of community and ideas of a ‘Big Society’ should be avoided.

Participants heard from Pippa Coutts of the Carnegie UK Trust, an organisation centred around individual, community and societal wellbeing. She stated that inequalities have been magnified by the pandemic, which has also made evident how holistic our lives are as health, economy and society are all intertwined. Pippa Coutts agreed that we do not want to revert back to a Big Society so the new role of local government needs to be understood. We must recognise our assets and strengths and use them to empower communities. A new piece of work published by Carnegie sets out the steps to achieve this, placing wellbeing at the centre.

The steps are:

  • Giving people permission to take control – with the pandemic, some red tape has been relaxed. Consequently, funding has been easier to access, there has been more respect for supporting people in a dignified manner and more sharing of data between agencies.
  • Helping people to help each other – this entails enabling community power and encouraging communities to be able to step up. Councillors are empathetic leaders and are effective at partnership working due to a strong understanding of different sectors.
  • Support people to participate fully – we should use work to put together community conversations and find out what matters to communities.
  • Move upstream – there should be investment in preventative services and reviews in light of Covid.
  • Build-in radical kindness – a light has been shone on the importance of kindness during the pandemic and there has been a relational engagement between public services and individuals.
  • An authentic story of change – we should articulate and come together around visions for what communities want in the future.

During the discussion, a senior officer from the South West again agreed that there was no need for a return to the Big Society, however, local government needs to be able to push community initiatives while recognising when it needs to take a step back. Jonathan Carr-West replied that there have been varying degrees of recognition for this; those that have recognised this have been successful in their Covid-19 response. Tom Lloyd Goodwin conceded that many councils have undergone diagnostic work and created frameworks to deliver recommendations. He gave Knowsley Council as an example of success, making crucial links with the local community to turbocharge their social care strategy. Jonathan Carr-West questioned if there were examples that CLES had found where councils identified an area that was not time-effective. Tom Lloyd Goodwin responded that this was how community wealth building began, as local government started to think more progressively about procurement, working through machinations and inertias. However, he stated that this can be work-intensive as a lot of lobbying is required on the ground. In Birmingham, the first community wealth building researcher is working throughout anchor institutions, but, he clarified that this will not necessarily work everywhere as recommendations are not interchangeable between sectors.

Andrew Walker of LGIU underlined that the local authorities that have had the most success in these areas often had people who knew had to navigate Whitehall, seeking out the gaps in policy and regulation. This is, he acknowledged difficult to do and therefore this should be avoided if possible.

Pippa Coutts added that the largest problem was the lack of funding as pots of money are often tied to a sector or an outcome. A joined-up funding approach should be introduced, enabling councils to better plan for the long-term.

A councillor from the North West outlined the disconnect between central and local government and the vital role of councillors. He also pointed out the vast wealth inequalities within wards and asked how to engage with residents, while ensuring the council is meeting its targets within housing and poverty reduction. He stated that raising the aspirations of these residents was half the battle – once the council has achieved this, everything else falls into place.

An LGIU associate argued that the pandemic has galvanised councils to break down bureaucratic silos, but wondered how to turn this into a long-term process, allowing council staff time and space to think about what comes next. Pippa Coutts replied that councils need to hold onto this aim and understand the difficulties being faced by their neighbours and colleagues. Tom Lloyd Goodwin agreed and reminded attendees of the current broken system, with huge economic growth going hand in hand with high rates of poverty and falling life expectancy.

Jonathan Carr-West thanked participants and speakers and added that this is an ongoing project, with which LGIU is keen to further involve its members.

Find out more about the second pillar in our Post-Covid Councils project, Place & Community.  

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