Community Power and Me: Katie Kelly, East Ayrshire

December 7, 2020  

Katie Kelly is the Depute Chief Executive – Safer Communities, at East Ayshire Council in Scotland. In 2013, she helped set up the council’s Vibrant Communities Service – a ground-breaking approach to sharing power between the local authority and the people it serves.

Transcript

Hi my name is Katie Kelly. I’m the Depute Chief Executive at East Ayrshire Council. East Ayrshire Council is a beautiful area in the South West of Scotland. It is not one of the the coastal Ayrshires, it’s landlocked but it’s got incredible countryside and scenery and an amazing heritage.

We’re really proud of our heritage – it’s Burns country but also we’re proud of it because we’ve got a really deep history in coal mining manufacturing, lace making, and the thing that’s most incredible about East Ayrshire is its people.

Within East Ayrshire we’ve got a mixture of urban and rural communities and we coined the phrase here ‘rur-ben’ which describes how East Ayrshire is made up. The biggest town is Kilmarnock in the North of East Ayrshire with a population of about 44,000 and then we have a range of smaller towns and villages right across East Ayrshire and they make up a total population of about 120,000.

The most amazing thing about the work that I do I think is that I have this opportunity, this incredible opportunity to work alongside our communities and to serve them, and the big message from me to my workforce and to the communities is: if we didn’t have them to serve we wouldn’t have a job, so our job is actually to work alongside people, to help them achieve their hopes and dreams.

if we didn’t have [communities] to serve we wouldn’t have a job, so our job is actually to work alongside people, to help them achieve their hopes and dreams.

We’ve done some really different work in East Ayrshire over the years, and about eight or nine years ago we started to think very differently. We were getting more and more distant from our communities and it was more transactional, the relationship we were having with them, and in a lot of ways I think they thought a lot of what we were doing as a fait accompli and they were passive recipients in a range of the services that we had.

We’d increased demand for a whole range of reasons to do with budget pressures and really we we weren’t using the most amazing resource, which is the people we serve.

So we took a completely [new] direction of change of travel – a complete change, and around about 2013 and we introduced ‘Vibrant Communities’ which came out of a whole range of deep listening with the people we serve – our stakeholders, elected members, businesses and partners.

We also looked at research from right across the world, and we were very interested in asset-based community development – the work of Cormac Russell, and also at the time Sir Harry Burns who was the Chief Medical Officer in Scotland, who talked a lot about power and power sharing and self-determination and people having power over their own lives.

So we brought a lot of that work together and we we brought a whole range of staff together who had never worked together before to change the way that we serve communities.

Then they hold a voting event and people from all over the community come to vote, and usually there’s a donkey and people singing and we get massive turnouts of four, five, six hundred people.

We’ve had an incredible journey and over those years we’ve built up incredible trust, and that work of community power is really manifesting itself in East Ayrshire now.

To illustrate this during the Covid pandemic we’ve been an incredible response, a resilient response from our communities because over these years they have seen us as equal partners and people that stand side by side.

The way that has shown itself is we have a range now of 21 community-led action plans so nearly every one of our communities, big and small, has its own plan – they made the plan themselves, it’s the same process but we just enable and support the process and they do a full review, they go around every door and ask people to talk about what they love and hate about their community and what their hopes and dreams and priorities are for the future. Then they hold a voting event and people from all over the community come to vote, and usually there’s a donkey and people singing and we get massive turnouts of four, five, six hundred people.

Then thereafter the community pull all those things together and launch their own action plan. As I said we have 21 of these in place, and I suppose community power really comes into play at these launch events where the community are on the stage presenting – telling us what it is they want to do, and the council officials, elected members, myself and the director of finance and others are in the audience and quietly listening to what they have to tell us – and this isn’t about them telling us everything that’s wrong and asking us to fix it, because that is not about power that’s about dependency and that’s we need to move away from. These plans are about what communities can do for themselves where they need their help to be enabled, whether it’s resources or people or connections and actually what we should be doing for them and to help them to move forward.

You know we get one shot at this and for me our job is to help people to have a really really good life.

This has been absolutely game changing having these plans and what’s come out is a whole range of things – definitely an improved relationship, many more community events than we’ve ever seen, a whole range of community enterprises and probably one of the biggest areas that we’ve seen as community asset transfer.

You know at the same time as setting up Vibrant Communities we’ve been really keen to to rationalise our estates and there was a separate work stream called Property and Estate Rationalisation – I’m sure many of you have heard that one – and at the time I said why don’t we just bring that into the context of community power – and why don’t we work alongside our communities to see if we can work with them to help them to run facilities for themselves – not just hand the keys and run away, but provide brilliant support – and that’s what we did.

I’ve have 55 successful asset transfers and we’ve had none handed back – and that’s everything from a football pavilion to a full golf course to community centres, sports centres and most recently the biggest one in Britain – we community-asset-transferred one of our biggest high school buildings and that’s being run by a local social enterprise and theatre company.

We’ve saved a couple of million pounds doing in that recurring revenue, but we invested about one-and-a-half million in those facilities to work alongside communities to take them on. And we continue to touch base with them, and some communities have a management arrangement with us, some have a lease with us – anything from two years to 90 years – and some communities have been ready for outright disposal where they’ve taken those on.

if you imagine councils right across Britain just now as a set of rose bushes we need to be very careful what branches we take away – some of them will never grow back

But for me community power is deeply listening and understanding what the people we serve, what are their hopes and dreams what makes their hearts sing, what about their love of place and how as public servants we can work alongside them to realise those hopes and dreams, and really help people to love the place. You know we get one shot at this and for me our job is to help people to have a really really good life.

So it’s been an incredible journey here and that level of trust that we have now in East Ayrshire has meant that our response to Covid, it’s been a joint call to action. We’ve worked shoulder-to-shoulder with communities to allow us to be able to serve our most vulnerable people and that continues to happen. It’s been an outstanding response and I’m so proud of the way that East Ayrshire works.

It’s permeating right across everything that we do, across all of our frontline services using this empowered approach with our workforce – 74 of whom live in East Ayshire anyway so they are our communities – but also letting our people know that they need to find a way to say yes as long as it’s legal – we’re there to serve and also using a whole range of approaches around coaching. We’re using strength-based work, so as Cormac Russell say we ‘focus on what’s strong and not what’s wrong’.

It’s been fantastic for me to to link with New Local because I feel already as if I’ve met like-minded councils who are thinking differently and thinking more innovatively. You know if you imagine councils right across Britain just now as a set of rose bushes we need to be very careful what branches we take away – some of them will never grow back. If we make immediate cuts that will do damage so what we have to be in the business is pruning, and we have to be in the business of working alongside the people we serve and really investing in the things that are most important to them.

It’s been fantastic for me to to link with New Local because I feel already as if I’ve met like-minded councils who are thinking differently and thinking more innovatively

What we found actually by working in this trusting, equally empowered way is that demand is reducing. People as natural supports are appearing and people are doing things for themselves and celebrating that fact.

Back to reducing health inequalities and what we’d heard from Sir Harry Burns was if people have power over their own destiny they live longer healthier and happier, and one of the biggest things we can do there is make connections between people and making connections costs nothing, but it’s one of the most powerful things we can do around people’s wellbeing.

So I’d like to thank you very much for having the opportunity to share this blog with you and I really look forward to getting to know more of the councils in New Local and the organisations who are joining.

I’ve really enjoyed taking part in the No Going Back sessions and already sharing some of the research. Feedback that I’ve had from colleagues is New Local has been outstanding, and I think at a time like this the innovative councils, the innovative organisations, we need to stand together – those of us with the philosophy of sharing power and actually making sure that we do the very best for the people we serve and that we are absolutely equal to them, we should actually amplify each other’s work and make that the new normal, so thanks for this opportunity.