When I first became a councillor, I felt frustrated because I couldn’t deliver projects in my ward because the resources weren’t there or were focused elsewhere.
Having worked to get elected, it was important to have the tools to influence change within communities.
At the same time, in response to the ‘Big Society’, the council wanted to develop a model that allowed a central role to be played by locally elected councillors in order to safeguard the interests of all of the community, and not just the most articulate and able.
There was a feeling in the council that to deal with these ‘wicked’ issues, a fundamental review of the way councillors and the council worked in communities was required.
As a result, we successfully applied to take part in the LGA’s Keep it Real programme. The aim was to explore what levers might help give councillors a central role in the empowerment of their communities.
The LGA worked with the council over a 10-month period in 2012 to help facilitate a wide-ranging discussion with all councillors, staff and stakeholders. As part of the process, a members’ cross-party steering group was established that remains active today.
We established five community-based pilots to use ‘live’ scenarios to identify what a councillor would need to make things happen to allow local communities to reach their full potential. The pilots ranged from a community-led rural housing scheme, to the development of councillor-led local action plans.
Five key themes emerged from this pilot work, namely a need to:
- Establish mechanisms and processes by which the council could empower more communities to identity and prioritise their own needs, so they can achieve their ambitions for the place they live in.
- Increase the profile of community empowerment across the council by changing the way we work to respond to the different needs of our communities.
- Support local councillors in developing their role as community leaders, so that communities are able to take a lead on, and resolve, issues that are important to them.
- Implement a strategic framework that would enable the organisation to work differently with its local communities and direct its resources and support more effectively and efficiently.
- Coordinate the council’s approach to localism by bringing together the different elements, including spatial planning aspects.
A number of practical steps have been taken. These have not happened overnight and some have required significant organisational change. They include:
- The development of a community team with a core function of supporting councillors in their community empowerment role.
- Creating ward profiles and using customer insight information to give councillors a deeper understanding of the needs of all of their community.
- The better use of information-gathering techniques to allow councillors to understand public opinion in their area. This included the use of Survey Monkey, street surveys and facilitated workshops.
- Development of local action planning techniques to assist councillors and communities in identifying priorities, allowing them to influence decisions made about their local area and obtain funds for community-led projects
- Obtaining a £30,000 grant from the then Department for Communities and Local Government to develop a community planning toolkit.
- Working with partners such as parish councils, community associations and housing associations to help deliver these priorities.
- The creation of flexible funding pots, such as councillor budgets, a Community Asset Fund and community planning grants, to give councillors the resources to get things done in their communities. These grants are funded from the council’s New Homes Bonus receipts and are a direct way of communities benefiting from our new homes delivery programme.
- Access to the council’s capital programme, subject to the local councillor being able to identify
evidence of need using the techniques highlighted above.
- Officers from across council services meeting regularly to discuss place-based working and participating in place-based initiatives such as Romsey Future and Andover Vision.
Make your mark at the 2019 Innovation Zone
Test Valley’s Community Councillor programme was one of dozens of innovative local government programmes and initiatives showcased in the Innovation Zone at last year’s LGA annual conference.
Test Valley Leader Cllr Phil North says the zone “provided a unique opportunity to share our success in this area of work”.
“Our members are really keen to learn and the zone was a great space in which to get a conversation going with other councillors about their experiences and what’s working well for them,” he adds. “We took a real enthusiasm from the participants that councillors can be genuine catalysts for change within their communities, and what’s important is that we develop the support around councillors to help them thrive in this role.”
Applications are open now for councils wishing to showcase their creative ideas for making a big difference to residents at this year’s Innovation Zone, at the LGA’s annual conference in Bournemouth from 2-4 July. Over three days, councils and partner organisations will demonstrate and discuss how they use innovation to address local issues by bringing their schemes to life in practical and lively sessions. Tell your story, share your lessons and help others multiply your success.
So how has our ‘Community Councillor’ model made a difference?
Councillors in general have much more influence over the allocation of resources and have much more structural support in undertaking their role. In 2017/18, more than £330,000 was given and helped to get 103 local initiatives off the ground. These have ranged from small grants of a few hundred pounds through to five-figure sums for larger capital schemes.
Partners on project groups such as Romsey Future speak of a significant change in the way the council works with communities. Now, the talk is of partnership.
The new way of working has encouraged the council to empower its members to take local action whenever it can. This can have interesting effects on the ground. For example, Test Valley has more community resilience plans than any other council area in Hampshire.
The Community Councillor and Community Planning workstream has become an integral and vital part of the council’s operating model, and is now deeply rooted in its culture.
Its success has in part been due to cross-party support that has relied on a long-term commitment to councillor and community empowerment. The council has helped unleash the positive energies of councillors and their communities!
There is a real sense of pride among councillors and officers that this way of working has enhanced democracy and has enabled the council to work in closer partnership with the communities it serves.
I am incredibly proud of how far we have come over the past eight years. Our Community Councillor model enables all members to do the job they stood for election to do, and to be a catalyst for change.
We are passionate about our work as councillors and we are now in a place where our resources better match that passion and commitment.