Community is at the heart of everything we do in South Hams

Julian Brazil

South Hams is a rural district neighbouring the port city of Plymouth on the south coast of Devon. With a resident population nearing 90,000, it is also a magnet for holidaymakers and second homeowners, owing to tourist hotspots such as Salcombe and Dartmouth.

For almost a quarter of a century, the Conservatives enjoyed uninterrupted control of South Hams District Council. That was until May’s local elections when the Liberal Democrats were elected to power for the first time in the district’s history. We achieved this off the back of a manifesto pledging to put partnership with the local community at the heart of everything we do.

After 24 years of Tory rule, it was clear things needed to change and in drawing up our manifesto we recognised this meant entering into a genuine partnership with the community to deliver that change. It is a form of devolution – we want to push decision-making and local democracy to the lowest possible level.

In recent years, local authorities across the UK have been outsourcing services which should be kept in-house. This often has disastrous consequences, as we have seen with the state of adult social care and children’s services nationally. The previous Conservative administration’s decision to outsource rubbish collections in South Hams, along with their refusal to recognise they had got it wrong, certainly contributed to their election defeat.

John McKay

As an administration, we are determined to be more pragmatic in our approach. In South Hams, we are blessed to have community groups that are full of expertise, passion and drive. These groups are doing work that the council could never afford, or have the capacity to deliver. We have found that by engaging with these groups and harnessing their enthusiasm, they can deliver much-needed community services, which are better than anything the council could offer and at a fraction of the price.

One example is Kingsbridge in Bloom, a community group which looks after open spaces in the town of Kingsbridge. With a small pot of grant money from the council, they clean and tidy and make Kingsbridge look fantastic. They are a group of around 80 local residents, friends old and new, and they take real pride in what they do. It has enormous benefits for their wellbeing.

There is also Sustainable South Hams, an amazing community interest company which was started by two local people and has now spread into every small parish in South Hams. The group is a key part of the council’s climate change and sustainability work and helps to connect and support everyone in the area running sustainability projects. They host assemblies – from which lots of new groups have spawned – and have people across the district looking at rivers and engaging with local farmers, as well as running community composting and rewilding projects.

These are two community organisations that have a huge social impact. Through entering into a partnership relationship with them, the council is enabling them to get on and do things. These are things which are very important to our community and if left to the council, we simply would not have the manpower. By giving these organisations a bit of seed funding, we are getting back 10 times our investment in terms of value. It is a great example of how working with community organisations is a win-win for the council. If there are people out in the community that can do it better than us, then we will not try to do it.

Besides the tourist destinations and second homeowners, there are also quite significant pockets of deprivation in South Hams. As a council, we are committed to supporting the network of food banks that operate across the area. These centres are absolutely crucial to our social fabric. People are being referred to the food banks by statutory organisations because they do not have the capacity to deal with them. If we can support these people at the right time, it will have a huge benefit on wider society, by alleviating pressure on other services, such as the NHS and the justice system. If we did not have these food banks in South Hams then we would be in a much more desperate situation. The benefits system is simply not geared to deal with a cost of living crisis.

If we want to unlock the full potential of the community and civil society in South Hams then, more than anything, we need two things from central government: proper funding and genuine devolution. Austerity has stripped local authority resources to the bare bones. We would like to see Devon County Council providing core funding to these organisations that harness fantastic community goodwill – they are invaluable and much more cost-effective for us.

In the UK, we have one of the most centralised governments in the western world. Look at the country and the state it is in. It is down to control freakery. Everything we do regionally must be decided by someone in Whitehall. Why can’t they say, “Here’s the money – get on and deliver”? When the real issues come along, it is just passed back to local government to sort out. The pandemic was the perfect example. Within days of the first lockdown starting, the local community in South Hams contacted every vulnerable person in the area. It took central government weeks to hand out food support.

We are only just starting our work in South Hams. We plan to start investing as a council in community initiatives. If the community has a renewable energy project, for example, then as a council we should be looking to invest in that, as long as there is a small return. We have also set up a community working group – made up of backbench councillors – and there is a dedicated officer. They will develop the systems and processes by which the community can have proper input. In four years’ time, we hope to have a whole raft of success stories.

* Cllr Julian Brazil is the Leader of South Hams District Council and Cllr John McKay is the council’s Lead Executive Member for Climate Change & Biodiversity.

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One Comment

  • This is really inspiring and motovating. I wish I lived in South Ham ! Just one word of caution. There is a danger in assuming that the way to work with your community is through Community Groups. Sometimes (often ?) these groups are not democratic themselves, are run by a small group of people who are already part of the local “usual suspects” and that what sounds very open and democratic is just another form of elite capture. Example, my local food bank says it does not need any more volunteers or helpers (still wants our money !). You can’t “join” in order to help the fight on poverty, they are a closed organisation although they spend public money. I am sure our friends down in Devon are aware of this danger.
    Perhaps the way to make sure communities are truly involved is to state clearly that local councils will only work with community groups (including charities) who have open membership and a democratic structure.

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