Local authorities should explore using vacant facilities on high streets and elsewhere as spaces for public engagement, according to a new report from UK thinktank Demos. It argues that council-run physical spaces can strengthen the bond between local government and residents.
The Locating Authority report introduces the idea of ‘relational local government’ based on three pillars of genuine power-sharing with people, spaces for connection, and consistent and open communication.
“We have seen many challenges emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, with the challenge of running our public services one of the most difficult and recognisable. Yet throughout the pandemic, particularly during the first lockdown, we saw communities come together and relationships strengthened at a time of crisis,” said Ciaran Cummins, a researcher at Demos and author of the report.
“This new report sets out an approach to local governing that fosters strong relationships. This involves building relationships between council service professionals and the people they are supporting, between councils and the community at large, and between local citizens themselves.”
Places to connect
Two-thirds of respondents to a poll of 10,000 UK adults said it was important to have a suitable physical space to meet with other people to discuss local government policies. In addition, 58 percent said meeting other local people while using council services was very or fairly important to them.
With many councils selling spaces amid financial pressures, the report calls for more support from central government, both through direct funding and safeguarding finances for spaces.
It urges councils to engage with residents to rethink how spaces can be made to feel more welcoming, and understand how and where they prefer to interact.
“Councils should explore the use of vacant local facilities, including on the high street, for accessible and open spaces for interactions between the council and public, and the public themselves,” the report says.
Demos also calls for direct funding from central government for local authorities to develop their digital communications abilities and digital inclusion plans, as well as dedicated grants for relational skills training in areas such as co-creation and participatory decision-making.
Almost three-quarters (72 percent) of survey respondents said it is important to be involved in decisions regarding local government policies and operations but less than half (48 percent) reported feeling listened to a fair amount or a great deal by their council. Just eight percent had ever responded to a local government consultation.
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