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Crossing continents
Local Government Chronicle – 3 November 2005

Forging links with authorities in far-flung places isn't just an excuse for suntans and sangria. Mark Smulian explains

Most council officers would find it a challenge to convince their chief executive to let them spend a few weeks in an African beach resort, on a Caribbean island or in China without taking any leave.

But increasing numbers are doing just that as international links spread beyond the traditional town twinning around Europe into the developing world, and change from vague 'exchanges' to solidly practical work.

Those involved say everyone wins. Overseas councils benefit from the knowledge of UK officers, while the officers themselves have a career development experience that many find radically changes their outlook.

A mix of factors lies behind the links formed between councils. Sometimes, it is through a response to a natural disaster, such as the consortia of councils that contacted councils in Sri Lanka after the tsunami.

Other links have come about because a council has a large community of foreign origin, because someone happened to know someone abroad who suggested a mutually beneficial link or even through sharing a line of longitude.

The main organisation pulling this work together is the Local Government International Bureau, which handles all international matters for councils.

Assistant director James Beadle, describes it as "a sort of marriage bureau" for councils seeking partners in the developing world.

More overseas councils are seeking partners than there are offers, so any UK council interested finds itself spoilt for choice.

Mr Beadle says: "We encourage authorities to see the benefits these activities offer, in addition to the benefits they pass on.

"We have a firm belief that it offers more to officers than attending some rigid course here. It is good for the profile of UK local government too."

There are also benefits for community unity for areas that have large populations with origins abroad.

For example, Leicester City Council has a partnership with Gujarat, in India; Reading BC with Barbados and Southwark LBC with Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, tie-ups with eastern Europe are becoming more common, particularly among councils with large Polish and Ukrainian communities.

Mr Beadle says: "Much of what overseas councils want is capacity building, so the main professions involved are economic development, corporate management, environment, tourism, education and in Europe there are social services exchanges.

The emphasis is, perhaps surprisingly, on 'softer' local government skills, rather than engineering and construction, he says.

This is because councils abroad usually want skills passed on to their staff rather than the simple provision of some facility by UK officers. The LGIB itself works with other local government associations, notably those in India and South Africa, but its main work is in bringing council partners together and seeking funds for sustainable programmes.

"To a small extent these links arise from personal contact but that is rare and they tend not to be sustainable when people concerned move on," Mr Beadle says.

"We are talking about long-term links not only for councils but for communities, businesses, schools and so on."

The LGIB is not the only body involved. The Commonwealth Local Government Forum works on both practical projects and promotion of democracy and human rights.

It enables exchanges of expertise through its good practice scheme, and undertakes research and capacity building. There are 160 members in 40 countries.

The UK Local Government Alliance for International Development is partly funded by the Department for International Development and its members include the LGIB, the CLGF, the Improvement & Development Agency, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Mangers.

Leeds City Council and St Mary Parish, Jamaica

This partnership originated 10 years ago, but was based on personal contact and ran out of steam. Nevertheless, it made Leeds the obvious place to turn when St Mary, one of Jamaica's 14 local government units, needed help to plan its economic development.

The work is funded by Commonwealth Local Government Forum.

Kerry Chambers, St Mary's director of planning, explains: "We hope to develop a strategy for development and reduction of poverty. St Mary is no longer the poorest parish, but it is dependent on agriculture and both the banana and sugar industries have largely gone under the weight of competition. It needs value added industries, some sort of agro-processing."

The parish sits between two of the island's largest tourist areas but derives little benefit from either, so it also wishes to tap into tourism potential.

Karen Murgatroyd, senior project officer in international relations at Leeds, says the thinking that led a public/private partnership to develop the long-term Vision for Leeds strategy will be applied to St Mary.

"What we hope to do in Jamaica is work with them on setting up a partnership involving the council, chamber of commerce, faith groups, charities and other groups with a vision for development," she says.

"Then we will involve whichever UK officers are appropriate." Leeds officers have also worked on community safety and improved procurement projects in Durban, South Africa. Those involved "found it a life-changing experience", Ms Murgatroyd says.

"We see this as a two-way process, so in developing the project there is a great opportunity for our staff in professional and personal development.

"It gives them an opportunity to really look at what they do and then closely examine how they work."

Another benefit for Leeds is expected in education, where the council wants to forge links between schools in St Mary and those in Leeds with high proportions of under-achieving Afro-Caribbean boys.

"We've already got one international link with Jamaica, and they find it very motivating," she says.

Greenwich LBC and Tema Metropolitan Authority, Ghana

Greenwich and Tema linked up in the late 1990s - united by being on the same line of longitude. Past projects have included work between schools and sourcing of IT equipment, but the latest is designed to address Tema's unemployment.

It is Ghana's largest port, and although the freight industry is thriving, it does not provide enough jobs for young people.

John Kewyah is research officer for the National Association of Local Authorities of Ghana, which represent the country's 138 councils.

"The port is not declining," he says. "But there is huge youth unemployment in the area and the spread of tourism is intended to create employment for young people."

The first step will be to market Tema's tourism potential and plan facilities and hotels and to promote the beaches, cultural trips to traditional villages and ecological trips to the nearby Shani Hills.

That is all rather different from Greenwich's historic attractions, but Trevor Dorling, head of economic development, says Greenwich has experience in the vital areas of "putting in place mechanisms to capture investment for tourism".

The project will last three years and directly involve six Greenwich officers. There will be a series of exchanges, mainly Tema officers visiting Greenwich.

"It's funded by the CLGF - all we have to find is the staff time," says Mr Dorling.

"The priority is to support developing countries, but there are benefits for the staff. It is clearly exciting for them to work in a totally different local government environment. They raise their skills and must apply them in a different setting."

Knowsley MBC and Nanning, China

This is more a partnership of economic equals, given China's economic growth rate; indeed Knowsley hopes to receive some investment from Chinese businesses.

Nanning is almost unknown in Britain despite being a fast-growing city of 1.5m people near Hong Kong.

Jo Miller, director of corporate and customer services, says Knowsley was looking for a partner in China and the link was made possible by a local businessman with interests in China.

She says: "China is the world's largest market and we have to understand it.

"There is a need for mutual co-operation and understanding, mainly on economic and educational matters.

"Our kids need to learn about it, because knowing about China will be important to their future chances."

Nanning's growth has seen some 3bn worth of public sector building in the past few years which has made the authorities there concerned about sustainability.

Knowsley's links are centred on providing expertise in regeneration and sustainable development, but the council hopes to extend these to sport and culture and foster links between schools. There have been visits from business leaders on both sides, but the distance limits visits by officers.

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