#LE23: Where next for community planning?

11 May 2023 - by Roisin Burns

Another year, another election, and this time it is the turn of perhaps the most enduring level of government, as we head to the polls on the 18th May to elect new representatives across Northern Ireland’s 11 councils.

Despite the shorthand of bins, births and burials, the Local Government Act (NI) 2014 means that councils have responsibility for leading community planning. This means collaborative working with partners from a range of sectors from the Education Authority to the Housing Executive to deliver economic, environmental and social well-being.

Whilst community planning was first introduced in April 2015, it wasn’t until 2017 that the first Community Plans were developed.

With a vision for ‘… a strong, dynamic local government creating communities that are vibrant, healthy, prosperous, safe, sustainable and have the needs of all citizens at their core….’, there was much heralded about the impact community planning would have.

Community Planning Partnerships in each district are comprised of the council, statutory bodies, public agencies and the wider community, including the community and voluntary sector. At their core, they aim to improve the social, economic and environmental well-being of local people.

Like any new initiative there have been challenges. The competing priorities of partners and the lack of powers to compel them to work together and pool budgets to name a few.  These come alongside the well-recognised challenge of keeping politicians on board in pursuit of the long-term intergenerational changes that community planning has the power to unlock.

However there are lots of examples of how community planning is making a positive impact; from the 7,000 devices delivered to pupils in Belfast to support home learning during the pandemic, the £35m awarded by Invest NI to businesses in Lisburn and Castlereagh, or the Climate Change Strategy co-designed in Fermanagh and Omagh District Council.

All 11 Councils are now reviewing their community plans per their statutory duties. Belfast City Council will go out to consultation in July 2023 as part of their refresh of the Belfast Agenda, which will shape the Community Planning Partnership’s priorities for the next four years.

Much has happened since the Belfast Agenda was first published in 2017. The value of collaboration and the responsiveness of the community and voluntary sector during COVID-19 has been widely recognised. There is a noticeable shift in ways of working and a hope that these lessons will feed into an outcomes-based approach for the community plan which values co-design and co-production.

The Carnegie UK Report on Embedding Wellbeing in Local Government 2021 makes a range of recommendations to government, both local and central, on how community planning can be further developed, and its potential realised. This includes enhanced powers, directives to statutory partners on the expectation and requirements for participation, and the pooling of budgets.

With a newly elected cohort of Councillors set to get to grips with their roles and responsibilities, the challenge is to ensure that the learning and progress are not lost and that community planning is supported to deliver on its promise of well-being for people and communities.