Some of my work in 2017 involved working with rural communities in developing plans for their areas. This involved preparing a process of community consultations, facilitating discussions on needs, statistical analysis, and developing consensus on priority plans. Common themes emerged from working with the communities including; population decline, job creation and the economy, maintaining services, protecting the environment, better community facilities, road safety, communication and coordination between groups, and agreeing a common vision.
While communities can readily identify priority needs and actions, often this is not written into a plan, and there are clear advantages in having a current, agreed plan such as;
- A good energy is generated when community groups collaborate together on common needs and issues.
- Local knowledge and experience is pooled and is a foundation for developing new plans.
- Agreement is reached on which local projects should be prioritised and supported.
- An independent analysis of the area, as part of a plan, provides objective information on key social and economic trends and issues to be addressed.
- Community representatives become more informed on the local situation.
- An agreed plan provides a focus and a direction for a community.
- It puts the community in a good position to be ready for funding and other opportunities as they come along.
- Better use of public money when it is invested in projects which are prioritised by the community.
Without an agreed plan it is harder for communities to speak with one voice and their activities lack coordination and overall coherence. Outside agencies will feel there is no one group with which to engage on development plans and programmes. There can be conflicting ideas within the community on what to prioritise. Key common problems and challenges might get overlooked as groups lobby for their own projects. Communications between groups can be patchy as they focus on their own needs.
How many communities have plans? It would be worthwhile to get answers to this question in an organised manner, but experience suggests not many have plans. ‘Plans’ in this respect are strategic, covering a three to five year timeframe, include a wide range of local priorities, are inclusive of all sectors, and based on consultations with local people and agencies. This can be a considerable task to undertake, one in which communities may lack experience, skills and resources.
So who makes plans for a community? Local authorities are responsible for preparing local development plans, usually covering a wide area and a number of distinct communities. Obviously, the communities with agreed plans are in a good position to influence the format of local development for their area. There may be an existing community development group within a community, but if it hasn’t effectively consulted with the community it won’t fully represent local needs.
Empowering communities to develop strategic plans builds their confidence and capacity to play a key role in developing their area. Depending on how it is done, community planning can create greater cohesion, a shared vision, and more inclusion. Local buy-in is vital as plans prepared with a low level of community involvement are likely to lack support and will be left gathering dust. Investing in this type of community capacity building is as important as capital investment in facilities and projects.
Developing partnership. Many of the issues identified by communities are complex and require a partnership approach to have meaningful impact. One way of seeing partnership is proposed by Nicanor Perlas in his Threefold structure, representing the interplay of the political, the economic and the civil elements of society. In this model political society can be seen as the agencies and activities of central and local government, the economic society sphere represents private business and services, and the civil society sphere refers to community and voluntary organisations and networks. All three need to be functioning effectively for a sustainable society. In a local community this includes agencies such as the local authority and partnership companies, local traders and businesses, and community based groups. Community planning provides a space for all to work strategically together, bringing out the best of what each sector has to offer.