It with some misgivings that I have to inform you that for the next few months and beyond, District councillors from across south and central Suffolk, including Frank Lawrenson and I, will be attending meetings and organising opportunities to listen to the ideas and concerns of local groups, businesses and campaigning organisations.
Many people are disillusioned with the idea of public consultation. They feel that these exercises are rigged to get the results that are required or, where they are not, that the responses received are ignored.
I felt that the latter objection was well illustrated by the recently published results of the consultation with regard to the development of Harp Meadow in Sudbury by the Primary Care Trust. Consultees were asked whether there should in fact be a scheme. This was met with a resounding raspberry. Nonetheless it seems that there is no question of the scheme being abandoned.
The main difference in this exercise from other consultations is, I suppose, that we really are starting with a blank sheet of paper. We are trying to set aside our preconceived ideas with the aim of listening to you. We want to know what kind of communities people want to live in, not just in the next year or so, but over the next few decades and more. We want to find out everything we can about residents’ and others’ attitudes, aspirations and challenges for the future as Babergh and Mid Suffolk face a prolonged period of financial cutbacks. The sort of questions we will be asking are:-
· What’s good about living here?
· What do you want to change?
· What type of people are involved in community activities?
· Who aren’t so involved – and why not?
· What community facilities are there? Which are being well used? Which are under-used?
· What should the councils (Babergh/Mid Suffolk) be doing more – and less – of in the future? What should we stop doing or start doing? What can communities do more of for themselves?
· What do communities need from the Council?
· What is the state of the local economy (How well are local firms doing, what are local job prospects like? What training opportunities are there for younger people?)?
Frank and I, with the help of two council officers, are being encouraged to meet with people in as many ways as we think appropriate including through meetings, one-to-one conversations, phone conversations, email contacts, social media and even by just people watching in observing what’s going on in villages and towns for a couple of hours.
The insights gained from these encounters will provide important evidence for both councils as they strive to sharpen their priorities and make a sustained positive difference to the wellbeing of communities even as their staffing levels and financial resources are reduced.
Information about Community Engagement 2012 – including up-to-date facts about meetings and other events at which councillors will be present for a dialogue will be posted up on both councils’ websites – with reminders being provided as needed including leaflets in the neighbourhood and social media updates.