Empowering communities in South Somerset


South Somerset District Council has a history of successful community engagement and has achieved national recognition through the Beacon Scheme.

South Somerset has built on this success and taken this to the next level through:

  • engaging the community in design and delivery of services
  • enhancing participatory budgeting, enabling larger ‘community kitties'
  • developing a commissioning role for local services
  • securing decision making at local level through joint agency committees.

Key learnings

Know your community. Try different approaches as one size doesn't fit all. Thought needs to be given to what needs to be achieved by the end of the evening so that the most suitable method is applied.

Be clear about the level of empowerment on offer. Managing expectations is the key to success of engagement.

Be prepared on the day. A slick operation on the day goes a long way.

Close the loop. Always ensure that outcomes actions from the event are followed through and communicated. Absence of this can damage reputations and relationships with the community.

Who was involved?

Area chairs play a lead role in this agenda with support from officers. Each area chairman's portfolio concentrates on creating stronger communities, local consultation and community engagement. Crucially the portfolio also includes liaison with:

  • parish and town councils
  • the county council
  • local partnerships
  • regeneration forums
  • the voluntary sector.

The area chairs have a seat on the council's executive and local strategic partnership (LSP). This ensures that community ambitions sit at heart of council's decision making. Community and other stakeholders play an active part in the entire process at all stages.

The South Somerset district area is divided into four sub-district areas, each serving around 40,000 residents.

Forums are held in these sub-district areas. These give a voice to community aspirations and a local dimension to the delivery of services. They also provide the link between community needs and decision making through building consensus among representatives.

Area forums are currently being used for:

  • prioritising of projects
  • funding of projects
  • planning
  • buying in enhancements to service delivery, should the community desire them.

They are also being used as the mechanism for operating the ‘community kitties' and community ‘calls for action'.

Each area has been allocated £40,000 for buying in services. Area forums can then engage with the public to agree what the money should be spent on.

Area forums help to give a voice to community aspirations. They give the delivery of services a local dimension, which provides a link between community needs and decision making.

Engagement at sub-forum level takes place in a number of ways. It depends what is the most appropriate method of bringing flexibility around engagement. The focus can be on a particular service issue and a vote taken to aid in tailoring local services.

However, the results of these engagement activities are supplemented by statistical data and information from other sources. They can then be presented to members at area committees.

This model of sub-district engagement provides clear linkage with the council's formal decision making process - see illustration below. Other agencies may be involved through the LSP and crime and disorder partnerships. These links are vital since many community issues will not relate solely to council activity. Communities must see how those issues are taken forward in a structured way.


Missing media item.
- who is involved in the decision making process and how the pieces fit together

The problems and how we tackled them

The council's ambition was to move to the next level of community engagement and pave the way for the statutory Duty to Involve. The duty comes into force in 2009 and requires councils to inform, consult, involve and devolve.

The main requirements of the statutory duty are:

  • engaging the community in design and delivery of services
  • developing a commissioning role for local services
  • enhancing participatory budgeting - enabling larger ‘community kitties'
  • securing decision making at local level through joint agency committees.

An independent doorstep budget ‘trade off' exercise was undertaken to feed into the budget setting process. Residents were allocated a set number of points that they could ‘spend' on their preferred services. They were presented with a list of services and had to make choices and trade-offs using their points. This helped members to make budget decisions based on community preferences. It also sent the message to residents that councils had limited funds.

Some area forums have taken it further. They are empowering their communities to make decisions about ‘small pots of money'. However, these are often significant in the eyes of the community. Area committees are given an additional £40,000 to begin the process of better aligning service need with service delivery.

Each member has an additional budget of £2,500. This is to support local community initiatives and projects that are harmonious with the council's corporate plan.

One forum invites groups to present projects and get them funded through a voting process. One such evening was attended by 400 residents.

Another forum researches all available information about local needs. This involves parish and town plans and other data. They then agree service issues and improvement priorities. These are then used to produce costed proposals for service enhancement.

Before the decision is made, the forum gets the opportunity to talk to service providers in more detail about these proposals. Final proposals are presented to the area committee that uses its allocation to fund area-specific enhancements.

Securing decision making at local level through joint agency committees

An example of this is the work in the area of community safety. The Area Community Safety Panel meets to address the issues affecting local community safety. Members of the panel include community representatives from:

  • residents' local action groups
  • business representatives
  • councillors.

Groups received strong support from the police, South Somerset District Council and other partners in the South Somerset and Mendip Community Safety Partnership. Local action groups (LAGs) can also facilitate the new Home Office requirement for local community meetings.

Outcomes and impact

Decision making on council matters is seen to be within the community, which can have a say on service enhancements. Feedback from participation events has been extremely positive. Attendance has increased each year which shows an engaged community.

Members are actively leading communities through area committees. Communities can see that councillors are listening to them. Residents concerns raised at area forums and area committees can lead to community ‘calls for action'. Residents feel engaged and able to influence services.

The council has made strong headway with the new statutory Duty to Involve. Below is a brief assessment of the current practice against the principles of community empowerment, as outlined in key government papers:


Missing media item.

What could we have done better?

One improvement would be to ensure the timing of community engagement is better aligned with the council's service planning cycle. Also to ensure that requests for area enhancement are built into individual service delivery plans.

A ‘menu' of choices with costs should be available for the next service enhancement forum. Cost information must be robust so that stakeholders can make more informed choices in light of cost implications.

Service providers need to be more business-like in their approach, particularly when providing quotations for enhancements. They tend to view area commissioners as ‘paying customers'.

Next steps

Further development of the concept of commissioning service enhancements for residents. The ultimate goal would be multi-agency commissioning at area level. Work has started on a number of options, the first of which is joint committees.

Useful links

Community engagement in South Somerset - a dialogue with Rina Singh, Deputy Chief Executive

Getting closer to communities Beacon theme - on the Beacon Scheme website

Contact details

Rina Singh
Corporate Director (Communities) and Deputy Chief Executive
telephone: 01935 462 010
email: rina.singh@southsomerset.gov.uk

Article published May 2008