Community planning in Northern Ireland – learning from the Scottish approach

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I was recently invited to Belfast by the Carnegie UK Trust to share perspectives on what’s working well in Scotland’s approach to community planning, and where further improvements can be made. My views formed part of the Trust’s conference around Northern Ireland taking the next steps towards adopting a well-being framework.

Community planning is to be introduced in Northern Ireland for the first time as part of a significant programme of local government reform. From April 2016, its 26 councils will become 11 and a range of powers, such as planning, regeneration, and community development, will transfer from central to local government.

As the legislation is still to be put in place, the invite was a great opportunity to help contribute to Northern Ireland’s thinking on community planning, and get further mileage out of Audit Scotland’s recent work in this important area.

Northern Ireland’s local government differs from Scotland in that councils are not responsible for certain key services such as education, housing and social work. This means that when leading community planning, councils will have to work hard to link national objectives and priorities (including those of the Assembly and the Executive) to local needs and concerns.

The trip gave me a chance to talk about the findings from Audit Scotland’s 2013 report on Improving community planning in Scotland and last year’s Community planning: turning ambition into action.
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Calum Irving, Chief Executive of Voluntary Action Scotland, had also been invited to speak at what became a very stimulating discussion, attended by Chief Executives, senior civil servants, community groups, funders, the voluntary sector, and representatives from the Northern Ireland Assembly. These are the people who will have to breathe life into community planning, so it was great to see such a good spread of representatives.

It was no surprise that Northern Ireland’s complicated history was never far from the surface of discussions, as people talked about the challenges of building trust across organisations and the importance of effective political leadership for and within communities.

Although Calum, and I approached community planning from different angles, it was striking that we agreed on just about everything, from the good work underway in Scotland:

  • the renewed energy nationally and locally to improving community planning since publication of the Statement of Ambition
  • the stronger focus on outcomes and prevention since publication of the Christie Commission report
  • the fact that community planning is now no longer seen by partners as a ‘council gig’ and CPPs are now starting to discuss what resources, such as money and staff, they can contribute to improving local outcomes.

To the main areas for improvement:

  • strengthening leadership, governance and scrutiny by CPP boards;
  • improving community engagement to give the public more of a voice, and
  • streamlining the complex accountability arrangements that can get in the way of local public bodies focusing on the real needs of local communities.

We also faced some tough questions from the group, including a particularly searching one for me about how we’d gone about auditing something as complex as community planning and if we’d learnt any lessons ourselves? I explained that the experience had made colleagues and me think much more about on the impact that public services have on peoples’ lives, rather than focusing on the organisations themselves.

This was a fantastic opportunity to share our work and hear feedback from interested parties beyond Scotland. I for one will be watching the developments in Northern Ireland with keen interest, and I hope to return to Belfast in September for a further discussion.

About the author

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Anthony Clark, Assistant Director, held a variety of public sector posts in England prior to joining Audit Scotland in 2003. Since then he has developed the Accounts Commission’s Best Value 2 audit approach in local government, and managed a national programme of Best Value audits in fire and rescue.

He recently led Audit Scotland’s work on community planning and prepared the two national reports Improving Community Planning in Scotland and Community planning: turning ambition in to action.

 

You can read more about the Carnegie UK Trust’s work around ‘Measuring What Matters in Northern Ireland’ here.

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