Bright sunshine on the morning of Friday, 20 March 2009 greeted almost 100 representatives from the community and voluntary sector, statutory agencies and local political parties to a Networking and Planning for Change Conference, at the Somme Heritage Centre on the outskirts of Newtownards.
The conference was co-hosted by the Ards Development Bureau and Community Network, North Down Community Network and Community Places. It was the first step in bringing together the two council areas of Ards Borough Council and North Down Borough Council under the new 'super council' cluster of North Down and Ards District Council. Cathy Rice, one of the organisers, explained "this is the first example in the region of local communities coming together with statutory agencies and local politicians to prepare for the changes in local government which will happen in 2011".
The conference introduced the new Transition Committee, a joint committee of local councillors from both Councils. Councillor Angus Carson, co-chair of the new Committee gave a very in depth presentation on the role and the responsibilities assigned to the committee. An overview of Community Planning by Community Places' Colm Bradley clarified the role of all agencies and the community in the Community Planning process, with examples from Scotland of how local community planning can make a real difference at 'grassroots' level.
The open discussion which followed, reinforced the great opportunity local residents, statutory agencies and politicians will have to meet the needs of local communities in a much more effective way. However, there was also concern at the 'squeezing out' of small community groups and therefore the importance of ensuring that all groups are kept informed and continue to build on the relationships developed at the event.
Those in attendance included local politicians and statutory representatives from Ards Borough Council, North Down Borough Council, Northern Ireland Housing Executive, South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, South Eastern Education and Library Board and the Department of Social Development's Voluntary and Community Unit. The Community and Voluntary sector was represented by local networks and groups including Ards Development Bureau and Community Network, North Down Community Network, East Down Rural Community Network, Scrabo Residents' Association and Disability Matters North Down.
A very informative and productive morning was had by all with Cathy Rice of Ards Development Bureau and Community Network closing the conference by highlighting that 'although many challenges still lie ahead, we have a unique opportunity to begin this process and build on the foundations put in place by this conference'.