Alex Aiken: Localism campaigns can offer councils social capital

'Love is all around' was nominated as one of the worst songs of the 1990s, yet the Localism Act appears to rekindle this sentiment in council communications.

Alex Aiken: More councils are recognising the power of motivating people to love their area
Alex Aiken: More councils are recognising the power of motivating people to love their area
The new legislative framework for local government is supposed to rekindle a sense of community through devolved power and a community right to challenge government decisions.

It’s a potentially powerful piece of legislation as Eric Pickles showed when he rushed the new General Power of Competence into being, apparently to allow councils to hold prayers before meetings.

But it will have a more fundamental impact on government, by empowering local authorities to do anything a business or individual may legally do, unless it explicitly banned.

This may have a profound impact on council communications. Presumably the statutory general power of competence might override parts of the merely advisory Code of Conduct on publicity or the current requirement to advertise statutory notices in local newspapers?

If people can choose where they advertise their services, why not councils? It would also seem to give authorities a boost in creating innovative communication strategies, trading services and stronger marketing functions, indeed anything apart from party political activity, which is explicitly banned by another Act of Parliament.

These sort of developments will take some time to wind their way through local authorities and will be part of the general tale of emerging freedom, which hopefully the Act will bring to councils and local communities.

But this drive to localism, which began under the last government seems to having a immediate and tangible impact as more and more councils are adopting campaigns and straplines which seem to be turning from the old mantra of where councils stated their commitment to making the area ‘safe, clean and green’ to a new narrative of ‘love of place’ which involves the council and community working together, co-operatively and accepting that the local authority doesn’t have all the answers.  

The Keep Britain Tidy campaign appears to have started this with their ‘Love Where You Live’ campaign which focused on tidier streets and included talking bins in London and Liverpool.

This campaign has been backed by many councils, from Wigan to Broxtowe. But a number of local authorities including Cardiff, Oldham, Coventry and Hackney seem to have developed a distinctive story, from the same starting point.  

There are of course local differences. While ‘I love Hackney’ and Coventry’s ‘Proud of my City’ campaigns both tell of urban renewal ahead of the opportunities presented by the Olympics; ‘lovecardiff’ and Oldham’s campaign are more focused on social action by getting people involved in their neighbourhood.

These four largely urban areas are not alone, and it is also true to say that many councils have run similar campaigns over the years from ‘Love Lewisham’ allowing people to report problems and get them fixed to an Essex campaign which got 1,000 people to take part in a community spring clean.  

Whatever the minor differences the lesson is that many more councils are recognising the power of seeking to motivate people to love their place.

Surveys consistently show that people rate highly the place they live, typically around 90%, while giving an average score of 60% to their local authority. So, a council leading a campaign to galvanise people into action taps into an existing sense of pride and can deliver both social capital in terms of people helping out in their communities as well as reducing council costs.

One council leader recently spoke of a £5,000 saving they made from getting local students to re-decorate a community centre rather than employ the contractor to do the job.

‘Love is all around’ was part of the sound track to ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral', a film about the sometimes rocky road to marriage.

It’s clear that the new ‘localist’ relationship between Secretary of State and councils has not always been easy, but perhaps the creed of localism has unleashed a new movement to celebrate love of place that might offer a happy ending for both parties.         

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