How Councils can help people build better relationships

September 17, 2020

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by Tony Clements, voluntary associate at the Relationships Project.

I’m a big fan of TED Talks. 15 minute injections of interesting ideas by smart people very well delivered. I also like evidence.

My two favourite TED Talks are about relationships. One is from Robert Waldinger, the Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. This study has tracked over 75 years the lives of men from Boston. He spoke about what makes a happy life. 75 years of evidence is clear – it’s the strengths of your relationships that makes you happy. Whether you were a privileged Harvard student or from a tough Boston neighbourhood, being happily married, close to your family and part of your local community meant you were most likely to be a happy and content octogenarian.

I also like one from Susan Pinker. She talks about the close communities of Sardinia where life expectancy is one of the longest in the world. She describes the work of Julianne Holt-Lunstad who conducted a hugely influential meta-analysis on what helped people live the longest. More important than exercise, not smoking or drinking was the quality of social relationships. And in fact, the most important factor was a person’s community relationships, even above close relationships with spouses or family.

We’re at a time where many people and organisations are appraising again what is important to them and where they fit in this new world. This is true of local government too.

Taking inspiration from those TED Talks, what could be a better purpose for a council than helping its citizens live long and happy lives?

It’s an appropriate purpose too because councils can be at the core of those relationships in the community that are the most important factor in a long and happy life.

Every council has thousands of touch points with its residents every day, mostly in the frame of ‘delivering services’. How would a council behave if it devoted all those contacts to helping people build better relationships?

In the Relationships Project discussion paper, Developing the Framework, published alongside The Moment we Noticed, we got into the nuts and bolts of what that could look like in some of councils’ core services.

Libraries, parks, community centres: These assets could be transformed by thinking of them as places of relationship building, not property or services. Councils could stop assessing their quality by the number of books issued, the state of the planting, the income generated, or the number of anti-social behaviour cases, but by the number of groups using them, the new initiatives started, how full they are round the clock. If, in a day, a library hosts a video games club, a community film night, provides quiet space for study and a chair aerobics class for older people, does it matter if no-one borrows a book? We can re-skill our librarians, caretakers and grounds staff as professional community connectors as they stack the shelves and open the gates.

Community safety: Neighbour disputes (for example noise or mess) are the most frequent anti-social behaviour complaints. They are also some of the hardest to resolve through enforcement, rarely leading to a satisfactory outcome, always requiring a lot of effort, paperwork and evidence gathering. Councils could respond to complaints more quickly with trained mediators to help resolve issues and build relationships instead of enforcement officers seeking, often in vain, legal remedies.

Employment and skills: Most people find jobs through people they know. Rather than a narrow focus on skills training for those out of work, councils could proactively build local, professional networks for those who don’t have them and connect them to people working in areas where they are interested. Skills and qualifications can come next to support progression.

Homelessness: Individuals turn up at housing services, but the reasons that bring them there often involve their family relationships, and the assumption by families that councils can provide more and better housing for people than they do. Rather than just dealing with an individual’s eligibility criteria in the system, housing officers can visit families with the applicant to discuss options together, explain the realities of temporary accommodation and support people in their existing accommodation. This can include financial incentives or the establishment of a formal tenancy.

It doesn’t have to stop at services either. One of the biggest impacts a council has on its area is how it shapes the physical environment, through the planning system, transport and infrastructure schemes and housing development.

We all know that some places feel naturally comfortable to linger, chat to neighbours and strike up conversations with those we don’t know. We all know parts of our neighbourhood, where we hurry past others because it’s noisy, there’s too much traffic, it doesn’t feel safe. Or where our private space feels intruded upon, so we feel the need to put up barriers physically and socially.

Councils can put what we call the “bumping places” at the heart of their physical infrastructure through:

  • Community involvement: Involving the community in the design of those spaces, so they are ‘owned’ from the outset
  • Expertise: Using the best professional advice
  • Access: Limiting the private ownership of public space. If the only pleasant places to stop are cafes and restaurants, it excludes those on lower incomes. If property owners’ rules prohibit games or cycling it sends messages about who is welcome. We need a right to loiter.

Helping citizens live longer and find happiness may seem a grandiose ambition for councils, whose main function in the eyes of many is to collect the bins. But the best organisations are thinking again and thinking bigger about how they can respond to the needs of our times and this is both an ambitious and credible purpose for local democracy.


Tony Clements is a voluntary associate of the Relationships Project. He wrote the Project’s discussion paper “Developing the Framework “. Tony has held senior positions at Newham and Ealing Councils, and is currently Strategic Director for Economy at Hammersmith and Fulham Council. He has previously worked as an expert advisor to Local Government and Housing Ministers. Tony is writing here in a personal and voluntary capacity.