Are we there yet? The first two years of Community Planning

31 May 2019 - by Gráinne Walsh

With a newly elected cohort of Councillors getting to grips with their roles and responsibilities, what lessons will they learn from the first two years of Community Planning and how will they apply these lessons to improve the lives of people and communities across Northern Ireland over the long-term?

In October 2015 the then Minister of the Environment Mark H Durkan MLA wrote to the Chief Executives of each of the eleven new councils, highlighting the need for local (and central) government to:

  •          reorganise and adapt in response to local and global economic challenges;
  •          change how they take decisions;
  •          bring decision making closer to communities and citizens;
  •          create stronger and more effective local democracy; and
  •          improve service delivery by influencing place shaping and facilitating greater integration.

Stating that ‘reform is not just about doing things differently – it's about doing things better’, Community Planning was heralded as of central importance to local government’s ability to live up to the Executive’s vision of local government -  … a strong, dynamic local government creating communities that are vibrant, healthy, prosperous, safe, sustainable and have the needs of all citizens at their core….’.

With the first Community Plans developed between March and November 2017, where are we now in May 2019? Well, we are preparing the first Statements of Progress for publication by November.

We can expect to see some of these questions addressed -

  •          Have councils become more citizen-focused, responding to the needs, aspiration and concerns of the communities?
  •          Working in partnerships with central government and others, have they guided the future development of their areas?
  •          Has the statute based Community Planning process, led and facilitated by councils, delivered a central tenant of the Executive’s vision for local government - the provision of high quality, efficient services that respond to the needs of people and continuously improve over time?

What will these Statements tell us in reality? They will tell us that change is hard, that change takes time, and that effective partnership working takes more than two years to get going.

Critically, the Statements of Progress will highlight projects that can be replicated across the region; shine a light on authentic community partnerships that deliver benefits with little or no resources beyond goodwill and commitment; profile flagship interventions and investments; and demonstrate innovation and collaboration to get the building blocks of change in place. 

So back to where we started – are we there yet? No. Should we be concerned about where we are? Well, undoubtedly, helped by extra resources, strategic direction and investment from an Executive, we could be in a better place. However, nearly five years on from the reconfiguration of local government we have considerable progress to report.

But how do we report on progress in a way that is engaging for the citizens the Community Plans are designed to support? We have the data on how we’re doing but how do we celebrate our successes, address our challenges, and open up a public conversation for the next phase of the Community Plans?

The Carnegie UK Trust, as part of its Embedding Wellbeing in Northern Ireland project, is supporting their project participants, and the wider Community Planning Partnership network, to explore just this. Coming together in a hackathon, Community Planning, data and communications colleagues will convene to hear from NISRA on the data we have; from good practice in Northern Ireland on the stories we want our data to tell; and from our counterparts in other parts of the UK on communicating the complex.

The challenges our Community Planning Partnerships are grappling with – how to communicate nuance; not over-claim; and serve two audiences - fulfilling statutory duties for government while informing and engaging citizens – are not unique to Northern Ireland. The hackathon will therefore explore what citizens need, what they want, and how to continue to make the move from rhetoric to reality in Community Planning. If we can come together to make progress on how to communicate the Statements of Progress, we can help our colleagues across the UK and Ireland, and improve wellbeing not just in Belfast, Banbridge and Bangor, but beyond.