Viewpoint: How can local government collaborate with communities to help residents take the lead?

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Local Trust supports residents across England to take a lead in creating lasting change in their area, writes chief executive Debbie Ladds.

Through our work we’ve seen that it can be hugely valuable when communities collaborate with local authorities, and that many support collaboration as a powerful solution in the face of funding cuts.

Our recent survey showed that:

  • 81% of local authority members and 97% of residents agree that their local community could be improved if there was a greater input from residents.
  • 40% of local authority members identified working closely with residents as the best potential solution to the current concerns about reduced public service funding, with 51% of residents reporting the same.

To find out more, we held a debate about collaboration, bringing together people from communities that we support, academics and voluntary and public sector professionals (including a representative from LGiU). The debate showed that on-the-ground knowledge from residents and communities can help local authorities make better, more informed decisions, while expertise from local authorities can help community-led projects succeed.

For example, on the Wirral, Beechwood, Ballantyne and Bidston Big Local negotiated with the council to purchase discounted leisure centre memberships, and offered these free to those completing a consultation with the local NHS ‘Livewell’ team. More people now access leisure and health services, and from surveys of those taking part in the scheme, the council have more data about local needs.

There are many examples where residents are fully involved in what’s happening in their communities; though we know it is not always easy or straightforward. From the findings of our debate, there are four steps elected members and officers can take to secure sustainable community collaboration:

  1. Involve residents at an early stage

Local authorities benefit from resident involvement at an early stage, even if it appears to slow down the process. Starting with a blank canvas in conversations with communities is powerful. Establishing shared goals is essential. Be patient: better to spend more time giving people what they want than to waste time, money and effort on what public service providers assume people want.

  1. Be open-minded

Some communities may feel disempowered or cynical about collaborating with local authorities and some elected members or officers may consider it impractical or undermining of the democratic process to increase collaboration with residents. Both sides need to be open-minded to overcome any past negative experiences of collaboration.

  1. Commit to the time it takes

It takes care and time to develop productive relationships with mutual understanding of each other’s perspectives. Establishing regular meetings between community groups and public services working on similar issues helps build trust.

Sue Miller, a resident involved in the Big Local programme in Whitley Bay, said: ‘In our area, we set up regular meetings with our local authority, which was a conscious decision because there had often been a lot of tension between local authorities and local people in the past. The meetings have helped improve communication and there is a greater level of understanding of how important Whitley Bay is to residents. There’s a passion among local people for the town, and it’s really rewarding to see the benefits of working together with local authorities– it feels much more like a partnership now.’

  1. Help residents to build their confidence and skills to improve their community

Collaboration works best where residents are more active, and we need to ensure a diverse section of residents are able to participate, rather than just the ‘vocal few’. Those working with and for communities need to help develop residents’ capacity and confidence to take the lead.

Join the debate – tell us about your experience of collaboration and how local government can collaborate with communities to help residents take the lead in creating lasting change in their area: email or tweet @LocalTrust.

Find out more about the debate on the Local Trust website:

Find out more about our survey findings:

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