On 15 November localism became a reality, shifting power from central government to local communities. The intention is to give citizens a stronger voice to influence local decisions. The premise of the new legislation is that people will have more control over and be able to influence things that affect their lives. But what happens if small local voices aren’t heard and what is the role for councils and council communicators in helping to give people that voice?
During the fanfare that greeted the amended publicity codes for local government, much was made of the limit placed on local authorities using lobbyists and public affairs experts to lobby the government. The Secretary of State said that such activity was not needed as councils should “send a letter or pick up the phone” if they had something they wanted to discuss. Others believe that lobbying is ‘too political’ and not appropriate activity for councils. Recent newspaper allegations about lobbying will have only added to concerns about the practice of councils undertaking lobbying and public affairs activity on behalf of their residents. Indeed, some may feel that this is an area of activity that they should not get involved in. This is nonsense. We work in a political environment and have a key role in representing the views of our residents. Many councils are successfully undertaking public affairs activity on a regular basis and this is reflected in their resident satisfaction ratings. How well a council represents their interests matters to residents and they expect their council and official representatives to undertake this on their behalf.
The days of simply lobbying for more money for councils are long gone but there are a whole range of issues that impact directly and indirectly on local areas where there is a role for local government. Crucially, such activity delivers results. There are numerous examples around the country where councils have lobbied for road and infrastructure improvements for their local area, helping to improve the lives of local people. A number of councils have spoken out against flawed population statistics which ultimately, will determine the level of government funding, impacting on local communities. Proposals for a third runway at Heathrow Airport were defeated and plans for a high speed rail link connecting London to Birmingham and beyond has galvanised a coalition of 18 councils into forming an alliance to oppose the current proposals. However we badge such activity, there is a key role for councils to help give their citizens a voice and in helping to shape and influence national thinking, policy and decisions.
It won’t take one phone call or even a letter but this is an area where we need to up our game. We can have a massive impact on the decision-making process and as professional communicators, this is an area we should be leading.