Cities rising to the Challenge: Paul Gosling looks at a partnership of council, private sector and community

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BOOTLE on Merseyside is a depressing place: male unemployment of over 50 per cent, a soaring crime rate, high illness levels related to the dockland dust, and an ugly and scarred landscape. Now there is hope, with this year's award to Bootle of pounds 37.5m of City Challenge government money, which is expected to unlock a further pounds 116.5m of private sector spending.

Out of the wreckage of old Bootle should come a new and vibrant area, with modern transport links, including a EuroFreight port and rail terminal, a new business centre, modern housing and environmental improvements.

The real challenge, for the people of Bootle, the local business community and the local authority, the Metropolitan Borough of Sefton, is to get from where they are today to where they need to be in the future. Money does not achieve things on its own, and the three groups have to work together to establish a new framework for action.

Like the other 19 successful bidders Sefton has to establish a new company to run its City Challenge operation, and must also produce an action plan by the end of the year for submission to the Department of the Environment. Sefton has short-listed for, but not yet appointed, the City Challenge chief executive, and the other winners are well on their way to appointing theirs, some by recruitment, some by head-hunting.

The composition of the City Challenge boards is largely at the discretion of the local authorities concerned, and the local organisations they work with, though the DoE made clear that it wanted strong community and business involvement. The chairman of the Sefton board is general manager of GEC's Bootle subsidiary, AEI Cables. Four other local companies are represented on the board, including one of the largest local employers, Mersey Docks and Harbour. The other board members comprise three members of the council - one for each political party on a hung council - a health authority representative, and five people representing community and voluntary groups.

Tim Cox, chief planning officer of Sefton and closely involved in the City Challenge implementation, admits that there is the potential for conflict between elected members and the five community representatives, who could form an alternative power base. 'It would be untrue to say there isn't a concern about the role of the community representatives,' he conceded. 'But the bids were prepared on this basis, and the reservations were swallowed. To us, the partnership with the community is a real thing.' As has generally been the case with the successful Challenge bidders, community representatives have been closely involved with the proposals since inception.

Sunderland, another successful bidder, has shown an even stronger commitment to establish close links with the local community. Phil Wright, head of Sunderland's marketing and policy, said: 'This has been the biggest public consultation we've ever done, involving sample surveys, public meetings, meetings with interest groups and housing officers discussing it with tenants.' Most radical, though, is the network of local residents' groups. Mr Wright explained: 'We have a complex organisational system to establish, using community councils.

'The whole of North Sunderland is in the City Challenge area, and divides into nine discrete areas, with their own community councils involving all residents, and the average meeting attendance is 100 people. The residents elect a chairman and vice-chairman, who cannot be councillors or employees of the council, and they go forward to a community council forum. Six of the 18 go on to the board, out of 20 members of the board.'

Of Sunderland's other 14 board members, five represent the business community - including Nissan and the neighbouring Urban Development Corporation - three are from education, two are councillors, another is the council's chief executive, with one person from the voluntary sector, one from the health authority, and the most senior local police officer. From this is appointed an executive board, which has yet to be finalised, but it is likely that community representatives will outnumber councillors.

Although it might be expected that in Sunderland, too, elected members would be wary about a threat to their representational role, apparently this is not the case. Mr Wright explained: 'It democratises the process of City Challenge, which members are happy with.

'It enhances the role of ward councillors. The professional activists are generally not residents of North Sunderland; what you get instead is a lot of people who genuinely feel empowered. Each community council will have its own budget - so lots of small items, which never seem to get done normally, they will be able to do themselves.'

Bob Foxall was elected this week as chair of the new Withwack Community Council in Sunderland, and says that he has firm ideas about developing the role of these organisations, 'but I'm keeping them to myself for the moment'. Mr Foxall has been involved for some time with the City Challenge, representing a tenants' association, and believes that any conflicts with councillors 'can be worked out'. He concedes that not all local people are in favour of City Challenge, adding 'people are just asking for jobs'. He is unemployed, but on a training scheme.

It is a key concern of all the successful bidders to ensure that local people benefit, particularly through employment opportunities during the construction phase. Ironically, although the Government has acted against contract compliance within local authorities as being anti-competitive, a central component of City Challenge is that it will offer work opportunities to local people. Where a 'local labour' clause in a council contract might give rise to legal challenge, the City Challenge companies are finding ways to ensure that local people get jobs.

Peter Wilson, assistant director of Liverpool City Challenge - a winner in year one - explained: 'Contract compliance is illegal. We have drawn up a code of conduct which we have been promoting to the construction industry, and asking them to endorse. Those that do, the sponsoring organisations will invite tenders from. The tender invitations include the code of practice, and a form asking the contractor to explain how they would implement the code. We would assess the responses, and how sincere they are.

'One of the conditions that the sponsoring organisations get their money is that a certain number of jobs will go to local people, and this will help them to meet the agreed output targets.' Liverpool's code of conduct expects contractors to employ local people, without specifying target numbers, to take positive action to train and employ 'racial minorities' and women, and to adopt an effective health and safety policy.

Part of the assessment of tenders is based on how many local people can expect to be employed as a result of a contract, and what recruitment methods are to be used by a contractor, to ensure that local people and other groups facing discrimination in the labour market are encouraged to apply.

Liverpool City Challenge says that any such approach can only work by co- operation, and by winning over the construction companies. This three- way partnership between councils, the private sector and the community is the cornerstone of City Challenge.

John Cushnaghan, production director of Nissan in Sunderland and a Challenge board member there, is committed to its involvement, not only in City Challenge, but also in other partnership schemes. Nissan's training section has developed a six-week course to increase the pre-employment skills of local people, not only out of self-interest, but also, Mr Cushnaghan says, as 'a method of demonstrating our community commitment - and we'd like to expand that involvement'.

The businesses that are involved in City Challenge are convinced that co- operative schemes with the public sector and local people are the way to go in the future. Mr Cushnaghan explained: 'The private sector is very central to the City Challenge structure, and we've got good connections. Involving the community with the private sector is always important, and we were involved locally even before the City Charter. Business knows the area, the people and what needs to be done. Normally we would not be involved in capital spending in a city, but I do think this is important, and not to involve the private sector would be a waste.'

This article first appeared in Thursday's Independent.

(Photograph omitted)