How can councils help shape stories of place?

November 10, 2021   By Bonnie Hewson, Power to Change

Bonnie Hewson explores how co-production can help rebuild trust between councils and communities.

Councils aren’t responsible for defining the identity of a place.

They can’t choose the way people relate to where they live. Those identities and relationships will be as diverse as the people and communities themselves.

But perhaps one responsibility councils do have is to try to weave together these disparate identities and find a common thread – something that brings people together to move forward on the shared project of making that place a better place to live.

Even in this task they are not alone. There are almost no end to the number of stakeholders that have a vested interest in how a place presents itself to the world.

Re-building trust between councils and communities

The challenge of creating a shared narrative for a place is hard enough without the added hurdle that, in some places, a divide has grown between councils and their community. Rebuilding this trust is one of the first and most important parts of creating a new story.

How can this be done? The first step must be acknowledging and deconstructing existing negative narratives about the relationship between council and community.

Start by listening to the stories already circulating – recognising what is already there, appreciating the work already done and working alongside unexpected allies will help to ground more strategic and visionary work in the needs and perspectives of the (other) people who live there.

Many of the invisible barriers to building the trust needed revolve around power. Who holds it? Where do people perceive it is held? Who has the power to scupper the good work of others?

In truth both the community, the council, elected officials, and other stakeholders (the VCSE sector, businesses etc) all have power in these situations. Pain points occur when the players don’t feel or act as equals in a shared endeavour.

Overcoming this is hard – it involves acknowledging other’s power as well as one’s own, being vulnerable, and letting go of some control (and some baggage) – at all levels of an organisation or community.

Build relationships for co-production

New Local suggests six principles to follow for councils who are developing a shared narrative:

  • make the message of what the council is trying to achieve very simple
  • make it meaningful so you can act on the story and its implications
  • show continuity by building on what’s strong or already working
  • be consistent in the messaging over a number of years, even through changes of political leadership
  • root the story in the place so it resonates with people
  • and most importantly from my perspective: co-produce it with residents, the workforce, partners, businesses – everyone!

Why is co-production the most important to me? Because the story shouldn’t belong to the council. They don’t even have to be its main spokesperson.

The council’s role is really in laying the groundwork for a good outcome by showing not ‘what’ they think can be achieved, but ‘how’ they themselves intend to engage with their community to decide together upon the outcomes.

If culture really does eat strategy for breakfast, then making sure that the principle of taking the time to build relationships is at the heart of how you work will lay the strongest foundation upon which any joint effort can be built.

Read more about the 6 principles for developing a story of council and place.

Image: Nudge Community Builders, Plymouth

Bonnie Hewson is the Place Based Investment Manager for Power to Change, an independent charitable trust that supports and develops community businesses in England. 

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