I once asked a town team chairman and former trans-European business director, which of the two roles was the most challenging. Without a moment’s hesitation he replied that leading change in your own community is by far the bigger challenge.
Leading a local revival is undoubtedly fraught with frustrations but can be rewarding personally and collectively when done well. So what are the secrets to success?
Inspired by over a decade working alongside communities leading a local revival from across the UK and current work helping to revive two very different Welsh communities, Maindee and Abergele, I thought I’d share my tips on the first steps in leading a local revival.
Embrace the issues
This is a long journey. So try to articulate what is motivating you and others; gather evidence; build alliances. What do key partners and councils want to achieve and what aims do they share with you? Is there really wider public understanding and support to help carry this through? If not, do you need to gather evidence; engage with others and build support? This foundation stage is the first step in what we call the F-factors for Success and the rest of your efforts will need to be built on this.
Changing a place will mean different things to different people and involves inspirational ideas and long-term influence. A chamber of trade or community arts group may each be single-minded in their intent but their thinking can be brought together to benefit the place more widely. You do not have to be an expert on everything or passionate about every issue. You will though need to build alliances with other interests and nurture their role in addressing the bigger picture.
Success will be affected by the inherent character of a place, local enterprise, council strategy and national trends. Know your organisation’s function within this; take the time to define and measure what needs to change; seek inspiration and practical tips from elsewhere; and mix realism with ambition.
Research from the Institute of Place Management offers a suitably refreshing and realistic approach to influencing the vitality and viability of a town through its “Get on with it; Live with it; Ignore it; Forget it“ approach to prioritisation.
Start making plans
Council-led strategies for town centre renewal, if they exist at all, will often focus on map-based master-planning. It’s important to respect and help shape such land-use strategies but equally to understand that planning shouldn’t stop there. Planning needs to include what our associate and fellow crusader, Chris Jones, calls the ‘software’ as well as the ‘hardware’ of a place. Businesses need to come together to articulate and shape how a town centre serves customers’ needs and embrace the social role in generating footfall. Community facilities, public space, festivals, events and specialist markets all have a role in animating a place and bringing customers to local businesses.
Forward planning also needs to address the ‘who’, as well as the ‘what’. Who will engage with stakeholders and help understand the issues; develop realistic responses; coordinate joined-up planning; raise funds; deliver physical improvements; manage community assets; promote local businesses; make festivals and events happen?
In leading a local revival, organisations will usually have to ‘put down roots’ and plan for long-term progress. Such progress will not happen on its own and as with any organisation or business, needs to be managed, monitored and regularly reviewed. Our downloadable local leadership checklist can help in reviewing such forward planning and gauge how it’s progressing in your town.
As well as getting thoroughly organised for the long-term, focus on delivering early successes on the ground. Try to target projects that bring people and priorities together, build wider support and fall firmly within the ‘get on with it’ category. Try to address a range of concerns and work with others who care about and are capable of addressing them.
Almost certainly a town’s businesses will tell you that parking is an issue. Respond to this by checking customers’ perspectives, undertaking surveys on the ground and speaking to parking managers. Read our Between the Lines approach if it’s an issue in your community and like so much about town centres, you will find that much can be achieved by understanding different perspectives and using evidence to separate fact from perceptions.
Give customers reason to come to town by highlighting the local variety and specialities that are so often hidden away. Embrace social media as the new word of mouth and invest time in capturing appealing and honest images of the place.
Embrace and assess maverick suggestions to see how they meet broader needs. Can festivals or events attract visitors in ways that bring benefits to local businesses? Can window dressing training help to celebrate a local event or create a unified theme that makes the town stand-out?
Focus on the folk –and the fun!
In every town there is so much energy and talent capable of leading a local revival that somehow seems to get dissipated through poor communication, differences in perspectives, personality clashes and quashed early enthusiasm.
Nurturing local talent is a key part of getting local leadership right. Our friends at Real Towns offer great ideas for local motivation by running fun team outings or events; recognising the group’s hard work; and celebrating success. Their new blog on 11 bullet proof strategies to inspire town team unity gives great advice about team building and keeping your own ego in check by minimising personal agendas, playing to people’s strengths and not relying on the ‘power of one’!
Successful local leadership requires a team effort to nurture individual talents, build key partnerships and gain strategic influence and investment from a supportive local council.
When that town team chair told me of the challenges of leading a local revival, he was highlighting how success will depend on bringing others with you in a way that relies on persuasion rather than power. Get it right and the rewards can be much greater than from selling software in Slovakia!
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