Anyone trying to improve their community most probably has to interact with their local council which can often be a frustrating process. But it doesn’t have to be like that.
It’s fair to say that there is often a love/hate relationship between community businesses and local authorities. Between Chief Executives, there’s usually good rapport and a sense of shared purpose. Lots of blue sky thinking, grand ambitions and swapping of stories about exciting new social initiatives. I’ve yet to meet a council leader or CEO that doesn’t see a key role for the third sector and it’s equally rare to meet a community business leader who doesn’t have some form of strong connection with the local authority.
Despite that close relationship – or perhaps because of it – I’ve lost count of the number of meetings I’ve been to where there is a tendency to default to council-bashing (sorry if this comes as a surprise to local authority colleagues!). Frustration with the speed of decision-making, the rationality of said decisions, lack of understanding about how community businesses work, casual assumptions about adequate cash flow….you name it, I’ve heard it, and probably said it too.
Like most relationships, the more you get to know one another, the wider the pendulum swings between emotions. One minute you are best buddies, slapping each other on the back and high-fiving on a successful, media-savvy asset-transfer. The next minute: “WHADDYA MEAN, IT’S GOING TO TAKE ANOTHER 6 MONTHS TO GET PLANNING PERMISSION TO DEVELOP OUR STATE-OF-THE-ART COMMUNITY BREWERY?!”.
We’ve experienced the whole gamut at Halifax Opportunities Trust, but the positive experiences have massively outweighed the bad. Calderdale Council has a well-deserved reputation for being ahead of the game in terms of community businesses and other locally-driven initiatives. They support where necessary and also happily step out of the way when it’s clear that local people have the ability and passion to get on with something. It’s very much due to the character of the place, which is community-minded and enterprising (driven by geography and lack of a large urban centre). Halifax Opportunities Trust has benefitted from a strong partnership with the council over 20 years and that’s led to various shared initiatives. We manage two business centres on long-term leases and have built a children’s centre and community kitchen garden on local authority land. We deliver a range of community services via contracts and grant agreements. These were competitively won at the end of commissioning processes that ensured social value was part of the scoring process. And we’ve started discussions with council officers about bringing empty properties back into use, with the promise of as much advice and help as we need.
It’s clear that community businesses and councils can – and should – have highly productive, symbiotic relationships. Local authorities have the clout and the resources to create an environment where social and community innovation can flourish. Local people and community-run businesses can provide incredibly creative solutions to market failure and social needs.
LALA Land? I don’t think so.
Written by Alison Haskins, Chief Executive of Halifax Opportunities Trust.