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2.2 Local Politics

‘Big Society’

David Cameron coined the term ‘Big Society’ some years ago, and it has come in for a good deal of mockery. We love the term – because it helps Local Authorities to understand that churches do a huge amount of the community work that they are tasked with but either lack the resources or the will to deliver. For Local Authorities, the phrase ‘Big Society’ therefore turns the church from being an irrelevant minority leisure interest into being ‘good news’. Local Authorities and churches will of course have different understandings of what ‘good news’ is, but it is still a much better place from which to start.

The key to working successfully with a Local Authority (LA)  is to know your patch – that is to have an intimate first hand knowledge of where the social needs are in your specific locality. Churches are often involved in running pre-school childcare, food banks, debt counselling, youth work etc, and the best programmes often develop out of an ongoing conversation with the LA.

You can divide these programmes into two types – firstly there are those that meet a specific Local Authority need, and secondly those that the Local Authority simply see as a ‘Good Thing’. In political terms, the second of these types is useful in that it gives the church a (hopefully good) reputation, from which comes authority and a right to be listened to – the church becomes known as a community that doesn’t just talk the talk, but walks the walk. The first type are strategic partnerships that often come later, and are built on the reputational capital developed from the second. And because they are explicitly delivering social benefit there may well be opportunities to access community funding. Such partnerships need to be entered into wisely, particularly in being clear about who has rights over what, but when they work well they can transform a church’s ministry and place it at the heart of its community.

Such partnerships will often impact on the shape of your building, and it is therefore essential that any such partnership is tied into your overall mission strategy. The particular needs of your area will in part arise from local demographics; for example, in areas of significant population growth there is often a lack of pre-school childcare. But churches need to understand that demographics change; there is a difference between social needs that are immediate but short term, and those that are more enduring. One thing that Local Authorities are good at is looking at the statistics and forecasting future need; a good and ongoing working relationship with your LA will therefore give you the information you need to be more strategic in your ministry.

Who Should We Talk To?

A Local Authority is a many-headed beast, and there are many different people one might talk to at different times. It is ideal if in time one is able to get to know the chief executive, who will have a strategic overview and be able to apply pressure to officers if needed. The best place to start is often with your local Councillors, who if they are on board can give you access to officers at the right level; and since councillors are always in need of re-election they particularly like to be seen to be part of positive change in the community.

Engaging with your local MP/MSP, your Councillors, Mayor or other local political figures may be a crucial part of the process of developing a building. They are there to encourage local initiatives that serve the community more effectively. They may provide useful introductions, give a fundraising event credibility, write a supporting letter to a trust or support a local event. They won’t be able to give you planning approval but they may be able to smooth the way.

Positive engagement with the politicians may also help change some perceptions that the church is there only to serve a small pocket of society and isn’t relevant to the wider community. It always helps if there is a wider political agenda that you can link up with; the Big Society, Third Sector delivery of statutory requirements or a growing openness to faith bodies delivering services may all help your cause.

There may be grants available from your Local Authority for the seemingly more ‘secular’ aspects of the project, such as youth work, a community initiative or serving a needy group within your local area. Designing a building in such a way that different parts can be seen to serve different areas of community need can help in raising funds.

Investigate whether you have a Community Foundation in your area and if so what they could do to help your project.