Stakeholder Engagement Part Two – Councils

In the second part of Roger French’s guide to getting under the skin of local authorities, he looks at how to find the right people and the right meetings

Two weeks ago in this feature, I explained the basic structures of local authorities (county, district and unitary) and I encouraged you to attend meetings to see democracy in action as well as provide for a great opportunity to meet councillors and officers and let your presence be noted and noticed.

Now, I can appreciate many of you struggling with all the varied demands on your time to run a successful business thinking ‘Is he off his head, suggesting I’ve got the time to waste sitting in a council committee room?’. But the fact is that a couple of hours a month could make all the difference to your relationships with probably the most important stakeholder impacting your business. By judiciously studying agendas and documents posted online you can see in advance what matters are being discussed and who the key people are to ensure any time you give to this task is used wisely.

As Ian Luckett, President of CPT, wisely wrote in his recent blog “it is imperative we get involved with our local authorities”. He’s right, but “get involved” means time and effort. So see it as an investment, but of time, rather than pounds.

Understand the structure

Let’s take a council completely at random to see what this means in practice. I’ve spun a wheel and completely randomly chosen Rutland County Council. Right in the middle of England, Rutland was reformed as a local authority in 1997. Although it’s called a County Council it is in fact a unitary council so has responsibility for the whole gamut of local matters from education to roads, from emptying the rubbish bins to coach parking. Like all authorities it has to produce an Air Quality Plan. Rutland has a relatively small population with just over 37,000 inhabitants.

Online information tells me that Rutland’s last elections were in May 2015 and the current leader is Tony Mathias. Rutland has 16 electoral wards with 26 councillors representing these. The next elections are in May 2019. It operates to a leader and cabinet model and has a ceremonial chairman rather than a Mayor. The council is led by the Conservatives (18 seats) with an opposition of Independents (six seats) and Liberal Democrats (one seat) and one non-aligned. There are photos and contact details of all 26 councillors online together with their involvement in various committees even including their attendance records and their interests.

Find key people

This is typical of most local authorities. In the age of open democracy and transparency it’s quite extraordinary what you can now find out about the people living locally who give up their time to be a councillor for little reward.

It’s not an easy role. They receive few plaudits or thanks for all their efforts and are often at the receiving end of unjustified criticism and vitriol. I’ve usually found that whatever their political leanings, most councillors are genuine people, working hard to deliver the best for the local community. Understanding this position is key if you want to influence them to your way of thinking and help your business.

Delving further into Rutland County Council’s website, under ‘Your Council” (it’s usually called this throughout the country) there are details of all the different committees and their agendas and minutes. From this you can see who the key people are you need to influence.

Turn up to meetings

The Rutland Cabinet meets on the second or third Tuesday every month at 9.30am. By skimming through previous meeting minutes you can see what’s been discussed in this main policy making meeting and whether it’s worth turning up.

Frankly it doesn’t look very exciting. Of more interest would be noting the Leader of the council (who chairs cabinet meetings) holds the portfolio for Highways, Transport and Market Towns while another member looks after Environment alongside Community Safety, Culture, Sport and Recreation. For me, these would be the two key people to get to know, as well as the officers who are responsible for implementing polices in these areas. I’d turn up at a Cabinet Meeting one morning for half an hour, get a feel of the proceedings and then attend again another time to introduce myself to these two people afterwards. Then, as they say, take it from there.

You see, if we really are serious as an industry to act on Ian Luckett’s well intended advice of “getting involved” then you have to start somewhere. Attending a meeting on the Council’s home turf to see how local authorities work is a good start.

Identify LEP influencers

Another body which is important to look at is the Local Enterprise Partnership (known as LEP). These were set up in England in 2011 and are voluntary partnerships between local authorities and businesses.

LEPs replaced previous arrangements for regional development agencies (RDAs) which oversaw allocating grants to support economic growth and regeneration of each area with varying degrees of success. There are 38 LEPs covering England so they’re more geographically focused than the old RDAs making them more relevant for strategic issues such as transport.

For example, Berkshire County Council was abolished and reorganised in 1998 into six unitary authorities which are all relatively small geographically. The LEP is called Thames Valley Berkshire and is responsible for all the former Berkshire County Council area.

LEPs tend to use a special language with impressive words such as ‘strategic’, ‘mission’ and ‘goals’ and you can be forgiven for thinking you’ve stepped into a ‘management convention’ which seems far removed from the day-to-day running of a business. But make no mistake, LEPs are responsible for shed-loads of money (my terminology, not theirs) when it comes to transport. No longer does the DfT spend £millions on major transport schemes. Instead this spending is now delegated to LEPs.

You may recall a recent article I wrote about the new Hard Interchange in Portsmouth where I explained the bulk of the funding came from the LEP for the Solent area. You can’t get more involvement than that.

Amazingly, notwithstanding all the public money they spend, LEPs are constituted somewhat undemocratically. All of them have a Board comprising local authority representatives as well as experts from the education sector, but crucially will also have representatives from the business community and a private sector chair.

Different LEPs have different ways to appoint Board business members; some using application and interview process while others use representative bodies such as Chambers of Commerce or the Institute of Directors. As with local authorities all the details of LEPs and their activities are online giving helpful information about the key players, the areas of concern being discussed, minutes of meetings etc. Please don’t let the high-falutin’ language put you off. LEPs would really benefit from the involvement of ‘sharp-end’ business people such as a small bus or coach company owner.

Sadly, I know of only three industry managers sitting on an LEP board: Ian Morgan (Wellglade – Trentbarton), Phil Southall (Oxford Bus) and Andrew Wickham (Go South Coast). We need more industry representation and involvement but you can’t expect to just rock up to a meeting and be appointed. It will take time, effort and patience. However, the rewards are significant. To have a influential body such as an LEP being advised by someone with experienced hands on the transport tiller as a result of vast experience out in the ‘real world’ of buses and coaches would be an amazing step forward.

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