Contributed by Dr. Angela Drakakis-Smith
At the last meeting the above topic was raised for discussion. It was asked should the Civic Society concern itself with things like community engagement? The Civic Society is not just about old buildings and ‘the past’. Its remit is and should be far wider to include civic pride in one’s town and neighbourhood – which ties in with local identity – together with concern for the local, built environment and all aspects of its well-being without preventing innovation and change.
The question raised another – how can the Society function properly as a lobbying engine without involving itself in the community and what the community does, without getting involved in all aspects of the civic? Planning is an obvious area where the Society should be playing a leading role – and not just in matters of conservation and protection. Sustainability is another. The Society should have a strong and consistent view on how it wishes to engage with all authority and the part it can play. Equally, the Society needs to know and to be aware of how it can influence not only public opinion but also policy – and that it will be listened to and ‘heard’.
An obvious way to do this is via involvement in the existing, emerging processes – the Local Area Partnerships (LAPs). The borough has been divided into 11 local areas contiguous with the police boundaries and a LAP in each is currently being established. There is probably one near you! The stated object of the LAPs is to ‘bring services closer to the people’ with the claim that ‘by becoming a voice in your community you can be involved in making changes happen’. This clearly needs to be tested since very few community members have yet to participate or become involved. Even as this is being written Action Plans for your area are being drawn up by all the agencies involved with delivering services with or without the views of the local community. How success will be achieved in practice remains to be seen – we remain optimistic.
It is envisaged that the LAPs will feed grass roots views into the Local Strategic Partnership (LSP). The Newcastle-under-Lyme LSP has been going since 2000 and has had at least three ‘refreshes’ – so no, it isn’t quite up to speed yet! The LSP is an amalgamation of agencies and ‘interested parties’ who work/operate/live within the borough. Government has made such bodies compulsory – ie every local authority has to have one whether they want one or not. Some are funded by national government, most are not. Thus their success depends upon the enthusiasm of the local council and agencies and whether they want to ‘share’ information and resources with one another. Indeed, the raison d’etre of the LSP was to get all funded agencies to work together to stream line services and thus make them cheaper and more relevant to local communities. Some agencies were already doing this but now it is almost compulsory. The LSP oversees the process, setting goals/targets and ensuring not only value for money but also ‘value added’ and all this is driven by the Community Strategy – supposedly drawn up in consultation and agreement with the local community. This too has been ‘refreshed’ several times.
Whilst all this sounds democratic and ‘a good thing’ in theory, time scales, targets and ticking boxes mean that there is often too much rush and dash and not enough preparation, consultation, thought or attention to detail. Indeed, a problem wrongly framed can lead to bad policy which might make things worse rather than better.
To engage fully with such processes individuals within the community need to be impartial, rational, systematic, broad minded and consistent in their approach not to mention observant. In this changing world there is little room for the complacent, the vague, the careless or the uncritical. If any Civic Society is to survive as a local lobbying group it needs to sharpen all its critical faculties and take nothing for granted. It needs to constantly question and to be aware of what is happening within the locality. Civic Societies thus have to start thinking both politically (note the small p) and strategically to be effective in an increasingly bureaucratic system. Returning to the question is this Civic Society political we have to start by demanding ‘Who asked the question’?