Barking and Dagenham is a London borough at the east of the city - hugging the north side of the River Thames. Over the last twenty years our communities have undergone unprecedented change – growth in population size and diversity, deindustrialisation, and persistent austerity. While much has changed, outcomes for our residents have remained stubbornly low, with the borough often 31st out of 31 London boroughs for core wellbeing indicators.
In 2006, 12 British National Party councillors were elected to the council. As much as this reflected the pace of local demographic change, disaffection was also the result of economic challenges facing residents, with huge job losses from the closure of a Ford Factory and the loss of much social housing as a result of the Right to Buy Policy. We knew we needed to change our relationship with our residents and invite them to influence the changes that they see all around them. So, we started by trying some different ways of working with residents and partners in practice, rather than setting out a strategy in the first instance.
The approach we have taken centres around listening, learning together, open and honest dialogue, accepting risk, collaboration, and creating platforms for residents to define what good looks like themselves. Four core examples of this approach are:
There are a number of core elements that have supported us to take forward our ambitions to work in a new way:
Myron Rogers famously said “Start anywhere and follow it everywhere” when working in living systems. This is something we’ve been consistently inspired by. Local government can have a habit of writing strategies – which too often start everywhere and get you nowhere. So when we started this journey, we wanted to start by doing – not saying. This was critical because our residents and communities felt so strongly that we weren’t listening to them, that their voices didn’t matter.
We want people and communities to have agency, power and influence and we seek to create the conditions for some of that to happen where we can as a local authority. Seeing residents on the NCIL Panel debate how to spend public money in their communities – and deliberate with nuance and sensitivity, was a real reminder that people are our greatest resource; and we must find ways for it to become its life-blood in future.
We know that the future is greater practical participation, where communities have the space and resources to generate their own solutions and enterprises. The future is civic participation; with community budgeting moving from the fringes of our community development to the core of commissioning.
Our hope and dream is that one day, Barking and Dagenham will be as well known for its community led, civic activism as it is for it’s manufacturing of Ford cars. With the articulation of the political leadership’s model of ‘civic socialism’ locally, we’ve put a stake in the ground, making a commitment to change the relationship between the citizen and the state, empowering individuals and the community to take greater control over their own lives and neighbourhoods. We’re on a journey with the support of lots of great partners including Lankelly Chase, Collaborate, VCSE local partners, Participatory City, and of course most importantly the local people shaping the approach to enable Barking and Dagenham to thrive.
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.