Riding high: a partnership approach to community engagement in Cumbria

‘Together We Can' is a programme of community engagement work across Cumbria. One project in Harraby shows the positive impact the programme has had on the police, district and county council's work in communities. Its success prompted a visit by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009.

An area of wasteland on the outskirts of Carlisle has been pivotal in changing attitudes towards young people. The police regularly received complaints about problem teenagers from residents living on a housing estate in Harraby until a BMX track was built on the site. "We used to get lots of calls from people about some of the kids in the area causing a nuisance," said Inspector Barry Bell, "But that has massively been reduced since the track was opened. The children maintain and look after it - there is a real sense of ownership and pride in it."

Harraby is an area of mainly social housing that was built over 40 years ago. Teenagers wanting something new in their community put forward the idea of the track to local councillors as part of the community engagement initiative ‘Together We Can". This is a partnership involving the county and city councils and a range of agencies including the police, the primary care trust and the Riverside Housing Association. At its heart is the active involvement of local people which Inspector Bell believes is the reason for its success.

Inspector Bell said: "I am a Harraby lad - I grew up here. The area has always had its share of problems but I can't emphasise enough how little Harraby is a problem now. Just in the last year anti-social behaviour is down by a third.

"There is a real sense of pride in the community. It's amazing the changes that have taken place over the last couple of years and it's all down to community empowerment. I want to use what we have learnt from here and apply it to the other areas I police in the city."

Collaboration at local level

Cyril Webber is the local ward councillor for both the city and the county council and has been involved in the project from its inception in 2008. He said: "The project is based around a real collaboration. The BMX track is just one example. The county council provided the land, the city council found the money and the residents cleared the site."

One reason for the success of the project is the appointment of a community involvement worker who is jointly funded by the police and the county council with in-kind support from the city council. The involvement officer is based in the community centre a couple of days a week in order to liaise with residents about service issues, ranging from grass cutting to social activities.

The Together We Can project is driven by a monthly stakeholders group which is run by the residents in collaboration with the partner organisations. "This is a seamless project," said Councillor Webber. "You don't get arguments about who takes the lead on particular projects - everyone pulls together as one team working in harmony."

Inspector Bell agrees: "We talk about working in partnership but often what we all mean is that we have a problem and we each have a little bit of it. Here it feels very different. We come together with a common purpose of improving Harraby. We are not just chipping in our bit but have a shared set of values and vision which is based on doing the very best we can for the community."

The project not only crosses professional boundaries but also geographic ones as it covers two city council wards. Steve Dunn, a community engagement officer for the city council who works in the area, said: "We knew from the outset that Harraby was a natural community but that it also covers a number of different electoral boundaries. Instead of wards we based the project on how the community defined its own area; for example what shops or parks people use rather than the streets they live in. It hasn't always been easy working like this but it has definitely been worth it as the project area makes sense for the community."

The relationship between the city and the county council has also been positive. Both organisations saw the initiative as a way of trying out a new way of working with communities and delivering services.

"The project is an opportunity to work with partners to develop a model for engaging and empowering people," said Rob Burns, community support manager for the city council. "On the community engagement's ladder of participation we have been good at the first few steps - informing, consulting and involving people. For example, we have set up with the county council a joint neighbourhood forum. However, we are not so experienced at the top end of the ladder in releasing power to communities. Part of this work is to explore how we genuinely empower communities and we have cross-party support for this."

Burns believes that Harraby is now also well on the way to delivering on the other steps of the participation ladder. "Over the last couple of years we have trained dozens of people around the issues of decision-making, budget processes and how public bodies work. These people are now actively involved in shaping services locally and ensuring they meet the needs of local residents; whether its discussing what should happen to the local secondary school that is due to close, or deciding on the contractors to design and build new play facilities. The challenge for us is to maintain this activity and interest once the pilot phase is over."

County-wide initiative

The Harraby project is part of a much wider programme of community engagement which has been developed by Cumbria County Council, a member of the NEA.

"We initially undertook six pilots in 2008/9, of which Harraby was one," said Stuart Pate, head of community at Cumbria County Council. "This was to experiment with a range of approaches to community engagement within different environments - from rural areas to city estates. The purpose of the pilots was to assess the feasibility of a rolling programme of partnership-based intensified outreach, building on the work of existing local staff teams and focused around listening and responding to community concerns. All activity was consistently branded under the banner ‘Together We Can'."

He added: "The main aims were to test whether the approach could address community issues more effectively, promote local ways of joining up service delivery and ensure the council was seen to respond and be influenced by the public."

The pilots were led by staff from the area support teams of the county council's community unit and were sponsored by the LAA's ‘safer and stronger' thematic partnership. The process started in June 2008 by ensuring buy-in from key stakeholders such as the Cumbria Constabulary, NHS Cumbria and district councils. These stakeholders formed the basis of a strategic group that oversaw the programme.

Detailed operational planning took place between August and September 2008. This involved establishing local implementation groups in each area to plan and deliver a range of activities. The membership of the groups included a core of Cumbria and district wide organisations represented by their locally based staff, as well as organisations with a specific local focus, including parish councils and community groups.

Stuart added: "These voluntary and community based organisations were a significant asset both in terms of the planning and the delivery of the ‘Together We Can' activity. They were able to provide in-depth knowledge of the local issues which supplemented the data held by the agencies involved, as well as advice and direction on the best way to involve and engage the local communities."

There was a rolling programme of outreach activity between the pilots that took place between October and December 2008. The exception was Harraby which had been selected as the one pilot to explore local partnership engagement activities over a longer period. While there were a number of core activities based around the six priority areas of the community strategy, local areas could ‘pick and mix' additional ones.

For example, the Streetsafe initiative was a consistent theme within each of the localities including, for example, safety checks and surveys. These activities have contributed to promoting ‘safe, strong and inclusive communities', one of the LSP's priority themes. Different approaches were adopted to encourage communities to engage with their local members in the six pilot areas. Such approaches included ward walks where local councillors walked around the areas they represent at an advertised time, with community police officers, fire and rescue and council staff.

In a number of the pilots, money problems were high on the list of community concerns. In response many pilots put together a number of different events to help address this. For example, a ‘Money Matters' day was held in Maryport and involved a wide range of partners coming together to assist people on issues such as low cost loans, council tax rebates, avoiding loan sharks, work benefits and energy saving.

Cost and results

Stuart said the Together We Can programme was planned from the outset to be sustainable. "It was built around existing local staff and existing joint working in a community with short term intervention of county- or district-wide staff. The total cost was small: around £20,000 for the whole county. For us to embed this approach across our organisation and others, costs had to be kept low. Many community projects are funded by ‘funny money' with extra posts that are often here today and gone tomorrow. Our approach has been more about getting existing staff to think about different ways of engaging with the community and embedding this approach in the day job."

Cumbria County Council has looked at the impact that the pilot projects have had on National Indicator 4 - the percentage of people who feel they can influence decisions in their local area. As Stuart Pate explains, "We carried out survey work to look at changes to NI4 following the pilots. While these varied across the county, overall the pilot projects showed community level work had a very positive impact. On average, people's perceptions of being able to influence improved by a fifth following the pilots - from 28 percent to 35 percent."

Key lessons

Cumbria is currently undertaking phase two of this intensive engagement work which, with the exception of Harraby, involves short term working across the county with at least two Together We Can activities in each district. "One of the key learning points from phase one was that local staff wanted more flexibility in how they approached the pilots. For example, in the first phase we had the activities taking place over a couple of months. Now there is a 12 month timeframe and the pilots can decide when they want to undertake the activities as well as tying it even more closely into existing initiatives. However, all the activities will still come under the Together We Can branding," said Stuart.

Stuart said key lessons from the Together We Can pilots include:

  1. The outreach approach to delivering services can present challenges to some professions. There is a real difference in languages and styles, with some groups of people much less comfortable working in a community setting compared with others. However, we are finding parts of our organisation, and others, are already working more effectively in communities as a result of the pilots, although significant cultural change will take time.
  2. Within a complex partnership not everyone has experience of working with councillors - even within a council. Councillors are absolutely critical to working creatively at a local level and have extensive networks which are often invaluable. It is important to understand what they have to offer and how best to work with them.
  3. The outreach approach to local delivery can sometimes be seen as yet more work added to the day job. This was one of the criticisms from staff involved in the first pilot. Yet local partnership activity often helps reduce the day job because it is about preventing problems arising, as show by the reduction in anti-social behaviour in Harraby. In phase two the pilots are over a much longer time framework so local staff can more easily fit them around their existing commitments.

For further information contact Lorrainne Smyth on 01539 713435 or [email protected] or go to: www.togetherwecan.org.uk