In recent years, the word ‘place’ has become a bit of a buzzword in the local government sector. Terms like ‘place-leadership’, ‘place-branding’ and ‘place-building’ are now ubiquitous in strategy documents and comms plans – used to imply a more responsive type of authority. Councils often describe themselves as ‘places’ – as opposed to ‘organisations’.
For some, this might feel like an additional, bewildering jargon. Cynics may suspect it’s a superficial rebrand of business-as-usual.
Yet in a world becoming more globalised and identity-conscious, the value of place can’t be emphasised enough. Place, after all, is why local government is local. Embedding place isn’t just a gimmick. Done properly, it helps with engagement, reflects priorities, needs and capacity, and fosters cohesion through shared identity.
So, what does it mean to engage with ideas of ‘place’?
In writing the LGA’s recent engagement guide, New Conversations, we devised a seven-step survey-creator for doing precisely this. It identifies the themes to ask about in a resident questionnaire or topic guide, to build up a picture of what sort of ‘place’ your council serves.
The survey-builder goes beyond the sorts of data you may already be collecting – i.e. socio-economics, demographics or satisfaction – to understand deeper texture and motivations. It focuses on different aspects of place, to draw out the stories people tell about where they live, and the relationships they have with their area. The seven aspects are as follows:
1. Cohesion and clashes
2. Transience and settledness
3. History and identity
4. Values and ideals
5. Proactivity and capacity
6. Hopes and fears
7. Geography and mind-set
You can see the full survey-builder on p.118-119 of the guide, which explains the seven aspects in more detail. But a key thing to consider is that, whatever notion of place you come up with, it shouldn’t be too generically positive. All places are different, but places, like people, are never flawless. So, don’t be afraid of recognising weaknesses as well as strengths. The quirks and imperfections are often the things that show the true character, personality and identity of the area. Think about the personality of your place in terms of what it isn’t, as well as what it is.
This might mean finding out that your residents are proud of the area’s traditionalism and history, for example, when you hoped they might laud its progressiveness or dynamism. By making a virtue of this, and creating policies which turn it into a strength, you can create a sense of local identity that rings true and means something.
We saw this in practice last year, when delivering Croydon’s Opportunity and Fairness Commission. As a borough that lies between inner-city Lambeth and leafy Surrey, residents had different perceptions of the borough as a whole. Recognising both distinct identities and shared challenges helped the commission to avoid blind alleys. They developed priorities driven by how people really felt, developing initiatives such as the Good Employer Charter and Fair BnB.
Other good examples are Hackney’s ‘A Place for Everyone’ engagement exercise. This was an effort to create shared priorities for a diverse but unequal borough, and came following extensive engagement. It’s described in the New Conversations guide (p.159-161) – with the process broken down into its constituent parts in a companion tool which you can view here.
Ultimately, thinking about place like this is one of the most exciting aspects of 21st Century local government. It’s about getting beyond the ‘Council PLC’ approach, and recognising the elements which – for better or worse – reflect, represent and characterise your area.