South Hams District and West Devon Borough Councils share their experience of developing a community forum.
Following the declaration of a climate change and biodiversity emergency a cross party working group was set up to develop a strategy and action plan. With members having set the strategic direction there was a desire for a much more collaborative arrangement between the councils and their communities who often felt ‘done to’ and are often doing great work on the ground that the councils were not aware of. We decided to establish a forum comprising officers and a representative cross section of the community to help further develop and deliver against the councils commitments.
The challenges were firstly to ensure a fair cross section of individuals were selected from for example town and parish councils, community groups, community interest companies and charities. It was also important to secure a fair geographical split across the council area and that individuals with areas of expertise were also included. Age was also key as experience has shown that it tends to be the older demographic who actively engage in our area and we were keen to include younger people to get a balance.
From the expressions of interest submitted, we firstly selected based on age and location to ensure fair representation of age and geography and then used a second set of criteria, loosely based on Local Agenda 21 principles to select the working group members from community (voluntary sector), business (social enterprise or community interest companies) and individual (experts) categories. This provided a level of objectivity and transparency, which helped when the group met for the first time. The purpose of the group was set out in draft terms of reference, which were circulated in advance and agreed at the first meeting. It was made clear that whilst governance arrangements needed to be in place the concept was one of collaboration, enjoyment and ultimately supporting change.
The first meeting was a great success full of active engagement, energy and a collective desire to make a difference. The feedback through networks to our elected members was positive. Initial work streams around energy efficiency in housing have started and we have since had a second meeting building on home energy efficiency as well as gaining forum member input on our draft climate change Crowdfunder eligibility criteria.
How the approach is being sustained
Firstly, members were keen to meet more regularly and the forum members indicated at the last meeting held in February that bi-monthly works well. The key approach we are hoping that will sustain ongoing collaborative work is ensuring each meeting has tangible actions and outcomes that the council and the forum can work on together. In the future we hope to have guest speakers which we can engage on together in collaboration with other partners across the area.
It’s important to make sure that there is a level of confidence in your selection criteria with at least something measurable, for us age and geography worked well, but our survey questions were difficult to apply to the second set of criteria. It’s also a challenge to reach out to people who may not feel comfortable joining a group like this, most of our members, and those who completed the survey, are already heavily engaged on the subject matter. If we were starting again it would have been beneficial to have a longer lead in time to the survey launch, with some communications activity leading up to this for maximum exposure.
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