October 4, 2017
It’s more than six years since the Association for Scottish Community Councils pulled the plug on itself and left Scotland’s 1200+ community councils without any kind of supporting infrastructure or collective voice. In its absence, community councils in some parts of the country have self-organised themselves into local associations or regional networks and the Improvement Service has been charged with administering a website. All of which is fine, but if we’re going to be serious about CCs going forward, perhaps we need something akin to what parish councils have in England – a kind of COSLA for hyper local democracy.
Sue Baxter is the chairman of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), which represents town and parish councils across England. She talks to New Start about why town and parish councils provide ‘ultra localism in action’.
How do you see the role of town and parish councils evolving in the future?
Local (parish and town) councils are already a vital part of local government and at the heart of community life. At NALC, we see their role evolving into helping more principal (county, district, borough and unitary) councils and national government address many of the profound challenges facing us today. As the first tier of local government, these councils can help provide local solutions in areas like housing, local economic development, health and wellbeing, environment, and transport as well as help build up social cohesion. Local councils are getting more involved in service delivery than in previous years and are being asked to do more by residents and principal councils, who are faced by the challenges of austerity.
Can they engage with communities in a way that maybe other tiers of local government cannot?
They can engage with communities in ways that other parts of the public sector cannot because they are at the heart of many local areas in England. They are the closest tier of local government to communities. So this gives them a unique understanding and insight into the demands and needs of local people. Also they have the additional advantage of not being unwieldy bureaucratic goliaths, so they can implement services or provide leadership on a more effective and efficient basis.
They provide our neighbourhoods, villages, towns and cities with a democratic voice and a structure for taking action; real people power at grassroots level. In fact we need more hyper local democracy, with more empowered people and place. It is ultra localism in action.
How can town and parish councils help to encourage inclusive growth?
There is a perception that the only route to local economic development, productivity and growth is by billions of pounds being ploughed in by various Whitehall departments. Now of course modern transport systems and research and development are essential for a successful complex economy. However what often gets over looked is what communities and very local government can achieve for this goal.
For example Sevenoaks Town Council runs a theatre and commercial cinema, attracting 300,000 visitors per year. The council has developed a bus service linking a National Trust property to the town centre, and orbital town centre bus extending to neighbourhood villages. As well leading in the regeneration of the train station and are building a new conference centre.
How much of an issue is affordable housing for parish and town councils?
Affordable housing is a massive issue for parish and town councils just like it is for communities and people. With these councils being closest to their community, they feel the issues around this very keenly.
We want to introduce a more ambitious annual target for the number of new affordable homes built in communities and even more bespoke dedicated affordable housing funding programme. This is where the localism act comes into its own. I am talking about neighbourhood planning here. Local councils up and down the country are using this form of grassroots planning not only take on more housing in their area but try to ensure an element of it is affordable. Councils such as Thame, Uppingham and Newport Pagnell have done just this. Over 90% of all neighbourhood plans are led by local councils. In areas where there are neighbourhood plans, there is on estimated 10% more housing being built. So this skews the arguments that local councils are nimbys (not in my backyard).
Would more parish and town councils help bolster their communities?
Yes, we positively believe so. We would like to see all communities in England consider having a local (parish, town or community) council.
Local councils are the most local tier of government – they’re at the very heart of the community, giving neighbourhoods a voice and helping people feel more involved in the decisions that affect them. They take localism to the next level by giving people a democratic voice that goes beyond just voting in elections. And yet, only a third of the population is covered by one. We want to change this and see more of England join the tens of thousands of local councils already in existence.
It is fastest growing part of local government, with nearly 300 new councils being created since 1997. Recently there have been new urban local councils created in London, Birmingham, Swindon and Lowestoft.
Some of the benefits of creating new local councils include:
• Meeting local needs: services managed in the community typically suit its needs better and are more responsive than those managed from elsewhere. It is easier for local councils to find out what people want from a service and how they use it. It can more readily be adapted to local requirements,
• Fostering community action: the process of starting or saving a service usually pulls people together and generates a sense of local pride. This may, in turn, create further community actions.
• Improving access: it may be that without the local council taking action a service used by the community would only be available some distance away or not at all.
How important is it that the voices of town and parish councils are heard in the devolution debate?
This year we have seen the election of new metro mayors in England, which is a brilliant development creating a real focus for devolution away from Westminster and potentially Brussels. We want to see this devolution cascade to neighbourhoods.
We believe the wider devolution agenda remains disjointed and confusing as the picture varies so widely from place to place. Many communities and neighbourhoods up and down the country feel disconnected from the project and sceptical of its benefits.
We call on the government to re-launch the devolution project ensuring it is effective and engages all local communities. So from this we would like to see the government and those in power in other parts of the public sector to think even more positively to the contribution that local councils can make within devolution.
• For more information visit: www.nalc.gov.uk