Leveraging partnerships and learning from devolution to engage communities

Cornwall Council Cornwall Council’s approach to community action has focused on its programme of devolution to parish and town councils, and using that learning now to foster partnerships with a wider range of community groups to improve health and wellbeing.

View allCommunities articles

Cornwall became a unitary council in 2009 and there are over 200 parishes in the county. 160+ agency agreements are now in place with town and parish councils. The dedicated portfolio holder for communities ensures that a proactive approach to building partnerships at a local level runs through all council services. Enhancing the council’s reputation in the community is a key part of the business case for devolution and community action.

Programme of devolution

The council’s programme of devolution is overseen by a monthly devolution board, with membership that includes a number of the council’s key partners. Each project or initiative goes through a two-stage process, with an initial expression of interest followed by a more detailed business case. The business case focuses on the whole life costs of the project – and therefore the financial implications for both Cornwall Council and the devolution partner. Financial and nonfinancial benefits to residents and the wider community are not quantified as part of this process, although they are often identified in the narrative supporting each proposal. There is a strong belief in the benefits from the social value that is created from working in closer collaboration with communities and local people.

The majority of devolution to date has been in relation to the transfer of assets and responsibility for maintaining community facilities such as toilet blocks, open spaces, car parks, and recreational and leisure facilities to town and parish councils. However, this work has provided important learning and opportunities for future working, including:

  • building relationships that can provide a foundation for new projects
  • creating the right culture for working in this way, and the need to often take a ‘leap of faith’  given the difficulties inherent in measuring the impact of community engagement 
  • where possible, giving sufficient freedom to make better use of existing assets for community purposes, while recognising and managing the risks.

The council’s devolution team helps to put in place the right conditions for successful devolution of power by providing simple guidance, ensuring there is a clear and consistent process, and building capacity at a local level. This may be through the establishment of local peer support groups and exploring new models of governance and delivery.

Living well

Building on the success of engaging with local areas, the council is now looking to apply that learning to drive forward its ambitions for more integrated health and social care, under the Living Well Pioneer project. Living Well aims to support people to live the lives they want, and involves 15 key partners from local government, the NHS, and the community and voluntary sector. The work is based on a firm belief ‘that people are happiest and healthiest when they are active, valued members of their communities, supported by a network of family and friends, irrespective of their health conditions.’

A key success factor for the project is listening to people about their individual needs and aspirations, and shaping the care and support system around these. This will require services to work in new and different ways, collaborating on service design and delivery in ways that they’ve never done before. Examples include: sharing resources and expertise, involving the voluntary sector more in the commissioning process, and making better assets in the community. The partnerships and agreements that have been developed through devolution will provide an important mechanism for these new ways of working to be explored.

The council’s model for community action uses an asset transfer and capacity building model, supported by volunteering and giving time in communities. This has created a strong foundation for developing greater co-production in services in the future, and creating shared solutions through the relationships and learning from its devolution programme.