By Cllr Louise Gittins

Cheshire West and Chester Council in the North West has been under Labour control since 2015. The borough, which borders North Wales and sits beneath the Liverpool City Region, is home to nearly 360,000 residents. Following the 2019 local elections, I became Leader of the Council and was re-elected for a second term at the election earlier this year in May. The Labour group’s HOPE manifesto for May’s election built on the work we started during our previous administrations.

In 2021, during the Covid pandemic, we engaged with community organisations to co-write a Compact with the community sector. The Compact, which runs until 2024, is an agreement between the public sector and community sector to work collaboratively for the benefit of local communities.

As a council, we have urged residents and community organisations in recent years to "play your part"  in helping to shape the plan for improving the borough. The pandemic fast-tracked the way we wanted to work with communities. We recognise that the challenges we face in local government are everyone’s challenges and we feel that working together with residents, community groups, charities, other public sector bodies, and businesses helps to make our area stronger and more resilient.

We used to have a parent-child kind of relationship with the voluntary sector and we actually wanted a partnership relationship. The sector was working on the frontline during the pandemic, providing food, among many other things. It really made the public sector realise that it relies on the community and voluntary sector for support with its work.

In the wake of the pandemic, the council conducted a scrutiny exercise to review its experience of that period. One of the findings was that council officers felt able to let go and let other organisations carry out work, because during that extraordinary time they had no other choice. It was crisis management – people’s lives were at stake – so they had to delegate and empower. It was a big learning exercise and we are now well on the way to pushing forward with our agenda to empower the community sector.

We need to stop ‘doing’ things to people and work with people to find solutions. It is deeply engrained in local government that we get money from central government to deliver services for residents. But, actually, we should be delivering and commissioning services with residents. I think it is a better way of working; it builds trust and it builds bridges. Even if austerity had not stripped back our resources, I would like to think that this is the way we would be working anyway. It has a massive impact on our local community.

One of our major new integrated health initiatives is a revamped early intervention and prevention programme for adult social care, which was co-designed with the voluntary sector. This new programme is co-funded between the council and the NHS and builds on the previous community-led care service for our vulnerable elderly and disabled residents, as well as support for their carers. The council has invested more than £10 million over the last five years on preventative services, which funds the work of 35 local organisations. These organisations provide befriending services, lunch clubs, help with shopping, support in the home, as well as advice and guidance. Most of these groups have a stake in their local community - they are trusted organisations - and the new programme will seek to encourage more local groups to get involved.

We are also very supportive of the social prescribing model as a council. We have various social prescribers working across the borough. They are commissioned by the council, in partnership with the NHS, operating from a variety of places, including community centres.

The council is determined to harness the economic value of civil society. We are embarking on several big regeneration projects across the borough to rebuild our town centres. At the heart of any successful economic regeneration is social and cultural regeneration. It is not just about putting up shiny new buildings, it is also about people and creating a sense of place. People need to be part of the fabric of what you are creating and have a stake in those buildings, otherwise you will not get the economic benefits. If people have a sense of place, then they feel happy and connected; this drives wellbeing.

One great local example of civil society’s capacity for fuelling a sense of place and community is The Feast, a recent community celebration which took place in the Lache area of Chester. Organised by public artists, local volunteers and a resident-run social supermarket, the event brought the community together to celebrate food and tell stories around it.

Working with local communities and engaging civil society is the only way to do things effectively as a local authority. We see so much top-down decision-making – telling people how to live their lives – and there is so much command and control from Westminster. As a councillor, it makes you realise how residents must feel sometimes. Services should be crafted for the needs of local people. That is why devolution is so important, so we do not have someone in an office in Westminster saying what is best for someone in west Cheshire. It is about having the flexibility to deliver services to meet the needs of local communities.

Cllr Louise Gittins is the Leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council.