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The Challenges Facing Local Government

In this Blog, David Brown, Project Consultant at Engage Planning and Local Councillor on Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council and former Cabinet Member for Finance, discusses the challenges facing local government.

Local Government and the challenges ahead

As for much of the Public Sector, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic effect on local councils and will be a challenge for years to come. This is not the only challenge, though, and Local Government across the UK has much to contend with.

COVID & Public Health

Since the reforms of the NHS in 2013, upper tier local authorities have been given responsibility for running local Public Health services under the remit of Public Health England. Many have responded admirably to the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic with local responses to support hospitals, care homes and schools, those in the community particularly impacted by shielding and self-isolation, the introduction of testing centres and the vaccination programme.

As the country emerges from the pandemic, the challenge for councils will be to structure their services and organisation to respond to the longer-term shifts caused by the pandemic in terms of ongoing demand for public health services, the care sector, education and the changes in ways of working with the impact that may have on public transport and travel.

Finances

Council finances have always been under pressure, especially since the financial crisis and subsequent years of austerity bringing about reductions in central government funding and more pressure on Council Tax to fill the gap. These perpetual pressures are continuing but are now exacerbated by the pandemic, which has fundamentally shifted the areas of income and expenditure for councils and brought about significant uncertainty for future finances.

Many local authorities rely on income from car parks and service charges which have dropped dramatically during the pandemic and may never recover to pre-pandemic levels. This includes lost income from running leisure centres, museums, arts venues and tourism services, which have all needed financial support to survive.

In addition, income from Council Tax is likely to be under pressure as more families experience financial troubles, adding to pressures on the benefits bill which Councils administer and support.

Local Economic Recovery

High Streets and the retail trade have hit the headlines as they suffer the impact of lockdowns and the accelerated shift to online shopping, but all sections of the economy have been impacted. Local councils will need to have strategies and plans in place to support the recovery of businesses.

The business impact is having a knock-on effect for council finances, with potential holes in their forecast business rates income. Many councils have also made significant investments in commercial and retail property as a reliable source of future income but may now have lost millions in value.

As the economy has slowed, and in particular house building and development, Councils will be under pressure to get this back on track to achieve their targets for delivering new homes and the financial contributions from developers and the New Homes Bonus money from central government.

Adult Social Care

With the pandemic placing unprecedented pressure on care homes and services, it cannot be forgotten that there was already a crisis in Adult Social Care due to increased demand caused by demographic changes outstripping funding. National government still needs to address this long-term issue which remains a significant pressure for local government in delivering the services and funding demanded by their communities.

Climate Emergency

Many local authorities have declared a Climate & Ecological Emergency in the past couple of years and made commitments to become Net Zero. Whilst the pandemic has distracted some from this priority, it cannot be ignored and is now a greater challenge to maintain focus and deliver the necessary carbon reductions.

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The future is hybrid. How Engage Planning can help developers reach a wider audience through the power of social media and a blended outreach strategy

In ‘normal’ times, traditional methods of consultation, such as public exhibitions and community workshops are of great value. They are a very effective means of capturing local community interest in new developments, building relationships, and providing a platform to communicate with the project team.

However, not just in these changing times but also going forward, a more blended approach to include a digital strategy will widen the impact.

Adopting a digital strategy is not something to be feared or avoided and can enhance a scheme through appropriate use of a well-branded, informative project website and supporting social media tools for community outreach and engagement.

Social media can quickly and effectively hit a wide demographic and can also build target audiences specific to your project. This allows you to build an audience that will engage and advocate your scheme as it progresses through planning. It enables you to gain valuable feedback from a cross section of the community without significant additional costs.

Location targeting, through paid social media advertising, can ensure you reach an audience within a 20-mile radius from the development. Interest targeting can find people who are currently interested in buying a new home, ensuring that you are reaching out to the right community, instantly.

Using social media tools such as polls and questionnaires can encourage your target audience to directly engage, take insight from, and interact with your content.

Gaining feedback through polls or creating content to raise awareness of a scheme, allows you to not only collate valuable feedback but establish an early relationship with the local community and collect potential customer data with consent. 

Having successfully tailored online community engagement plans for housebuilders such as Bloor Homes, Barratt David Wilson and Taylor Wimpey, we know that the positive results from employing an effective social media plan to support a project’s website are vast and immediately apparent.

Our online community engagement plan for a Bloor Homes project resulted in a 93% web traffic increase. Using a blended approach, 50% of respondents expressedan interest in the purchasing of the new homes, allowing the opportunity for sales cultivation at this early stage in the process.

There has been a 70% increase in social media usage since the start of the year, making it an effective way to target and engage communities. Adopting a blended outreach strategy of online and offline methods, using tools such as social media and project websites alongside direct mail, will help you reach a wider demographic, maximising community reach and engagement.

Now is the perfect time to review your engagement strategy. Take a look at our services page to find out more about the consultation programmes we have or contact us for more information.

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So what makes good digital consultation? Engage Planning’s Comments on the Digital Engagement Recommendations in the White Paper ‘Planning for the Future.’

The Government is consulting on its White Paper, ‘Planning for the Future’ and within it there is a clear recommendation for greater use of digital communication to involve local communities in planning. In fact, the word ‘digital’ is mentioned over 50 times. At present, the planning sections of many local authority websites are difficult to understand and navigate, particularly for the layperson. We hope that local authorities will have the resources made available to allow for investment in enhanced digital engagement.

“Digital consultation” is rightly the buzz word for consultation today, particularly during the current situation. But what makes good digital consultation?

The White Paper discusses the need for improved digital consultation for local planning authorities in detail but the same goes for the development industry. On development projects, good digital consultation (for example via a website and social media platforms) can convey clear messages and the vision for a site in an easy to understand format. It can also be cost and time effective, can reach a wider demographic, provides opportunities for feedback and has excellent longevity to submission and beyond, attracting sales interest for new homes. A well-run social media campaign can support this and keep the project in the forefront of people’s minds.

However, a good programme of digital consultation takes time and planning, with due consideration given to the aims of the consultation and the audience. It is not just one size fits all. Digital consultation should be:

  • Easy to understand
  • Engaging and interactive, including the use of video, webinars, interviews and walk-throughs
  • Memorable and creative
  • Confidence and trust-building
  • Complimented by newsletters/brochures and hard copies of information

So, let’s make consultation not just different but better. Digital innovation and high-quality design can enhance projects. Now is an ideal opportunity to embrace digital strategies and approaches, so let’s do all we can to make digital consultation the best it can be.

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