Wokingham Borough Council has collaborated with other bodies, both in the borough and outside it, over many years. But the new administration at Wokingham has since May 2022 emphasized the importance of partnership working far more than any of its predecessors. It has sought to develop, establish, and in some cases repair relationships with the voluntary and charitable sector, town and parish councils, other Berkshire councils, local businesses, the emergency services, health providers, educators, and the Youth Council.
To nurture and build relationships takes time and effort, and a great deal of commitment on all sides. You might legitmately ask: what do residents gain?
For me, partnerhsip is important precisely because it brings benefits for our area that the council would not be able to deliver on its own.
A good example is the work of Hardship Alliance, which brings together local charitable and voluntary bodies with the council to help those in need. A true partnership of equals, the Hardship Alliance has been able to improve the lives of many members of our communty who have been hit badly by the current cost-of-living crisis, including many who had never before needed assistance. By sharing our knowledge, experience, data and resources (human, material, and financial), the members of the Hardship Alliance have been able to do much more together than any one of us could have done singly.
Another example is the emerging strategic partnership between the council and the University of Reading. For the council, the aim is to realise the benefits for the borough of having a world-class university on our doorstep. We are currently discussing with the university how it can help the council with our work on the climate emergency, on educational links with local schools, and wider skills training, as well as with specific research and employment projects. For the university, the benefit is that access to external funding is made easier if it can demonstrate meaningful community engagement. As with all partnerships, the relationship is developing promisingly because both parties see advantages in working together.
A final example is the work of Berkshire Leaders group, which brings together the political and officer leadership of the six Berkshire unitary councils - Reading, West Berksire, the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, Slough and Bracknell as well as Wokingham. Our meetings this last few months (since the May 2023 elections) have been cordial and constructive. They are leading to new collaborations between all six councils, or between groupings of some of them, which will enable us to bid for government grant funding for specific projects of common interest with a much higher chance of success than if any of us were to bid on our own.
There are real and tangible benefits, then, that come from a commitment to working constructively with others. But there is another very compelling reason for embracing partnerships. Quite simply, the council cannot carry on as it has in the past.
Business as usual is no longer an option.
We all hope, of course, that inflation will fall and the current cost-of-living crisis will end soon. But even if it does, I find it hard to envisage a time when local government will be significantly better funded by central government than it is at the moment. In Wokingham's case, that means not very well at all. Our core funding from central government is pitifully small - Wokingham receives less per head of population than any other council with comparable responsibilities in England.
So, even if I were not as temperamentally attracted by the idea of partnerships as I am, necessity would have pushed the council in this direction. The days when the council could aspire to tackle all local problems on its own are over. Only by working alongside others, and calling on their expertise and experience, and by pooling resources, can the council of the future hope to deliver what the borough wants and needs.