The Localism challenge for Town & Parish Councils

Here is the full text of Mel Usher’s inspiring speech at our conference in Bridgwater on June 28th.

“What am I doing here amongst all of these big hitters…the County Council, Public Health Somerset and national government? After all we are a parish council…and we all know about them…….. trumpton mayors, dog poo, allotments and spats in the local paper on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

But is that the true picture?

And if it is, does it have to be the future?


My answer is a firm NO.

The future for me lies in tapping in to the strong desires of individuals and  local communities  to have a greater say, to be more involved and to be more engaged.

Too often we exclude people with labyrinthine  bureaucracy, over complicated rules and out dated traditions. Currently many people are alienated from all forms of government and that is getting worse.

But people are genuinely interested in their patch, their neighhours and their street. They are not truly engaged in the “ya boo sucks politics”of the type we have seen in the last few months, nor are they interested in how the administration works nor constant buck passing.

Democracy begins at our doorstep. It can’t be imposed from above. If we are to revive it it has to be bottom up and that means us.

Let me just take 3 possible roles for parishes in the context of today’s discussions.

  1. Civic Leader

And I don’t just mean that of the Mayor important though that is.

Using our democratic legitimacy we can ask fundamental questions like “what is this community”, “what unique problems do we face” “where do we want to be in 5/10/15 years time”, “how are we going to get there” ,and “how much do you want to engage in this thinking” and how much are you prepared to pay”

Why shouldn’t we have high expectations for ourselves, our parish our street. Encouraging  residents to feel involved  and even good about themselves and where they live should be a significant part of our function.

But whilst aiming for this  we should be bending over backward to engage  with people, embracing all of social media, listening to and hearing what people say, involving communities in decisions , breaking down barriers, sweeping away practices that hinder communications and being humble…..recognising that you as  individuals are quite as likely to have a solution to a problem as I have.

For us leadership is not about internal organisational matters but about connections, oiling wheels,  breaking down barriers, building trust, innovating  and taking calculated risks

2. Co-ordinator/Facilitator

All communities big and small, and I include here even the smallest parishes,  have a variety of individuals, interest groups and bodies who make up the rich tapestry of the place; stretching from businesses to the NHS, to single issue enthusiasts to the innumerable unsung volunteers

Who helps them to see the wider picture, who helps them to get on with the job they really want to really do, who identifies glaring gaps and helps to co-ordinate actions? Can we bring many of them around a table to talk rationally about how we can all help?

This is especially true during this time of austerity when traditional services we have are all come to expect are fast disappearing over the hill. And have no doubt this will only get worse and what, if anything, will replace them?

So how do we build more resilient communities that will be able to withstand the shock of the unknown?

Surely our aim should be to create the conditions that help the  community to flourish;  where individuals can influence events around them, where there are strong local connections and support networks and where we can create a sense of belonging.

Fine words and not an easy task and most of you will be saying “How?”

Touchstones for us are..

  • working with the local health centre on wellbeing
  • promoting self build housing schemes
  • giving away power and money to local volunteers, charities etc. 10% in our case
  • helping combating isolation,
  • advocating for those less well off and providing immediate food assistance,
  • building a database of needs and volunteers
  • promoting and running alternative transport systems
  • generating new ideas by bringing people together
  • encouraging apprentice schemes for kids left behind
  • …and so on.

Of course its not enough considering the cuts coming down the line but its a million miles away from deciding on the location of bus stops for buses that don’t run any more.

3. Provider of services

in 2011 the government introduced the general power of competence. It should have had an immediate impact letting a 1000 flowers bloom. Basically it says that parish and town councils can do anything they want as long as its legal for an individual. This is an amazing turn around, previously you could only do what parliament identified.

Why has it not been a resounding success?  Well maybe some of us have been too tied to traditional services, some have lacked courage or examples or maybe we have been too concerned about keeping the precept down. We have lost our nerve on local taxation…and yet what is it?

Its  money we raise locally through local decision making to be spent locally for the benefit of local people. What’s not to like about that? On the day a decision is made to raise more tax we should have celebrations, whooping on the streets, it shows we are concerned about one another. In our case raising taxation by eye watering amounts has been a vote winner, all 17 seats in 2015

Surely the measure of a civilized society is how it treats its most vulnerable members.  Poverty comes in so many forms whether its isolation, opportunity, money, housing, health environment, education….and it exists now in your community and will continue to exist in the future.

Who looks out for Alice…remember what John said at beginning of the day. Her husband died 5 years ago, new neighbours have moved in, the local shop has shut, she has stopped driving and the buses don’t run and she can’t get to the local club, the medical practice is on the other side of the village, the local chemist has gone and her house is beginning to feel as tired as she is. She is isolated and feels deserted.

Think what you even the smallest parish could do with a friendly neighbours scheme, a volunteer car programme, arranging get togethers in the local pub with a hot meal twice a week, drugs runs to the chemists ,  food parcels,  a certificated  handyman service,xmas events and so .

All within your power to either provide or co-ordinate. Some might say, we can’t do that, the part time clerk is too stretched, we don’t have enough money and we don’t know what to do. The power to change all of that is in your hands.

So forget about arguing with the County about which piece of grass should be transferred to you its not what the future should be, think people.

 4. Conclusion

We should all return to a fundamental question……..Why are we here? The clue is in the title….Local and Democracy

If we don’t stray too far away from these two words we can’t go too far wrong.”