Following the declaration of a climate change and biodiversity emergency a cross party working group was set up to develop a strategy and action plan. With members having set the strategic direction there was a desire for a much more collaborative arrangement between the councils and their communities who often felt ‘done to’ and are often doing great work on the ground that the councils were not aware of. We decided to establish a forum comprising officers and a representative cross section of the community to help further develop and deliver against the councils commitments.
The challenges were firstly to ensure a fair cross section of individuals were selected from for example town and parish councils, community groups, community interest companies and charities. It was also important to secure a fair geographical split across the council area and that individuals with areas of expertise were also included. Age was also key as experience has shown that it tends to be the older demographic who actively engage in our area and we were keen to include younger people to get a balance.
From the expressions of interest submitted, we firstly selected based on age and location to ensure fair representation of age and geography and then used a second set of criteria, loosely based on Local Agenda 21 principles to select the working group members from community (voluntary sector), business (social enterprise or community interest companies) and individual (experts) categories. This provided a level of objectivity and transparency, which helped when the group met for the first time. The purpose of the group was set out in draft terms of reference, which were circulated in advance and agreed at the first meeting. It was made clear that whilst governance arrangements needed to be in place the concept was one of collaboration, enjoyment and ultimately supporting change.
The first meeting was a great success full of active engagement, energy and a collective desire to make a difference. The West Devon Community Forum was established in Spring 2021 and their primary focus over the summer was creating events to take place over the borough for Great Big Green Week in September where 7 events were held by forum members across the Borough. Our next session will focus on collaborating on a Town and Parish Council toolkit for Net Zero as well as hearing from a National Farmers Union Representative to discuss how the community can help and engage with the farming sector.
As the community forum has a fixed membership, It’s important to make sure that there is a level of confidence in your selection method and selection criteria with at least something measurable, for us age and geography worked well, our survey questions also asked people about their level of interest, why did they want to join and whether they represented an employer, parish council or third sector group. We found it was a challenge to reach out to people who may not feel comfortable joining a group like this, most of our members, and those who completed the survey, are already heavily engaged on the subject matter. If we were starting again it would have been beneficial to have a longer lead in time to the survey launch, with some communications activity leading up to this for maximum exposure and to engage more broadly through other avenues such as print media, which we didn’t have budget for at the time.
It has been difficult to keep momentum going from meetings taking place on a bi-monthly basis, with more resourcing time, we would recommend making community engagement meetings monthly along with an offline way of communicating outside of traditional email circulation.