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Realising the power of people

Plymouth is a port city in Devon, in the southwest of England with a population of over 260,000 people. With 1 in 5 children living in disadvantaged households, we know that Plymouth is a city in which life is unfair for some people. In order to better understand how and why this is, in 2014, Plymouth City Council held a Fairness Commission where we and our partners listened to our citizens for a year.

Engaging our citizens in this study confirmed lots of things we already knew but also flagged many things we didn’t. It enabled us to pinpoint specific areas of people’s lives where inequalities were really felt. For example, we identified that access to affordable healthy food was becoming a growing challenge for sections of Plymouth's community, and that unhealthy diets were contributing to rising diabetes rates.

Joining forces with citizens to address key city challenges

Based on this experience, we decided to engage citizens in many ways. One key effort was our work through Cities of Service, an organising model originating in the US that links city leadership with citizens and local voluntary groups, to join forces and together, take on our biggest city challenges. It’s underpinned by the understanding that most cities have several thousand citizens doing several thousand great things. Imagine the scale and impact of what you could do if you asked them, existing groups and local authorities to concentrate on one or two? This is what we have done in Plymouth around healthy eating, food poverty and fuel poverty.

In response to the challenges around food poverty identified by our citizens as a priority, the ‘Grow, Share, Cook’ initiative was born in 2014, delivered by a partnership including Plymouth City Council and delivery partners drawn from the charitable sector and local businesses. Through ‘Grow, Share, Cook’ volunteers grow food in local community settings such as allotments and community gardens. The fresh produce is then delivered to the doorsteps of families in Plymouth who need it most, alongside cooking lessons on how to prepare and cook fresh produce. To date, over 40,000 meals have been delivered to just over 2,700 individuals in need. In addition to this, the project is now a major supplier of fresh produce to the city’s foodbank and soup runs.

Due to its success over four years, ‘Grow Share Cook’ has been scaled further since 2018, to feed more people across Plymouth with a specific focus on healthy food support, via referrals from GPs and health providers who identify individuals most at risk of type 2 diabetes. Once again, the focus has been purposely specific to help us target key priorities and city challenges.

A change in ethos - how we’re making collaboration the new normal

I have worked for the Council for many years, during which we have always tried to react to the needs of our citizens, with a “you said, we did” relationship. Through my experience with Cities of Service, I realise now that the true strength of a positive relationship with citizens is a “you said, we did together” relationship. This has successfully broken down the city hall barrier and results in more collaborative working and problem solving.

I’m frequently touched by the stories I hear. Take Len’s story for example, who is involved with our Cities of Service project on fuel poverty, Energy Champions. Len is a 67 year old widower living in one of our most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. He is retired and his whole week is based around the weekend visit he gets from his two granddaughters, with Saturday afternoons spent curled up on the sofa watching old Hollywood musicals. What his granddaughters couldn’t see is what would happen to Len in the winter. Being on a key meter, Len wouldn’t use electricity on a Friday to ensure it would not run out during his family’s visits. Thankfully, one of our Energy Champions volunteers found out about Len at a community meeting and visited him. They changed his meter, they changed his tariff - and changed his life. He saved £170 per year on his electricity bill and now never has to worry again about his fuel. The best part is, Len now volunteers as an Energy Champion himself.

This story is one of many where people helping other people has led to a domino effect of citizen activism. For us this approach has become more than an initiative; it has become an organising principle that now resonates at the heart of local government leadership.

My key advice to anyone making this shift and working with the local community to shape their places together:

  1. Stand on the shoulders of giants. There are so many cities doing so many amazing citizen led projects with innovative thinking across the globe. I think it is almost certain that whatever you are thinking of doing, someone else has tried it somewhere. Use your networks and be ready to share. It's not a competition.
  2. Keep the request simple. If we are to ask citizens to join us in a journey, let's ask them in the most simple way. Let them know what we are trying to do, why we need to do it and what they can do to make it happen.
  3. Be humble – the reason why our approach works is because it is open and transparent. It lets people know we cant do it on our own and we need their skills and knowledge because it’s often skills and knowledge we don’t have in the Council.
  4. Say thank you. Every volunteer we have receives an annual thank you letter from the city as well as an invite to tea with the Lord Mayor. We keep people informed of the difference they are making and we ensure they know that whatever positive impact there is, it’s down to them.

Hope for growing this work in the future

In the future, I hope cities say ‘yes’ more. Is there a good idea? Can we make it happen? Can we remove the bureaucratic barriers - and how can we do it together? We have developed a risk averse culture in local government where we are more concerned with what might go wrong. We have to change that mindset to appreciate what could go right and just how much is up for grabs. Our greatest asset will always be our citizens. A great council recognises this and finds a way.

Around the world local governments are plugging the power of citizens back into places, institutions, services and democracies. In this series, five public service innovators placing citizens at the heart of their work share their experiences on this journey.

Author

Darin Halifax

Darin is a Senior Policy Advisor for Plymouth City Council and leads the city’s work on volunteering and social action.