Why local government change needs to be about more than money
In the last week of September we brought together parks, social enterprise and local authority innovators to consider the environment our public parks might operate in at 2050.
One scenario imagined the uses, upkeep and improvement of our public parks shaped through negotiations between groups who use parks. People who like football might agree to maintain all the grass areas in exchange for use of pitches at preferred times. Dog walkers and picnickers might agree to take care of the waste pick up in so they could do the activies they enjoy in the park.
This idea resonated with me because it sets out a different relationship and power structure for our public services. The approach imagines a different kind of democratic engagement than many local authorities are geared up for at present. It emphasises the role people play as partners at all stages in service development and delivery.
Shifting power structures
Back in the real world, we are seeing the benefits of approaching city challenges in a more collective way. Unfortunately, we are also observing the fall out when traditional command and control models of local authority governance are carried out.
Few examples could illustrate the point more starkly than the case studies covered in Harry Wallop’s recent article on parks funding losses in the Sunday Telegraph. Liverpool is just one of many authorities seriously considering selling off some of their parks to plug an increasing gulf in funds.
The situation is acute and the decisions to be made are painful.
Within my own experience in leading the Rethinking Parks programme here at Nesta, some local authorities not involved directly with our programme are searching for a suite of options to address funding gaps first ahead of any meaningful conversation with people and communities affected.
Yet, people are no longer the mere recipients of services local authorities deliver so it follows they should not be left out of the decision making process when times are as pressing as this.
We assist in prioritising investment (e.g. in roads repair through apps like FitMyStreet), we help improve services through volunteering in programmes like Helping in Hospitals or Cities of Service. We are also seeing services delivered together by social enterprises such as Keats Community Library, Sunnyside Rural Trust and the Heeley Development Trust. It follows then that the relationship we have with our local authorities ought to change too.
Bring people in rather than shut them out
The Heritage Lottery Fund’s State of UK Public Parks report last year highlighted that many authorities are raising fees as a way to help close the gap in costs and funds. The real improvement though lies in moving away from a user-pays mentality and towards a user-collaborates philosophy.
The best of our public institutions are already doing this. They are giving a new sense of agency to people and the role they can have in shaping our public services because they are involving them differently, sincerely and at all stages of the process.
One example is the creation of the Park Hack Innovators, a group of creative and engaged businesses in Shoreditch, London. The Park Hackers work together with Groundwork London and London Borough of Hackney to imagine and develop improvements for the local squares of the area. Rather than ideas being developed in-house by the authority and then leading to formal consultation with affected communities, Hackney has been listening without pre-formed views on what shape new services or parks uses might take. They’ve then drawn on this network to help develop improvements together.
In Burnley, the Borough Council are developing stronger networks between their staff and volunteers across their town parks. Staff and volunteers work together across Burnley’s parks. Social enterprise Offshoots supports people working in the park providing wood coppicing, bee keeping and permaculture knowledge. In exchange Offshoots is set to receive income from pollination services and harvesting of borage flowers to turn into starflower oil.
We can learn from good example in other countries too. In Reykjavik, people can submit ideas to improve city services through the council’s Better Reykjavik website. In my native New Zealand, Christchurch’s Gap Filler project works with the council's support to develop temporary creative spaces for play, gathering, entertainment and commerce; all on the premise that great ideas can come from anywhere.
The common thread across these approaches is an attitude that leaves ego at the door and isn’t threatened by people having a more direct and ongoing say in how their services are run than a four-year election cycle allows. People are partners not passive recipients.
This shift isn’t an intuitive or easy one for many authorities under intense financial pressure. But the gains in getting people involved early and often in solving challenges might be one of the keys to our local authorities riding through these tough times.