Community is at the heart of everything
Put simply, local government exists to serve its community. The community can be passionate, motivated and full to the brim of local knowledge. They can also be motivated to create change and deliver projects that respond to their needs and aspirations. Sometimes, however, there can be a disconnect between the community and council. On the one side, there can be a lack of understanding and interest from the community about the framework of local government and how local councils make decisions and deliver outcomes. On the other hand, there can be a reluctance by local councils to fully enable and empower communities.
Councillors have an important role in bridging this disconnect and advocating for tools that empower communities to be part of the change they want to see. In this blog, we explore one of these tools – community-led or grassroots planning.
Step one: educating
As a first step, councillors can play an important role in educating the community on what the Community Strategic Plan (CSP) is and what is isn’t, so they are aware of what can be achieved and how to achieve it. As noted in our earlier blog, a key point for the community to understand is that the council is the keeper of the CSP but it can be implemented by the community.
Councillors can also help communities to understand existing plans, processes, and procedures so that outcomes from any community-led action works for both communities and councils, within the local government system.
Step two: empowering
Once the community is more informed of “the system”, councillors can then empower the community to implement what matters most to them in the CSP. This can be done via community-led or grassroots planning approaches.
Grassroots planning uses collective action from the local level to effect change at the local, regional, state, national or even international level. It is a bottom-up approach (much like how grass grows). It is also known as community-led planning. It is all about the community being in the driving seat – setting the vision for their town or village based on their needs and aspirations.
By harnessing support and engaging with those that make up their community at the local level, a community can produce a plan that encapsulates a way forward to bring about the change they desire. And more specifically they can then push ahead with the most important aspects of the CSP in their eyes.
Benefits of community-led planning
We are a big believer that now, more than ever, communities need to be empowered (and want to be!) to make and create meaningful change. This approach can:
1. Be developed by the community for the community, with limited resources required from councils.
2. Be as complex or as simple as the community wish.
3. Harness local knowledge in key areas such as the built and natural environment, place history, engagement reach and land use patterns to name a few.
4. Create community connections, including new volunteers and new interest in community projects and community wellbeing.
5. Provide a structured / deliberative decision-making approach before finding collective solutions that benefit the community as a whole.
6. Ensure a strong, strategic basis for communities to seek funding from various sources (not just councils).
7. Embody local projects and services that can be taken on by the community. This can at times then allow council staff to focus on other projects.
8. Provide for constructive dialogue between the community and local authorities/ other service providers.
9. Reduces the dissolution of council and community relationship.
Potential pitfalls of community-led planning
Potential pitfalls do exist, but most can be avoided where councillors and council staff can initially educate communities and then collaborate with communities at the outset of the process. Such pitfalls may include:
1. Community expectation of the time and money that council can contribute to this approach. But councils can assist by pointing the community in the direction of various funding streams other than council.
2. A plan that doesn’t fit within the local government system, therefore making implementation hard/ challenging.
3. Too many changes in community leaders/ champions that then see the process lose momentum. This can’t always be avoided (ie. ill health) but roles must be defined from the outset, as this can become disappointing for community members who have committed their time.
4. A community-led plan that doesn’t represent the whole community to which it applies.
Community-led plans in action
Over the years, we have used community-led approaches in a number of different projects. Below we share a couple of our favourites:
A community-led planning approach can work at small, place-based scale such as a single public recreation site. For example, the Warden Head Lighthouse Master Plan was developed through a community-led approach in association with the Ulladulla Lighthouse Group. This group was established in response to the site becoming a suicide hot spot. They wanted physical active and passive prevention measures to be established at the site.
The project is also being undertaken in collaboration with the landowner, the Department of Planning and Environment (Crown Lands), and with Shoalhaven City Council also supporting the co-ordination of the process. It builds on the historical, cultural and natural character of the area while simultaneously addressing the need for increased community safety. The money that has enabled the master plan to be implemented would not have become available without the community action in this space.
Disaster management context
This community-led approach can also work at a disaster management scale where a town or village has suffered from a natural disaster such as bushfire or floods and a plan to respond to that natural disaster is required. We collaborated with two communities to create community-led disaster resilience plans in Nimbin and The Channon following the Black Summer Bushfires in 2019/2020.
The project aimed to work with the communities to understand their risks to disasters and how they can become more resilient to future disasters. This pilot project for Lismore City Council was a testament to community spirit and what can be achieved when communities are empowered to lead their own recovery and resilience. Check out The Channon resilience hub that was created as part of the project.
Want more information?
If you are looking to try this approach out in your community or for a specific project, or if you have some questions about this works, reach out for a chat to either Emma or Cinnamon on email@example.com