A councillor’s workbook on community leadership

Councillor work book on community leadership cover showing people talking around a table in an office
This workbook has been designed as a distance learning aid for local councillors. It is intended to provide councillors with insight and assistance into the key skills that will help them to be effective in their role.


The content may be of particular use to more newly elected councillors  but even if you have been a councillor for some time the workbook provides a useful reminder of some of the key skills, approaches and tactics that make for becoming an effective ward councillor and community leader.

There are many aspects to being an effective community leader, whether in control, opposition or in a No Overall Control council. This workbook will provide you with some pointers on how to develop a style and approach that you are comfortable with, and that enables you to be most effective in your role.

The workbook can be used as a standalone learning aid or alongside other material you may cover such as e learning modules or sessions within your own council. It may also be used alongside other LGA workbooks, such as those on chairing skills, effective opposition in local government, scrutiny and being an effective ward councillor.

You do not need to complete it all in one session and may prefer to work through the material at your own pace. The key requirement is to think about your own approach and, how the material relates to your local situation, the people you serve and the council you represent.

In working through the material contained in this workbook you will encounter a number of features designed to help you think about the ward councillor role. These features are represented by the symbols shown below:


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Guidance, research, quotations, explanations, and definitions that you may find helpful.

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These are questions or queries raised in the text which ask you to reflect on your role or approach – in essence, they are designed to be thought-provokers.

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Case studies

These are ‘pen pictures’ of approaches used by councils elsewhere

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Hints and tips

A selection of good practices that you may find useful.

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Useful links

Signposts to sources of further information that may help with principles, processes, methods, and approaches.

The context

What do we mean when we talk about community leadership and the roles and responsibilities of councillors? 

There are a great many people and services that contribute to the welfare and prosperity of local communities. Councillors are uniquely placed to develop these strategies; shape thinking and take an active lead locally because they alone have been democratically elected to represent the interests of the people and the council. This gives them a legitimacy and a mandate no other local body or individual has, apart of course, from MPs.

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“Some people think that being a Councillor is about being important in the Town Hall – wrong! The political work is important but the most important role for a Councillor is mixing and fixing in the communities you represent. That is where you can really make a difference. By being the ‘Cabinet Member’ for your ward and showing real community leadership.”

Cllr Richard Kemp, Liverpool City Council

Community leadership in a changing environment

The role of a ward or division councillor continues to evolve over time. Events such as the recent Covid-19 pandemic, overseas conflicts, and economic challenges coupled with the way members of the public engage with politicians and local politics constantly change the local political environment. However, this can also be set against several recent key pieces of legislation which provide a framework against which councils and councillors undertake their community leadership roles. 

The Localism Act 2011

The Localism Act (The Department of Communities and Local Government published ‘A plain English guide to the Localism Act)  was introduced in November 2011. Its aim was to better enable local councils, communities, and individuals to act on local priorities by giving them greater powers. The Act covers a wide range of issues relating to local public services, with a particular focus on the general power of competence, community rights (mycommunity.org.uk - a one-stop hub and network for communities to help them get inspired, it offers resources, stories, and the opportunity for individuals to find community rights activity in their area.) neighbourhood planning and housing.

The key measures of the Act fall under four main headings:

  • increased freedoms and flexibilities for local government
    additional rights and powers for communities and individuals
  • reforms to make the planning system more democratic and more effective
  • reforms to ensure decisions about housing are taken locally.

Since the introduction of the 2011 Act, local government has remained consistently at the heart of making things happen – transferring powers, assets, resources, and decision making down to grass roots communities. This has had a direct effect on the your role of a councillor as a community leader. How you lead as well as who you lead, directly impacts on your effectiveness as a politician and influences the contribution you make to your local area, its residents, the organisations, and businesses within it.

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Guidance: The Localism Act – – key provisions

General power of competence – this power replaced the previous duty of wellbeing and gave councils the same broad powers as an individual to do anything unless it is prohibited by statute. It gave councils greater freedom to be creative and entrepreneurial, and to acting directly in the interest of their communities as well as in their own financial interest.

Predetermination – provisions were introduced to clarify the principle of predetermination in local government, allowing members to engage in an open and rigorous debate with their local communities about council business.

Community right to challenge – under these provisions, a broad range of alternative service providers are able to submit expressions of interest to run services, with the potential to trigger a council procurement exercise.

Community right to bid – these provisions allow parish councils and local voluntary and community groups to prepare bids to purchase listed community assets should a local authority choose to dispose of them. 

Another piece of legislation, The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 (The LGA has produced a guide to the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act. The LGA’s DevoNext Hub is dedicated entirely to devolution news and resources) also resulted in a major change to how councillors can engage with one another across council boundaries. 

The Act provided the legal framework for the implementation of devolution deals with combined authorities and other areas. Devolution deals are agreements between central and local government, granting councils new flexibilities and freedoms when making decisions for their local area.

Devolution, therefore, provides the opportunity to ensure that decisions are taken as close to residents as possible. Many local authorities are also looking to take this one step further through ‘double’ or onward devolution – passing down control of services to town and parish councils, as well as community groups. The LGA has consistently made the case for devolution through councils to communities. This becomes ever more important as local areas rethink how public services are delivered following recent health and financial pressures. Therefore, it is right that councils consider the role of local people in designing, commissioning (or decommissioning) and delivering those services. Your role as a community leader is fundamental to ensuring that services are provided effectively.

Strong community leadership is fundamental to being a good local councillor. It’s about being approachable to residents, making them feel involved in decision making and standing up for their interests.

It also means acting as a broker between different groups of residents or partners, as well as communicating the strategic goals of the Council in a local context. This can be challenging, but councillors are uniquely placed to fill that role, owing to the democratic mandate we’ve been given.

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Guidance: The LGA in action

The LGA is working to support councils to better engage their communities in the design and delivery of services - something we are calling community action. The LGA has developed a ‘community action’ web resource. This provides information and case studies about how councils can involve communities in the design and delivery of services.

Six guiding principles

We have developed six guiding principles for councils looking to make community action work. Each includes tips for effective working; things to look out for; and questions for councillors and officers to ask as they plan, implement and review community action initiatives. Every community is different. The ideas, guiding principles, and local action should reflect the needs of the community you are working with – whether that community is defined by geography (such as a ward) or a specific group (such as older people)

As the sector undertakes a fundamental rethink of how public services are delivered considering this and ongoing community and financial challenges, it is right that we consider the role of local people in designing, commissioning (or decommissioning) and delivering those services and empowering their communities. The community action web resource contains information based on conversations with councils across the country, illustrating where community action is happening, as well as guiding principles, tools and resources for other areas looking to work in this way.

Defining community leadership

Being a community leader includes:

  • speaking up for, and on behalf of, individuals and groups
  • encouraging residents to engage and participate
  • participating in plan making and planning decisions
  • communicating residents’ concerns to the council and to other providers such as the police. But in this role councillors must not, it said, ‘lose sight of the strategic context for the council area as a whole.’
  • stimulating local organisations and individuals to take up opportunities to express their views
  • representing local level concerns and perspectives
  • maintaining a link between the users and the providers of services
  • encouraging the community to organise for themselves
  • collaborating with other community leaders in the voluntary, community and business sectors
  • offering vision and direction to local groups, and building support for that vision
  • brokering agreements between different interests and partners
  • contributing as an effective partner in neighbourhood arrangements, including those that deliver delegated functions
  • developing better consultation and engagement based on informing and involving communities earlier on in development of new policies and services to produce better outputs and outcomes catering to the actual needs of local communities

Community leadership can best be defined as:

  • helping communities to identify and deal with problems in the most effective way
  • bringing in help from officers and partners
  • acting as the voice for the community to the council, partners, and others
  • communicating the work of the council and partners to the community
  • leading the community and others in developing a vision for the area and the steps to achieve it.
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Challenge 1

(a) What does community leadership mean to you?

(b) What does community leadership mean to your council?

(c) To what extent have you already developed your role as a community leader for your ward?

(d) Have you identified local problems or ambitions and discussed practical solutions with other local groups and organisations?

(e) What personal obstacles are there to you becoming a leader in your community?

(f) What external obstacles are there?

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Case study

“For me, being a good community leader is about being a part of my community, listening to their needs and acting to deliver outcomes, usually working with other partners such as the police, other local authorities, and the voluntary sector. The voluntary sector is becoming increasingly essential to the delivery of services as central government funds to local authorities decreases.

Campaigning is something I enjoy enormously therefore I am always involved in projects that look to make a difference to our community, for example, as Mayor of Amersham, my community fundraising group raised £120,000 to install an outdoor gym, Street Snooker, table tennis, cricket, football, basketball and handball courts to celebrate the London 2012 Games and to promote health and fitness to the whole community that was accessible to all, DDA compliant, free and fun!

At a national level, I campaigned for the 12A cinema classification, which has benefitted most families in the UK. Being a community leader is incredibly satisfying and I absolutely love what I do. I have been elected since 1999 and a community volunteer and campaigner since 1995. Try it! The more you do, the more you want to do. It is the most satisfying role I have ever had.”

Cllr Mrs Mimi Harker OBE, Buckinghamshire Council

The meaning of leadership

Community leadership does not always mean taking centre stage – it is about creating the right environment for others to act. It is less about directing and controlling, and more about stimulating, enabling, and empowering. County, Unitary and District councillors need to explore their respective roles – while at the same time also acknowledging the key role of parish and town councils and councillors. As well as considering the appropriate ‘demarcations’ between these different types of councillors.

The growth in the number of organisations and agencies active at a local level has made the task of community leadership more complex, and at the same time more important. Councillors must demonstrate their ability to fulfil that leadership role whilst also convincing their local partners that there is something in it for them.

Community leadership concerns more than the services and functions delivered by the council. The focus of community leadership must be the whole range of public services delivered locally together with the contribution and impact of the private, voluntary and community sectors. It is not just about the council’s vision for the locality, it must be framed around a shared vision – and one backed up by a shared commitment to delivering. The task of taking the difficult decisions – on for example issues where consensus cannot be reached – lies with councillors and cannot be forgotten about. This responsibility goes to the heart of your community leadership role. 

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Guidance: A three-thousand-year-old philosophy

Go to the people; live among them; love them; start from where they are; work with them; build on what they have.

But of the best leaders, when the task is accomplished, the work is completed, the people all remark: “We have done it ourselves”.

Lao Tzu, ‘Tao Te Ching’ (Chapter 17)

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Hints and tips


  • Find out what groups and organisations are active in your ward – some, like the police, will be obvious, others less so.
  • Find out what concerns and ambitions they have and look for common ground and areas of disagreement.
  • Develop a shared vision for the ward that is achievable and not in conflict with council policy.
  • Develop a plan that will guide you and your partners in making the vision a reality.
  • Tell fellow councillors and residents about what you are doing.
  • Encourage and enable others to take the lead on matters close to their hearts.
  • Remember that as an elected councillor you have democratic integrity and a responsibility to represent everyone
    in your ward – not just those who voted for you.
  • Understand that some partner organisations will not have the freedom and flexibility you possess.
  • Involve council officers when necessary and appropriate.
  • Celebrate success and share your experience with others facing similar challenges.

Do not:

  • Try to do everything yourself – your role is to conduit between the various local groups and organisations and between them and the council.
  • Attend every meeting and event held in your ward – it is not necessary, and you will quickly become exhausted.
  • Try to solve every problem that comes your way – other people and organisations may have more resources and expertise than you have.
  • Forget the needs and opinions of individuals.
  • Become associated with pressure groups unless you feel that their agendas are compatible with your role as a councillor.
  • Hoard information – sharing knowledge about local matters will lead to better working relationships and better outcomes.
  • Expect to agree with everyone or for them to agree with you – some negotiations will be tough and challenging.
  • Complain – focus on getting things done instead

Leadership characteristics

The LGA suggests there are at least eight characteristics of effective community leaders.

1. Listening to and involving local communities – councillors cannot call themselves leaders if they are not in touch with the communities they purport to represent. They need to be in touch with all parts of their community such as parishes and neighbourhoods, and communities of interest, such as young people and minority ethnic communities.

2. Building vision and direction - local communities face a complex and diverse set of problems and challenges. They want to know that all the relevant organisations in their area – public, private, and voluntary – are working together in a common direction. Councillors must work with the whole gamut of local organisations and interests, in shaping a long-term vision for the areas they serve. No single person acting alone can respond effectively to the needs of localities. Effective community leadership involves securing the commitment of partners to delivering a shared vision for their area as well as helping to shape it.

3. Working effectively in partnerships - no single person, acting alone can respond effectively to the needs of localities. Effective community leadership involves securing the commitment of partners to delivering a shared vision for their area as well as helping to shape.

4. Making things happen – community leadership involves more than having a sense of direction. It is also about making things happen on the ground – delivering outcomes for local people. Vision, direction, and effective partnership are only of any use if they deliver actual change on the ground. 

5. Standing up for communities – local people want to know that the people they elected to represent them are doing just that. This ‘advocacy’ role can involve speaking out for local people on major issues that impact on the community – such as hospital or factory closures – and acting on behalf of specific groups of individuals.

6. Empowering local communities – community leadership is not about the councillor taking power for him/herself. It is more about creating the environment in which other leadership roles can develop and fostering the development of active citizenship. Councillors have both to lead and stand back at the same time, investing in the growth and development of communities so that they can govern themselves.

7. Accountability to communities – community leadership involves being accountable to local people – through the ballot box and through the development of active on-going relationships with people such as by listening to and being accountable to local communities through citizens’ juries, people’s panels, and area forums.

8. Using community resources effectively – communities, councils and partners have a wide range of resources they can bring to the table. Community leadership is about ensuring these resources are used effectively to meet local priorities. Community leadership is also about delivering the best outcomes for local people and actively seeking new ways to promote the wellbeing of their area. 

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Hints and tips: Seven behaviours to realise good community leadership

1. Good communications – shift from communication to conversations through adaptable style, facilitation, and feedback

2. Openness – transparency, approachable and open minded

3. Empathetic – listening and hearing, being receptive and responsive

4. Negotiating – ‘holding the space’ conflict resolution, reconciliation, mediation

5. Motivating – encouraging, stimulating confidence

6. Managing expectations – set realistic expectations and meet them

7. Sharing – learning to let go, work with different working agencies and organisations

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It is the responsibility of councillors and community leaders to listen to and act on people’s views and concerns. While keeping expectations realistic, leaders must be willing to take account of, and fight for their residents.

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Challenge 2

(a) What do you believe are your top three leadership behaviours?

(b) How have you recently demonstrated those behaviours? Have you personally led members of your community in resolving a particular issue, challenge, or opportunity?

(c) What area represents your greatest opportunity for growth and development?         
How might you improve in this area?

(d) How would you rate your council’s performance at a ward level? – excellent – good – acceptable – poor – non-existent?

(e) Who are the other key community leaders in your ward?

(f) How do/might you use your leadership behaviours to further develop the leadership skills of others?

The changing context of community leadership

Local government is under pressure in a way not experienced for many years. Expectations are rising and budgets getting smaller. Services are better but trust in many institutions is falling. In this context, a serious effort to involve and understand residents is more important than ever. Public organisations and institutions find themselves in a tricky position. The challenges they face are arguably as hard as they’ve been at any point in post-war history.

There have been a series of major blows to trust in the system, running back over the last ten or fifteen years. One of the most recent of these was the horrific Grenfell tragedy, which had a major impact on trust for local government.

These have made engagement both more difficult and more important. By creating meaningful conversations with residents, councils can ‘trust their way’ to a stronger relationship with those they serve. The LGA produced a comprehensive LGA guide to community engagement in 2019. Since then, there have been significant changes to the wider social context which have increased the emphasis on building trust and strengthening communities.

The resources in the guide support the basic, statutory aspects of engagement, with a particular focus on pure consultation. It explores best practice, legal requirements, and the pre-emptive steps you can take to get engagement around decision-making right. This includes assets to help you choose your channels and messengers and decide whether you need to formally consult. There are also resources supporting the evaluation of consultation, and the use of insight.

New Conversations 2.0 - LGA guide to engagement

Community engagement

The spectrum of engagement

As a councillor, you will need to adopt a range of engagement methods and practices to suit the parts of the community you are trying to engage with and the nature of what you are trying to engage on. Engagement practices vary in terms of the level of power they give to citizens and the intensity of participation it affords. Because of this, people often refer to a ‘spectrum’ of engagement. Running across this spectrum is the idea that activities at one end focus on ‘doing to’ people, and, at the other, are activities that are ‘done with’: All these types of engagement have a place and will be suited to different needs at different times.

Spectrum of engagement examples of doing for, to and with and what those are

 The engagement spectrum

Pink and purple arc showing the four active partner relationships on the engagement spectrum - inform, consult, partner and empower


Co Production

What is co-production?

Increasingly, public service practitioners are taking the view that people’s needs are better met when they engage in an equal relationship with professionals and others, working together to get things done. This is the underlying principle of co-production -an approach to delivering services that focuses on ‘working with’ citizens and communities.
Co-production is defined as:

‘…a means of delivering public services in an equal and
reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using
services, their families and their neighbours.’
As defined by NESTA and the New Economics Foundation (NEF).

It is different from traditional models of delivery as it moves away from citizens being ‘passive’ recipients of services. Instead, the role of professionals is to facilitate an environment that allows citizens to use their own skills and knowledge to shape services themselves, with the understanding that the people, their carers, and communities are experts in their own lives; they are therefore essential partners in the design and development of services.

As a result of this definition, there is no one set way of ‘co-producing’ services. However, it is based on a defined set of principles:

  • recognising people as assets
  • building on people’s existing capabilities
  • promoting mutuality and reciprocity

For further information:

Challenges icon

Challenge 3 - your role in encouraging people to get involved

Imagine that a particular community of people in your ward has been very hostile about council plans to grant fund the installation of wind generators by several community groups to reduce the ‘carbon footprint’ of the area. You know that the concerns being raised by the community are unfounded and based on some erroneous information being circulated by a local protest group. You are keen to get people to come forward and support the council’s plans. What ideas do you have for raising the matter locally and trying to begin a dialogue on the pros and cons of the grant funding plans

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Guidance: The benefits of neighbourhood and community engagement


Council Community Citizens
Can help to ensure better congruence between the council’s ‘vision’ and what happens in practice.

Decision making should be based on representative views - engagement can help to supply this.

Can help to reduce the 
influence of pressure groups and single-issue politics.

Can help to improve feedback on strategic proposals and generate innovative ideas for consideration by the council.

Increases participatory democracy and can help to improve the reputation of members as legitimate community leaders.
Can help to improve the democratic accountability of councils.

Increases representation and can help to identify community leaders.

Can help to improve the community’s understanding of the business of local 

Can help to ensure that strategies and plans take account of local social, economic and environmental factors.

Can help to foster the development of consensus and community competence

Should engender a sense of involvement and participation in decision making.

Can help to ensure representation for groups which are often marginalised or unheard.

Can help to empower stakeholders and increase citizen control of local affairs.

Can help to engage citizens in the resolution of their own problems and the allocation of resources to address

Can help individuals to better understand the nature of local government

A move towards neighbourhood and community governance

In the last decade, there has been a move to encourage more participatory democracy in local government, i.e., local councils using their role to inform, consult and involve local people in working towards community clarity and consensus on needs, problems, and desired strategies. Some proponents of this have suggested that one measure of a community’s competence is the extent to which various groups of citizens share in these decision-making processes.

Many councils have sought to take the idea of participatory democracy further, by encouraging some element of neighbourhood and community management or governance. 

For example:

  • Area or ward committees, often with co-opted stakeholder representatives, which consider plans and proposals for the local area and may have delegated budgets for commissioning projects and services.
  • Various forms of participatory budgeting, which allow local people to come together and make decisions about how public sector resources are spent in meeting their needs.
  • Place-based working, where local partner agencies collaborate with individuals and groups in the community to share knowledge, resources. and assets in tackling community concerns. Within this, local authorities will often adopt a ‘place-shaping’ role, providing support to enable individuals and community groups to solve their own problems.
  • Formal community-based groups, which govern or manage aspects of public service delivery, e.g., tenant management organisations, which give housing tenants more control over their homes and neighbourhoods.

There are a wide variety of these neighbourhood working models which are used in one or more of the following areas: consultation, advocacy, service delivery or design, networking, needs assessment, capacity building or performance monitoring. The freedoms and flexibilities enshrined within the Localism Act, are designed to increase the diversity of community-focused and community-led approaches.

No one has a more crucial role than ward councillors in ensuring that local democracy works and is believed in by residents. It is important to recognise that there are two essential strands to this:

  • representative democracy - in which council members are elected to represent their local communities
  • participative democracy - in which councils seek to engage and involve local communities in the decisions that affect them most closely.

Representative and participatory democracy are not in competition with each other and there is a compelling need for better links between elected and community representatives. In their role, ward members are well placed to encourage and channel this neighbourhood and community engagement and to champion both a local voice and greater local choice.

Neighbourhood and community engagement has a rightful place as one of the key processes involved in planning and decision making. As such, it should not be viewed as an additional task, but as a core part of the business of local government. It is not a resource burden, but a way of ensuring that scarce resources are better targeted in meeting community needs. And it does not challenge the authority of members, but provides a useful way of enhancing their role, strengthening democratic legitimacy, and encouraging community development -something that many councils and members are already doing as part of the devolution agenda.

Challenges icon

Challenge 4

It is likely that there is a wide range of neighbourhood and community engagement schemes and projects operating in your council area. Using your local knowledge, write down as many examples as you can think of:

Take this list and spend some time looking through your ‘full council’ minutes for the last year or searching the council’s website using the words ‘community,’ ‘neighbourhood,’ ‘participation,’ ‘engagement,’ ‘survey’ and ‘consultation.’ You are likely to discover a lot more council-funded schemes than you have on your list!

Why does it matter?

Research consistently shows that communities that are engaged – that is, where diverse groups, organisations and individuals from the public, private and voluntary sectors communicate with each other and contribute to the wellbeing of their community – tend to have happier, healthier people and lower levels of crime and anti-social behaviour.

At the same time, there is concern about the decline in voting in local elections, more people living on their own, threats to community cohesion and an increasingly detached attitude towards their local area and what is going on there.

Councillors have a key role to play here because they are the interface between citizens and the council, and they have the power to demonstrate directly what they have achieved for the people they represent. Through surgeries, casework, the media, local events, social and voluntary groups, newsletters, blogs and so on, they can effect change and communicate their achievements to local people.

In politics it is often easy to look for the big gesture, the big plan, the big policy statement. But tangible achievement at ward level need not be like that. Time after time, research and case studies show that little things mean a lot when it comes to improving things for local people.

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“For a variety of reasons, life is easier in a community blessed with a substantial stock of social capital. In the first place, networks of civic engagement

foster sturdy norms of generalised reciprocity and encourage the emergence of social trust. Such networks facilitate coordination andcommunication, amplify reputations, and thus allow dilemmas of collective action to be resolved. Finally, dense networks of interaction probably broaden the participants’ sense of self, developing the ‘I’ into the ‘we’.”

Professor Robert Putnam, Harvard.

Working in partnership

Community leadership is about councils, both councillors and officers, enabling local
communities to determine their own future. It is not traditional, top-down leadership, but involves councillors and officers using all the tools at their disposal to engage communities in making their own difference. It promotes a partnership of shared commitment to promote a shared vision for the locality.

Councillors need to have:

  • the ability to build effective partnerships with other local organisations and communities
  • a commitment to community engagement and empowerment
  • the ability to respond effectively to local priorities
    a sound understanding of local governance arrangements
  • an understanding of the local community and the groups and organisations within it
  • access to key people in other agencies within that community
  • access to officers and key people within local authority.

The landscape of partnership working is shifting with new opportunities emerging.

However, the central concern for councils and councillors remains to promote the social, economic, and environmental wellbeing of their areas, achieving sustainable communities. The key role is to:

  • provide for local communities – articulation of aspirations, needs and priorities
  • co-ordinate the actions of public, private, voluntary and community organisations
  • shape and focus existing and future activities of these organisations to meet community needs.

Whether you are working at the ward or whole council level, to produce a community strategy there must be a process of community planning. Key stakeholders must be involved in this process. These could be large groups like the police, health authorities and schools, or smaller ones, such as voluntary groups, local businesses, and community groups.

Partnerships of all kinds are at the heart of community planning and neighbourhood renewal agendas. While multi-agency in their composition, their purpose is to bring together statutory, non-statutory, private, voluntary and community organisations for the purpose of promoting and improving residents’ quality of life. Having an agreed strategy can provide a framework for different organisational processes and mobilising a wide range of agencies, organisations, and community interests.

Partnerships should:

  • build consensus around an agreed vision for the future
  • see their own interests in the context of a bigger picture
  • encourage the development of sustainable communities
  • identify conflicting objectives and needs
  • build trust and closer working relationships, where appropriate
  • develop a clear understanding of each partner’s roles and responsibilities
  • review existing partnership and consultation arrangements
  • share data and analysis
  • share resources and provide a coordinated response to community priorities
  • shape and focus existing and future activities of agencies
  • produce a community strategy.
Challenges icon

Challenge 5


(a) What have you achieved in partnership with others – as a councillor, in your private
life or in a job – that you could not have achieved alone?

(b) What were the advantages of working in partnership?

(c) What were the disadvantages?

(d) What lessons have you learnt as a result?

Partnerships will not necessarily be cosy, friendly affairs where everyone thinks the same way – have you thought about how you will deal with representatives of other organisation and groups who may have different views and who may even be hostile or aggressive?

The role of the opposition in community leadership

It might well be argued that most people who stand for election as a councillor do so with the hope or expectation that they will be able to exercise power and influence from a position of ‘control’ or being in administration of the council they are seeking election to. Nonetheless it is obviously the case that for every party who are in control of a council, there is, by definition, a party or parties who are in opposition.

Opposition is a fundamental part of a well-functioning democracy. It is often viewed as ‘vital’ and ‘indispensable.’ Opposition provides challenge and dissent to the political voices of those in power. It acts as a safety net within democratic systems. It is part of the key checks and balances within executive systems. Robust opposition supports good governance, and it provides political choice for the electorate. 

The Importance of Opposition in a Democracy

‘Democracy can only be measured by the existence of an opposition’ Poul Henningsen, Danish anti-nazi.

‘No government can long be secure without a formidable opposition’ Benjamin Disraeli.

‘Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures’ Harry Truman 1950.

‘In a democracy, the opposition is not only tolerated as constitutional, but must be maintained because it is in fact indispensable’ Walter Lippman, American journalist, and political commentator.

‘Dissent is a symbol of a vibrant democracy’ DY Chandrachud, current chief justice of India.

 There are varying views on the appropriateness of different types of opposition strategies and approaches. Some believe that opposition should focus on ‘constructive opposition’ and that it should not be adversarial or aggressive. There is an essential duality at the heart of opposition – a tension between a role in being competitive and vocal in opposition to ruling groups and on the other hand collaborating and finding compromise with those in power to achieve improved outcomes for local communities. This can be a creative tension which skilled opposition politicians can exploit.

There is a great deal of diversity in the practice of being an opposition across both central and local government. There is therefore the possibility of developing lessons from this diversity on how opposition groups can work effectively.

Opposition can be a challenging role to undertake and opposition in local government often means working within a complex environment. It requires advanced political skills and can be deeply frustrating. But it can also be a lot of fun, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘I have spent many years of my life in opposition, and I rather like the role.’

Roles for Opposition Group/s

Opposition groups are crucial to a healthy local democracy and can make a significant contribution to ensuring effective local accountability, good governance, sound policies and finances, competitive local elections, and an effective relationship with local communities. The existence of an effective opposition provides rigour, challenge, and robustness to the overall working of a council. The role of the opposition or opposition parties is a fundamental part of effective community leadership. Because whether a member of the controlling party, an opposition party or indeed if you are not a member of a political party, your function as an effective community leader and representative of your residents remains key.

The following nine roles can be identified for opposition groups to undertake:

  1. Supporting good governance in local government
  2. Holding controlling group/s to account
  3. Improving policy & decision-making
  4. Ensuring a focus on sound finances & risk management
  5. Developing alternative policies & being a ruling group-in-waiting
  6. Representative & advocacy roles
  7. Scrutinising the impact of national policy on local councils
  8. Ensuring good group management 
  9. Election campaigning and providing choice at elections

(These are set out in more detail in Table 1).

In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis on the importance of ensuring ‘good governance’ in each council. High profile examples of failures in governance continue to drive this ‘good governance’ focus. The nine roles all contribute, in some way, to ensuring good governance. 

Table 1: Roles for opposition groups in local government
  Key roles Further details
1. Supporting good governance in local government
  • Understanding what good governance is 
  • Seeking assurance that the governance arrangements are effective 
  • Contributing to good governance, for example, by providing robust challenge of the work of controlling group/s
2. Holding to account
  • Providing ‘checks and balance’ on executive powers 
  • Providing challenge to controlling group/s in committee systems
  • Providing challenge and contestability to the development and implementation of council policy
  • Asking powerful questions which probe the controlling group/s policies and delivery
  • Holding controlling group/s to account publicly and visibly
  • Holding individual executive members/cabinet members/committee chairs to account
  • Monitoring the effective implementation of policy
3. Improving policy and decision-making
  • Providing challenge and ensuring development of robust, evidence-based policies
  • Monitoring day to day decision-making 
  • Ensuring key strategic decisions are robust
  • Reviewing the effective delivery of policy and service changes
4. A focus on sound finances and risk management
  • Reviewing the council’s delivery of best value and value for money
  • Monitoring financial management, budget making and risk management
5. Developing alternative policies and being a ‘Ruling Group-in-Waiting’
  • Proposing amendments to council policy 
  • Proposing alternative budgets
  • Developing alternative policies
  • Being a ‘ruling group-in-waiting’
6. Representative and advocacy roles
  • Ensuring controlling group/s work in the best interests of local communities
  • Ensuring controlling group/s work across the whole authority area
  • Advocating for the communities the opposition represent
  • Amplifying voices of parts of the community not often heard
7. Scrutinising the impact of national government policy on local councils
  • Questioning the impact of key national government policy on councils
  • Identifying the implications for councils and their residents of new legislation or guidance
8. Ensuring good group management
  • Developing cohesion within the group and coherence and consistency of policy objectives
  • Developing teamworking within the group
  • Effective leadership of the group
  • Promoting and providing training and support for councillor development
9. Election campaigning and providing choice at elections
  • Campaigning at local elections
  • Providing a choice of parties and candidates at elections
  • Providing an effective local party organisation for elections and canvassing

Source: Dr Stephanie Snape, New Leadership Foundation, 2020, expanded & updated 2023. Taken from the Councillor’s workbook on effective opposition in local government 2024.

Not all opposition groups perform all these roles, but each role is a legitimate one for opposition groups. It is important to emphasise that some of these roles are intertwined and overlapping, for example the holding to account role and contributing to policy and decision-making.

Final word

Community leadership is about councillors, as democratically elected representatives of their communities, whether in power or opposition. Working with local groups and organisations and enabling them the make the best use of their combined skills, talents, expertise, and imagination for the benefit of local citizens.

At one level it is simply about being a good neighbour. At another it could be about driving through major changes affecting everyone in the community involving such things as health, transport, planning, crime, and education.

It is down to each individual councillor to have the enthusiasm, commitment, and vision to seize the opportunities available that will lead to thriving communities.

Challenges icon

Challenge 6

(a Does your council actively encourage and support your role as a leader in your community – and if not, how will you change things?

(b) Do you have the encouragement and support of fellow councillors – and if not, how will you change things?

(c) Do you feel you have the support of council officers – and if not, how will you change things?

(d) How good are your relationships with other groups and organisations represented in your ward?

(e)  What key action points can you identify in relation to your role in neighbourhood and
community engagement, i.e., what three or four things might you start doing, keep doing or stop doing?

Appendix – sources of further information and support

Printed publications

The councillors’ guide 

Community engagement and community The Next Question: The future of local leadership, (September 2011), NLGN

Keeping it REAL Responsive, Efficient, Accountable, Local services (November 2011), LGA

Useful links

The following organisations’ websites have pages discussing community leadership.

Some also have publications for download.

Local Government Information Unit 

New Local Government Network 

Joseph Rowntree Foundation 

Useful websites

The LGA website is a valuable source of help and advice for all those in local government www.local.gov.uk

The LGA website has many pages discussing community leadership and a number of publications, a series of case studies, and development programmes for councillors and council officers