Excellent, albeit rushed meeting of Member Development Committee on Monday night. The committee takes on a much wider remit than simply – training courses for councillors. At the moment we’re looking at the role of councillors in their community. With huge cuts to the spending power of councils, we’re looking to maximise the potential of the community in terms of what it can provide from within; and its ability to pull in funding from outside.
All the indicators suggest that over many years we haven’t done this well in Trafford. In the last Comprehensive Area Assessment (2010 – the analysis has since been scrapped by the Govt.), we were in the bottom quartile for most of the indicators relating to community involvement:
- Incidence of voluneering – worst 25%
- Involvement in civic participation – below average
- Percentage of residents who feel they can influence decisions affecting their local area – worst 20%
- Environment for a thriving third sector – worst 5%
These are appalling results and frankly embarrassing for Trafford. If anything, the position has worsened since 2010, with the reduction in grants to groups and our third sector. This has led to VCAT (Voluntary and Community Action Trafford) being drained of funding in its role as the support for Trafford’s voluntary sector. So the training, advice, guidance it provides is by no means guaranteed in future. We know that firstly Trafford Housing Trust and latterly Blue Sci have been touted as partners to VCAT for a joint tender, but it’s impossible to ignore the mood music coming from those watching on.
But suddenly, despite this bleak backdrop, community groups and their volunteers are seen as the shining saviours ready to spring into action to maintain services as staff are made redundant. We Labour councillors are opposed to volunteers being used to do the work of paid professional staff, but that’s an issue to be debated at Council later this week when we put forward our motion. The topic being discussed at member development was how councillors can support volunteering and community involvement; and that has to be a worthwhile aspiration. Simply put, it is something we’re not as good at as we should be. And to make matters worse, the council as a whole is abjectly woeful in its approach to this agenda. It’s an object lesson in how not to do it:
- 100 Days in Trafford – we’ll advertise a few things (in a thrown together web calendar) that were mainly going to happen anyway and the community will rush to take part?
- The implied threat that if you don’t volunteer to do this we’ll be forced to make savings elsewhere
- The general disregard for existing community groups and what they’ve been doing
- A lack of appreciation that communities and volunteer groups are not people that can be told ‘stop what you’re doing, we want you to do this (e.g librarians)
- A lack of interest in the motivations for getting involved
- A failure to provide adequate ways to influence the decisions affecting their area
- Neighbourhood forums provided by the council intermittently and tied rigidly to an agenda controlled by the council
As you can tell, I am really disappointed in the way that the Tories have implemented this. I see genuine risks that it will actually deter people from coming forward. But I’m going to acknowledge that Labour has a record that is mixed when it comes to community empowerment. We have been too managerial, too dismissive and too ready to believe we had all the answers. In recognising that fact, and in common with a growing body of people in Labour, (and Conservatives too, it has to be said) I’ve become really interested in the achievements of the London Citizens Movement. I don’t agree with everything they’ve done, but they’ve got an energy. They’ve got a can-do attitude that makes any regular at Trafford’s neighbourhood forums, want to weep in the realisation that engagement in Trafford has never amounted to anything approaching this.
So I think there’s real opportunities for energizing our communities. Councillors can’t do it all, but we can do a little bit to help. And I think we can learn to do things better.