Helping Shropshire councillors to unlock community capacity
In 2010, the Government announcement that it would be training 5000 community organisers to stimulate the ‘Big Society’ around the country. Shropshire Council wanted to explore how its existing elected members could be supported to play a similar role themselves. With council resources and councillors’ time increasingly stretched, the council set out to understand how elected members could focus their efforts to harness the skills and energy of local people. OPM had already built up a strong working relationship with Shropshire Council over the last five years, supporting officers and members through large-scale organisational change, so was well placed to help the council with this new programme.
What we did
The programme was launched at a day-long workshop, which explained the aims and underlying principles of the work to elected members and community action officers. With OPM facilitation, members and officers discussed what local projects they could focus on – ideally things they’d found tricky to address in the past, and where the local community could get involved.
Some projects morphed over the months that followed, and ultimately included projects to redevelop or revive community halls, bring a vacant rural pub back into use, using social media to build better communication between local people in a small community and setting up a partnership to tackle anti-social behaviour (ASB) and related streetscape issues on a housing estate.
This programme has not been about trying to impose a strict method on how councillors operate. OPM’s role has been to encourage members, community action officers and sometimes other community representatives such as parish councillors to reflect on how they approach an issue, to think about it differently or involve different people in finding a solution. This has involved staff from the core project team and other OPM colleagues sitting in on project meetings and giving feedback at the end, helping facilitate those meetings, offering advice on techniques and approaches (e.g. on use of social media and impact assessment) and acting as a ‘critical friend’.
The programme has generated a huge amount of learning which is enabling councillors and officers to see what the main ingredients of a successful local community project are likely to be, and what sort of role they can expect to play. Some of that learning also points towards the need for the council to modify how it works behind the scenes to support councillors with officer time, expertise and sometimes funding. The projects that OPM observed and supported during this first phase of work in Shropshire have, to date, led to:
- The setting up of a hyper-local partnership which has created a new parking area and alleviated related ASB issues. A new landscaped area has been created, looked after by residents, and other resident-driven projects are also emerging.
- The first big step towards re-opening a derelict pub in a small village, involving major investment from a housing association. Ultimately the community will own it and it will include a shop and meeting facilities.
The creation of a community-led webpage where people are contacting elected members in a new way, and contacting each other about local events and activities.
This learning is informing the council’s future approach to community leadership and member development, and the programme is now being rolled out into other parts of the county.