We are facing an era of financial austerity. Local authorities will have to reduce the services that they offer and shift the ways in which they act. Rather than being service providers, they are going to have to become enablers. Better collaboration between communities and local authorities could therefore help this enabling role to be conducted more effectively.
Dr Rehema White
Scottish researchers have facilitated the creation of powerful green partnerships between community groups and local councils, and it is hoped that the scheme will act as a blueprint so that other regions can take similar action. The initiative, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) and the Local Authorities and the Research Councils’ Initiative (LARCI), aimed to remove perceived obstacles that have historically prevented community groups from working effectively with their local authorities.
The project, headed by Dr Rehema White from the University of St Andrews, focused predominantly on the region of Fife. By bringing together relevant figures from both local authorities and community groups, her team was able to foster mutual recognition of the environmental endeavours that have already been undertaken by both sides, and succeeded in building and strengthening working relationships for the future.
I spoke to Dr White to find out more about how she and her team worked to improve environmental collaboration between councils and their communities, and how their findings might be applied in a wider context.
"Rather than trying simply to encourage general collaboration between communities and local authorities, we wanted to address issues such as climate change and carbon emissions within this context," explained Dr White. "Local authorities were trying to deal with these issues through their own institutions and by working with local businesses. However, they hadn’t really managed to engage with their local communities in this respect. We therefore had a very specific mandate. We wanted to develop a strategy to enable councils to find better ways to involve local communities in their environmental efforts."
The team found that community groups didn’t always recognise the assistance that councils could offer in terms of their own green efforts. I asked Dr White about the commonly perceived obstacles that were standing in the way of effective collaboration.
"I think that obstacles are sometimes perceived because of the historical role that local authorities have played in this process," she said. "One barrier, for example, can be identifying the appropriate members of the council to contact. Many local authorities have Community Development Officers who work within particular areas, but not all individuals in communities are aware of these people or their posts. Members of the community sometimes see their council as an amorphous mass responsible for collecting rubbish, for managing pavements and roads, but not necessarily for tackling individual problems. I think that identifying appropriate and sympathetic points of contact has been problematic in the past.
"Another barrier that we encountered was the community’s belief that their local authority was actually impeding
, rather than encouraging, work to combat climate change. Some groups felt that they were already doing good things, but that there were infrastructural obstacles. Not everybody understood that local authorities also
wished to reduce carbon emissions, and neither did everybody realise that councillors were working to tackle similar problems. In that sense, there existed a lack of recognition that local authorities and community groups often share the same goals."
Dr White went on to outline some of the successes that she and her colleagues had enjoyed whilst bringing interested members of local authorities and community groups together.
"We used various methods but one that worked very well was our one-day seminars," she explained. "These were very effective because they were focused around different topics: food, transport, energy and community. In each of these seminars, we tried to invite a wide range of people. We invited people from community groups, from NGOs and from local authorities. We also tried to involve other interested individuals. There was a certain degree of trepidation from the local authorities. Some council experts only get to engage with community members when there is a problem, yet here, they were being asked to talk about some of the excellent things that they had done. Conversely, not all community members expected much in the way of understanding from local authorities, and so they were also quite defensive.
"Despite these potential problems, the seminars worked very well. People on both sides were able to identify common goals. Community members were able to appreciate that individuals working within local authorities had very relevant expertise. Take for example the issue of waste management in Fife. Fife Council was already doing great things in this respect. As part of a public private partnership, methane was collected from a landfill site and used to heat council buildings in a poorer part of Fife. This came as a big surprise to community groups who hadn’t realised that such an initiative was already underway. Likewise, local authorities were staggered to discover that some community groups had undertaken activities and achieved successes way beyond anything that they had imagined. Councils assumed that they would have to encourage community participation from scratch, and I think that the seminars helped them to realise that their citizens were already well ahead."
Overcoming the threats posed by climate change is one of today’s grand global challenges. However, if we are to tackle this problem, local action will be as important as international cooperation. I asked Dr White about the environmental benefits that might result from effective local collaboration.
"I think that local collaboration would help this situation in a number of ways; particularly within the modern context," she replied. "We are facing an era of financial austerity. Local authorities will have to reduce the services that they offer and shift the ways in which they act. Rather than being service providers, they are going to have to become enablers
. Better collaboration between communities and local authorities could therefore help this enabling role to be conducted more effectively.
"Of course, communities are very different. Some communities possess high levels of education and are able to attract funding to develop initiatives. Other communities – particularly those within deprived areas – lack such capacities, yet these are often the areas that would benefit most from sustainable initiatives. This was one problem that we were unable to reconcile. We can change the ways in which local authorities act and we can develop more effective collaboration, but we will still need to invest significantly in such communities. This will mean keeping the roles of Community Development Officers and maintaining long-term environmental interests. This way, trust and relationships can be built and developed and capacity can improve over a longer period of time.
"Local authorities are split up into different sections, yet environmental issues demand a holistic approach," concluded Dr White. "Again, this is something that local authorities find quite difficult to achieve, particularly within the context of today’s audit culture. Councils are being – quite rightly – asked to be accountable. However, they are also being judged against tick-box outcomes and this can diminish their flexibility to rapidly respond to their community’s needs and requests. Whilst we have developed a blueprint, we must also remember that regions can be very different. I think that our findings should be adapted to suit the specific needs of local authorities and communities."