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Let’s hear it for Rochdale’s Community Heroes

Why sponsor an MJ Award? Of course, to begin with, we want to promote our brand and services to those who read the MJ. Cratus has been supporting councils with our reviews of Planning, Communications, Strategic Leadership and Governance for the last five years, supported by our Associates who include Dame Mary Ney, Steve Quartermain, Ian Hudspeth, and Brendon Walsh. We have also supported advocacy campaigns for Hounslow Council (Aviation Communities Conference) and Barking & Dagenham Council (A13 Regeneration).

Sponsors also want to give something back to the sector they serve. Alongside the Chamberlain Lecture, which we first presented in 2018 with Lord Heseletine, then the following year with Lord Kerslake, and last year with Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees, this is an opportunity for us to celebrate excellence in Local Government. So for those reasons we at Cratus were delighted to sponsor the 2021 MJ Award for Community Heroes.

Our experience as sponsors was to be much much more rewarding than we could have anticipated. After months of local authorities supporting their communities during the Covid-19 pandemic, we knew that amazing acts of selfless professionalism had been evident across the nation. As we reviewed the 84 applications we received, we were often consumed with emotion, as we started to digest just how much inspiring work was, and still is, taking place in our communities up and down the country. The task of reducing the 84 entries to a short list of 9 was not an easy one for any of us.

The judging panel we had put together included Sophie Timms, Corporate Affairs Director of Kier Plc, Theresa Grant, who I had the pleasure to work with at Northamptonshire County Council, Colm Howard-Lloyd, Cratus’ Director of Public Affairs, and myself. We set a whole day aside for judging the final nine, and after the first presentation – I wanted them to get the award!

The day got more tense and emotional, as we were presented with one outstanding nomination after another. We were simply drained – I kid you not! It seemed so hard to select the winner and I was finally torn between two presentations. However, the phrase that echoed in all our minds was “we didn’t want to be the heroes: we wanted to empower our community groups to be the heroes” and in those words we agreed the award was to go to Rochdale’s Community Recovery Team.

The MJ asked me to write about being a sponsor, but I wanted to know what the Award meant to the winning team and what bearing it had on their work since winning the award. So I arranged a Teams call with John Rooney and Dianne Gardner from Rochdale Council to find out what it meant to them to be an “Award Winning Team?”

John grinned and told me he had met some resistance from the team when he suggested they should submit their work for consideration. They didn’t really appreciate what it would achieve, and surely they were doing the same as everyone else? Then there was the time needed to write the submission. John persuaded Dianne and her colleagues that it was a good idea, and so he had a great sense of pride when he heard the result announced.

Dianne, who had also been reluctant to enter at first, was elated by winning: “Rochdale doesn’t shout about its work, and then we won and became an “award winning team”! There was a real sense of shock that they had won: at the Award Ceremony they had their elected members with them, and their collective achievements during the dark months of the Covid-19 pandemic soon became apparent to everyone.

Rochdale Council has been working towards embedding closer working relationships with their strategic partners and community groups. In the lead up to 2020 they had created new frameworks for working together, so when March 23rd hit, they were in a good position to test these new relationships. With their elected members and stakeholders, they set about becoming almost ‘anti-heroes’ – by helping to empower the people of Rochdale to solve their own communities’ needs. This new working style was tested to the hilt but it has worked, and worked well.

What I found fascinating was the enforced use of Teams and Zoom has brought a degree of equality to those taking part in meetings. A traditional in-person meeting may have centred around a central figure, with others taking ‘their place’ in a meeting room. But now everyone was on the same screen, and arranged in no particular order. A new sense of trust developed between the Council, their partners, and the community groups they stood alongside during the pressure of lockdowns. It could have taken years to build the same trust but the pandemic fast-tracked that essential ingredient..

I asked if there had been pressure to revert to how things had been done before the pandemic. The award, they told me, had helped to validate this new way of empowering the community. It led to changes in the structures of teams, the continuation of virtual meetings where practical, and more community support for the work of the authority, which continues to this day.

The judges were concerned that a return to normality would reverse some achievements, but both Dianne and John soon dispelled those concerns. They had all the excitement and passion for reform that we heard in their original presentation, and the transformation they have achieved continues to bear fruit.

What I did love to hear was that the first thing they did after winning was to write to those they worked with: councillors, community champions, local heroes, and strategic partners, to thank them all for their contributions during the pandemic, and their part in the Award.

Parties to celebrate the Award have inevitably been delayed by the most recent pandemic guidance, but I have a feeling that when they can take place, it will be a very well-deserved celebration for John, Dianne, the councillors, all the officers who support them, both within the Community Recovery Group and throughout Rochdale Council.

You may not be surprised to know that Cratus has decided to sponsor the same award this year. I do encourage councils to participate; we appreciate that it takes time to prepare your submissions, but we all too often fail to celebrate the amazing work in local government. In order to shine a light on the achievements within the sector, we need to hear about them in the first place! Please do consider entering the Awards this year.

As for being a sponsor, it is humbling to read what is done on behalf of residents, and it’s good to be a part of celebrating a level of government that is often overshadowed, yet has a huge impact on our daily lives.

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