Eight characteristics of councils that are building stronger more resilient communities

We were commissioned recently to carry out research to try and uncover which upper tier local authorities in England were making genuine progress in terms of building stronger more resilient communities.  Through both desk based research and structured interviews what emerged was a set of characteristics of councils who are serious about getting communities to play a more active role in: designing, commissioning, delivering or critically preventing demand for public services.  We’ve set them out below:

  1. They have very clear INTENT
  • Community empowerment is embedded in strategic plans.
  • Beyond principles they have a defined approach – a way of doing things.
  • They see community empowerment as a part of budget and demand management approaches.
  • They recognise that people can get trapped in a service delivery world.
  1. They have a defined and consistently applied APPROACH for building stronger more resilient communities.
  • They have approaches that support communities to place less demand on public services.
  • They are actively looking to encourage greater co-production of public services. By this we mean involving communities, at the earliest possible time, in defining requirements and designing how these will be addressed (or their need prevented) and being involved in the delivery of services or demand management activity.
  • They are working with elected members to get them to be more involved in their local communities.
  • In Unitary councils they are creating and funding Ward Forums.
  • They have dedicated staff teams to undertake community work and co-ordinate activity across the council.
  • They try to understand which staff live and work in their communities.
  • They are devolving meaningful budgets to community control.
  1. They have KNOWLEDGE about their communities and processes to maintain this knowledge
  • Have a defined way of understanding and mapping community assets (people, organisations and physical assets).
  • Are able to define and calculate public sector spend at a community level.
  • Have some way of measuring community capacity across all their communities.
  1. They COMMISSION from an asset basis which is underpinned by the aim of fostering greater community delivery (i.e. greater involvement of the community and voluntary sector from design through to delivery).
  • Commissioners engage with communities at the earliest possible stage.
  • Commissioners test, as part of any procurement exercise, whether the community is capable of delivering the required service or aspects of it.
  • They have processes in place to measure the impact of community empowerment on budgets, service delivery and service demand.
  • They understand the principles of social impact investment and are looking to apply them to community development work.
  1. They have effective GOVERNANCE in place.
  • They have a director with specific responsibility for supporting demand management work in communities.
  • They have an elected member with specific responsibility for supporting demand management work in communities.
  • Political patience – i.e. an acceptance that it will take time to measure impact upon public services.
  • They recognise, and are dealing with, the challenge that may come from encouraging greater involvement of community groups and how this may clash with the responsibilities and mandate of elected members.
  1. They are changing the CULTURE within their organisations.
  • They have programmes in place to help support and train staff.
  • Their aspirations around community empowerment are enshrined in staff appraisals and team targets.
  1. They have effective PARTNERSHIP working at a locality level.
  • They have processes in place to allow joint working at a locality level.
  • They are starting conversations with partners where they say “if we can reduce demand for your service in this area will you commit to realignment of budget”.
  • There is meaningful activity around shared budgets at a locality level between different statutory providers
  1. They are able to MEASURE the impact they are having.
  • They have specific goals both around strengthening communities and reducing public service demand.
  • They are able to assess whether interventions are improving services or what specific difference they are making.
  • They have systems in place to measure the impact they are having on:
  • Community resilience,
  • Service demand and service costs.

“Grab a kebab” and other lessons in prevention and behaviour change from the fire services

Although not widely recognised across the rest of the public sector, Fire and Rescue Services have arguably gone further in terms of demand management and service prevention than any single public service body. Over the past 10 years the fire service has overseen a substantial reduction in the level of demand for its services. This blog explores how this has been achieved and what lessons there might be for other public service providers. Further, it is also worth exploring whether this capability and skill within the fire service could be harnessed to support demand reduction on other public services.

There are a number of reasons why the fire service has been so successful in reducing demand and specifically reducing accidental dwelling fires. These are summarised below:

Legislation – across the nation the fire service has for many years been actively pursuing policy and legislative change that will reduce the likelihood of serious injuries (or death) from fires or even fires starting in the first place. This might range from tighter standards around furniture manufacture, to the banning of smoking in indoor public places, to tighter building controls to legislation around implementing smoke detectors on private and public landlords.

Education – across the UK different Fire Brigades have invested significant resources in all forms of education. This ranges from traditional delivery means, such as promoting fire safety in schools (in Essex in over 80% of schools, every child will have heard a fire safety message from the Fire Brigade at least three times before the reach 16 – over 117,000 children were seen last year) to far more subtle delivery means, which have more to do with “behaviour change” than outright education. For example, Essex runs a campaign using the strapline “Grab a kebab” – i.e. if you’ve had a few beers grab a kebab on the way home rather than cranking up the chip pan.

Taking advantage of Fires – the fire service is proactive in a way that very few other agencies are when an event happens. There are two aspects to this, firstly after a fire a significant effort goes into understanding what caused the fire and educating the impacted party about how not to have a fire again in the future. More importantly though, the Fire Service do not let a 999 call go wasted. After an incident most fire authorities run an AIR (After Incident Response), which is an event where after a fire every house within an agreed radius of the incident is visited to say “Did you hear about the fire at no. 19? We are just using this as an opportunity to check on neighbours and see if you need any help around making your home safer.” What better time to get a message across.

Data Analysis – The fire service has a very good understanding about who the most vulnerable groups are. They have a built an increasingly accurate picture of who is likely to have fires and where they are likely to happen. This approach allows them to be both targeted and very effective in landing their prevention messages.

Using capacity – by design (not by accident) the fire service has overseen a reduction in demand for its services. Rather than responding to this by simply reducing the hours of available fire fighters in fire brigades across the country, the fire service has pursued a shift in its work-load from response to prevention. Increasingly the Fire service is not about fighting fires, rather it is about stopping them from happening.

So what can other public service providers learn from the Fire Service?

The majority of the work of the fire service is focussed on prevention, but there are increasing examples of the fire service playing a significant role beyond firefighting and prevention. As an asset the fire service has some extraordinary capabilities, which if better understood by partner agencies, could play a role in preventing all manner of other public services. The people that the fire service see as being vulnerable are very often the same people that are seen as vulnerable by many other service providers: those with drug and alcohol issues, the elderly living alone, single parents, the unemployed (they tend to be at home for longer periods), people with disabilities and hoarders, to name a few. So if the fire service can be effective in preventing demand from these groups for a fire response, how could this capability be applied to other services? Many services are already supporting these agendas and are forcing their way into these areas because they know that chaotic and complex lives of vulnerable people often have a multitude of needs that can only be met by a collaborative response.

The reality though is that most commissioners tend to take a deficit-based approach to commissioning i.e. “I see your need and I’m going to address that by deploying the resources over which I have direct control”. How many public service commissioners are aware of, or consider the “assets” of the fire service when commissioning services? So what are these assets?

Below are four aspects (or assets) of the fire service that could be of significant value to other public sector providers.

Firstly, as explored earlier, the Fire Service are experts in prevention and much could be learnt by other agencies about the deliberate approach that the fire service takes to prevention. Does the ambulance service do anything similar to an AIR? If you visit A&E how much focus is given to ensuring the accident or event won’t happen again rather than dealing with the issue? How many school children get advice on how to identify risks relating to slips, trips and falls that an elderly person might be at risk of?

Secondly, the fire service has a valuable brand. Whilst this will be very carefully protected by the fire service, there may be ways to tap into this brand. Could fire fighters help mentor children at risk of becoming NEET? Could the fire service, through passing on some of their values such as discipline and teamwork, support back into work people who have been unemployed for a long time? Could the fire service carry out checks in houses that go beyond looking for fire risks? These and many other examples are already being carried out up and down the country but is there the potential to do more?

Thirdly, by design the fire service has capacity and whilst this capacity is there for a reason, is there a way to work in partnership with local community fire stations to explore how this capacity could be used for community benefit? In Essex, every fire watch is encouraged to allocate a proportion of the watch to community work – how many commissioners in local public services are mindful of this capacity when commissioning services?

Fourthly, the fire service has a local presence. There are over 1,300 fire stations dotted around the country. Many of these have meeting rooms, gyms, kitchens and other facilities that could potentially be made available to local communities. There are examples of this happening already, such as gyms being made available to people recovering from cardiac arrests or kitchens being used by community groups, but in most cases these are exceptions rather than the rule.

Clearly, careful consideration needs to be given to how assets such as these are accessed but in general terms there is real appetite from the fire service to play a far broader role in the communities in which they are based.

Could local decision making and local finance management solve housing shortages – Lessons from Thailand

by Canem Ozyildirim, Associate at Locality Matters

The number of people who live in slums in urban Thailand is disputed widely, but stands roughly between two and five million people [1]. Most of these people live in sub-standard housing with little to no security of tenure and suffer from poor living environments. With almost half the world population living in urban areas, housing for the poor is a growing problem for many countries and a lot can be learnt from the way Thailand is addressing the issue.

In 2003, the Thai Housing Ministry set up the Baan Mankong programme to provide urban communities with long term, low-interest loans to upgrade their homes. Instead of destroying slum areas, the Thai Government is empowering poor urban communities by letting them be in charge of transforming their communities into more attractive and better quality settlements.

[testimonial author=”Resident of Kao Seng”] It [community] used to be slum, but now it is a house. In the past when we went back home, we were afraid to say we live in Kao seng. People might look down [or] have antipathy. However, recently we speak proudly that we live in Kao seng. We speak louder than ever before. [2][/testimonial]

Providing the poor with flexible financing options is one of the key components of the programme. This works hand in hand with the requirement that each settlement forms a savings group and manages their finances collectively. The savings group becomes the core of the community, managing all activities associated with the upgrading operation, from searching for a new piece of land to learning how to plan projects. All around Thailand, they collaborate with local government, volunteer architects, designers and university students to survey all available land, and develop a plan of action to upgrade their settlements within three to four years. The appropriate government bodies then review these plans and channel infrastructure subsidies and housing loans directly to the communities.

Savings groups provide communities with the necessary structure to manage a complex upgrading process collectively and reach out to other communities to share their knowledge and experiences. They also serve a very important social function: Through these groups, everyone in the community, even the poorest individuals, is included in the decision-making processes. In this way, savings groups strengthen the bonds within a community and ensure that each individual’s needs are addressed in the design and production of new settlements. As such, the Baan Mankong program accomplishes two important tasks with a single effort, empowering marginalized individuals while providing them with security of tenure.

For example, in the community of Bonkai, a long-established informal settlement in central Bangkok, 566 households formed a cooperative and negotiated with Crown Property Bureau to rebuild 200 houses that were damaged in a recent fire. Bonkai community was the first to be issued a ‘community lease contract’ in Thailand. The community decided to manage the reconstruction effort in three phases, so that all dwellers could remain on site. In order to fit every impacted household, they decided to build 72 three-storied units. Each unit was built on twenty-four square meter plots, for an average cost of US$4901. [3]

Bonkai before and after reconstruction. Boonyabancha, 2005.

As a precaution against land speculation and gentrification, the program requires communities to make decisions collectively about selling individual properties or making any other changes to the settlement. One of the most common types of tenure in the program is cooperative ownership (other types of tenure include long-term and short-term leases, in which case the community still makes decisions together about selling or building in the settlement), which ensures that the future of the settlement is decided together. There are over 1,010 Baan Mankong projects under way, in 226 towns and cities, involving 54,000 households. [4]

This is not to say that Baan Mankong does not have its problems. The level of debt might be disconcerting and cause long-term stress for many slum dwellers. The project might also disservice those who are renting their dwellings. Strategies that prioritize helping original settlers and reducing participants’ debt should certainly be considered. Yet, the bottom-up, community-led style in which Thailand addresses the issue of informal settlements is exemplary. It not only presents a sustainable method to conquer a monumental problem, but also serves to show how communities can overcome complex urban issues on their own and function as local democracies.

[testimonial author=”Onn (36 years old), Bangramard resident”]Many friends asked me, do I regret destroying this home? I simply say yes, I really do. But it is worth it. If it can be used in exchange for thirty years of permanent tenure, I accept that. My daughter is just eight years old. If we did not attend the project [Baan Mankong] and the [landlord] suddenly need the land back, I have no idea where we would go. [5] [/testimonial]

The Thai approach may not be directly applicable in the UK, and Thailand might be an unusual place to look for inspiration with regards to this issue. However, Baan Mankong not only presents a potentially sustainable method to conquer a global social problem, it also serves to show that communities can be efficient and reliable local decision-making bodies. Key approaches of the programme, namely, the policies that allow for much more localized cooperative ownership, community management of financial resources and local decision-making could be relevant for the UK. Incorporating these measures into local government could help problem-solve and plan more efficiently at a community scale. It might also just create less isolated and more independent communities.



[1] UN HABITAT, 2008:248; CODI, 2004

[2] Rhabibadana, 2007: 3

[3] CODI, 2006

[4] CODI Website, http://www.codi.or.th/housing/aboutBaanmankong.html

[5] Chutapruttikorn, 2009: 17 [/box]



It doesn’t stop at Holyrood… how devolution in Scotland is impacting local communities. By David Welsh, Director MainStreet Consulting

Even for those with only a passing interest in politics and government, it’s been a busy few months up here in Scotland. Most notably, we had our Independence Referendum on 18th September, and the subsequent discussions via the Smith Commission on what further powers could and should be devolved to our parliament at Holyrood. That report was issued in late November, with a plan to legislate on much of that even before May 2015’s General Election.

Over the coming few years, we will assume control of a range of new responsibilities, including the ability to set income tax rates and bands, bits of VAT and Air Passenger Duty – and keeping whatever is raised from those in Scotland. In addition, the Scottish Government will have some control over chunks of welfare (essentially, powers to determine the structure and value of elements of Universal Credit), over employment initiatives like the Work Programme, over the management and subsequent revenues from the Crown Estate in Scotland, and fuller control of transport including allowing the public sector to bid for rail franchises, powers to set speed limits and (bizarrely!) over all road traffic signs.

For some, this isn’t enough: does this ability to tax income (but not other forms of wealth or assets like oil & gas) allow us to really grow our economy and take genuinely different courses of action on welfare and so on? For others – including Lord Smith himself – this is simply a good start, and has at least secured the support of all five political parties in the Scottish Parliament.

Of particular interest was Smith’s explicit recommendation that the parties show a similar commitment to “see the principle of devolution extended further, with the transfer of powers from Holyrood to local communities.

This continues a noticeable trend over the past few months to commit to moving decision-making closer to people and their communities: there’s certainly loads of other things going on up here that point in that direction.

Just a few months ago, COSLA (the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the representative body for local government) published a thoughtful, laudable and I think successful attempt to influence national thinking on principles of subsidiarity, ‘spheres of governance’, community empowerment, democratic deficits and improving outcomes.  Its Commission on Local Democracy is well worth a read and makes a compelling case why local services and local accountability matters – and therefore why devolution shouldn’t stop at Holyrood.

The Scottish Government is now consulting on its Community Empowerment Bill which – although largely a ragbag of bits and pieces of community-focused initiatives – has some pretty strong policy commitments on more wide-ranging Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs), rights for community groups to request involvement in planning, extending Community Right To Buy, decent procedures for community asset transfers to communities, and welcome new powers for flexibility on local reliefs on National Non-Domestic Rates (local business rates).

And just at the end of November, Scotland’s new First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set out her inaugural programme for government, promising an administration that is “decentralising”. Among 12 bills detailed, two are particularly relevant. First, a commitment to Land Reform aimed at securing a ‘fairer, wider and more equitable distribution of land’ in Scotland through possible measures to break up large land holdings, providing help to communities (including in urban areas) to buy the land that surrounds them, removing business rate exemptions for shooting and deerstalking estates, and penalising landowners who act as ‘a barrier to sustainable development’.

Second, she announced that an independent commission would be set up to report on fairer alternatives to the Council Tax by autumn 2015.  My view is that the current SNP administration’s Council Tax freeze (replicated in England by the Coalition) flies in the face of genuinely local democracy. In Scotland, just 18% of local income is raised through local taxation (compared with proportions nearer 50% elsewhere in Europe). This limits the spend and investment choices available to local communities and will inevitably affect their participation rates. It should be a point of principle that local people decide what taxation is levied and services delivered.

What all of these events, initiatives, policies and announcements have in common is this: they are about power, where it lies, how it’s used and for whose benefit. A national conversation has begun in Scotland on these issues. Hopefully this will continue – perhaps even more emphatically – at local levels by elected councillors, community groups and individual citizens.

For us in Scotland, it will mean a profound change in attitude by our local authorities and other public sector partners. It will mean recognising – as set out by Ben Ramalingam – that “managed systems of people, land, resources, assets and services are all unique”. It opens the door to genuinely diverse communities – with no nationally-prescribed plan and no top-down approaches locally – and occasionally unpredictable events and unforeseen opportunities. Things are messier, yes, but so be it.

For others in the UK, it should also spark similar debates about devolution, decentralisation, control by Westminster, Whitehall and our big public sector organisations. Different parts of the country should be able to experiment with different ways of doing things too.

What we’ve gone through in Scotland in the past year or so has been very special but the lessons cannot be unique.


David Welsh is Director at MainStreet Consulting