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Engaging residents in new ways with 'We Walworth' – Southwark Council

Traditional forms of consultation were not proving effective at reaching the diverse communities of Walworth, an area of Southwark undergoing rapid change. Working with a range of stakeholders, Southwark Council set out to have place-based conversations with as wide a range of local residents as possible, aiming to speak to around 80 per cent of the area’s population. This was undertaken as a proof-of-concept for new forms of engagement, with an initial aim of identifying a shared local concern or issue, and undertaking innovative, community-led means of addressing that issue. This has included building resident capability on engagement and leadership, to help deliver longer-term capacity.

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Case study video

The place

Walworth is a diverse place, home to around 45,000 people in Southwark. It is regarded as being in the top 20 per cent of deprived areas and has a demographic similar to other places in inner London. There are lots of assets – projects, people and leaders – there though with lots of potential to capitalise on the rapid change in the area.

Faraday ward is close to a large park and to the shopping area around East Street market and is a hallmark of the richness of the area, with a variety of social infrastructure at its heart.

The challenge

The council’s role in consultation had centred on its duty, and fell into the trap of having a fixed idea and using the consultation process as a way to validate that idea. As a result, the council was struggling to connect with residents and understand what they truly valued. Along side this, the murder of George Floyd and COVID-19 has highlighted the health inequalities which led people to start asking different questions.

There were pockets of innovation that were attempting to take root, but often caught in tension compared to the short-termism and overwhelming crisis mode.

The solution

Partnering with Pembroke House who manage Walworth’s Living Room and working with the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), local stakeholders and residents, the council embarked on a new proof of concept to build confidence and demonstrate a new approach to community engagement.  

This approach is based on having conversations with as wide a range of people as possible. Adopting a campaigning method, the team wants to speak to around 80 per cent of the 'lower layer super output areas' (LSOA), although they are using this as an organising principle to be ambitious, and not as a pre-set target.

From these conversations, an issue was able to be identified that was important to local people – barbecues in the park. This brought out a number of interconnected issues, leading the council to set up a working group of around 20 people of an equal balance of residents and government. These members are then trained on an engagement methods, speak to residents and develop a vision of outdoor eating. Building resident capability in this way means that every one in the working group is usually starting from the same place whilst also upskilling themselves.

It has been a challenge, albeit a positive one, to have partners reassess how they usually work and stripping it down. But having a clear vision, and high trust has enabled the project to withstand personnel changes and evolving scope. Alongside having a clear strategic leader, having a project manager who can knit together delivery is also key. Communications messages are also more complex when working without intended outcomes, with different audiences more attune to different elements.

The impact

The council held over 700 conversations so far, with the project concluding in March 2023. The pilot cost £100,000, but the costs for the actual engagement and working group were comparatively low. Much of the budget was invested in consultancy evaluation.

This is very much a place-based project, with an intense focus on building capacity. Yet the model is replaceable, with the right will, and stakeholders and approach of starting in the place.

The team has learned along the way; publishing regular updates and being open with residents on progress. Working week to week has enabled the project to be a living project, which can respond to the pattern of people and conversations in front of them.

How is the new approach being sustained?

This approach complies with the duty of consultation, whilst driving the desire to improve the social fabric of the place. As every one is involved, through spiralling connections, people are not targeted and therefore at risk of exclusion.

It is not about extracting confirmatory information from people, but building relationships to achieve transformation. While a lot of this work needs to be upfront, timelines and decision-making will quicken in future engagement opportunities as the networks have been established.

The council are investing in their change-makers, and providing the space for someone to have a clear vision through participation in Civic Futures fellowship. By creating that cover, partners can be fully signed up and invested and methods are used with an understanding of their wider values and rationale.

As part of the pilot, the council will undertake a second issue working group. The intention is to continue this approach beyond the pilot in Walworth, and – depending on council buy-in – in another part of the borough.

Lessons learned

  • Be there and show up – really commit to what you are trying to do.
  • If councils really want to unlock skills, if councils really want to take inequalities, they need to be more curious and emergent. Yes, there can be scaffolding in place, but they need to be more responsive to our communities.
  • Radically trust in the power of the relationship. Give space to think creatively. People are often in pitching modem not listening mode – that’s where the impact is.