It is essential to involve and engage with communities to spread the workload, improve perceptions about a town centre and promote its increased use. The COVID-19 crisis has emphasised the value of such effective engagement and coordination with stakeholder groups across towns.
Communicating and coordinating
Effective communication and coordination across partnerships is key. This extends beyond local authorities from the transparent recording and sharing of decision-making with partners; engaging with media, staff and stakeholder groups; and keeping the wider community informed and aware of ways to get involved. This can be best achieved by developing town centre communication plans that outline the audiences, channels to use and responsibilities of councils amongst partners. Increasingly, digital engagement techniques such as e-bulletins and social media provide new opportunities for reaching different stakeholders including ‘hard-to-reach’ groups like young people.
Stakeholder engagement techniques offer the opportunity to broaden the impacts of council involvement. A council should develop its approach to stakeholder engagement with a clear focus on ‘why’, ‘who’ and ‘how’. The LGA’s recently published councillor’s workbook on neighbourhood and community engagement, provides helpful guidance on the role of members in achieving this.
Councillors at the forefront of community engagement
Local councillors are in the front line of neighbourhood and community engagement. Working with a wide range of individuals and organisations in the area, officers can help them to decide how best to respond. The LGA’s workbook for councillors on community engagement, states how few other community leaders have the mandate to coordinate different interests, reconcile diverse views and encourage open debate and dialogue in the way that councillors can. This is especially so for town and city centres where a range of commercial, community and cultural issues combine and provide a hub for a much wider geographical area.
The particular strengths and knowledge that councillors bring to the community engagement process are listed as:
- an understanding of your ward
- the representation of local voices
- communicating and influencing skills
All of this provides councillors with a strong basis on which to act for and in support of local people. However, as part of the devolution agenda, councillors are able to do more than just represent the views of local people, such as encouraging people to play a more active role themselves in the decision making processes of the council.
Councillors will need to adopt a range of engagement methods and practices to suit the parts of the community they are trying to engage with and the nature of what they 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 that can involve:
Doing to: giving information to people for the sake of communicating or to enable them to make more informed decisions, e.g. fact sheets, websites, open houses.
Doing for: engaging and supporting people; asking for their views, e.g. consultation, workshops
Doing with: working together in equal and reciprocal partnerships; people design and deliver services alongside professionals, e.g. co-production, community managed projects and asset transfer.
Choosing the right techniques
The LGA’s guide to engagement provides comprehensive advice for councils looking to engage with residents. This includes a list of the different types of engagement type you might consider with definitions in the glossary:
- community mapping
- planning for real ©
- public meetings
- focus groups and workshops
- web based consultation
- open space technology
- citizens’ juries
- consensus building
- citizens’ panel
- street stalls
- local community meetings
The joint LGA and Locality guide on empowering communities by making the most of local assets, offers councils guidance on enabling the improved use of under-used public buildings by transferring their ownership. Such community asset ownership harnesses the creativity and commitment of local residents and creates sustainable enterprises that provide local services and contribute to the economic and social wellbeing of town centres.
Rapidly evolving through recovery
The COVID-19 crisis adds extra urgency to the ways that councils engage with their communities and boost long-term relations and capacity. The IPM guidance on Post-COVID 19 Recovery Frameworks places a strong emphasis throughout on effective and evolving local coordination. Communications planning needs to be constantly reviewed especially as towns move through different phases of recovery with a need to positively present the balance of health and economic concerns to stakeholders.
Transferring derelict assets
The Glendale Gateway Trust was set up by the local community following an appraisal identifying the need for a community resource centre. The Trust embarked upon the development of the Cheviot Centre to meet the community’s needs. The derelict building was provided by community asset transfer on a long lease from Berwick Borough Council, and Glendale Gateway Trust raised £750,000 for the conversion works. At the heart of the local community, the Cheviot centre provides meeting, exhibition and office space for a range of voluntary and community organisations. It also houses the tourist information centre and library. This provides much needed community services and contributes to local footfall.