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Parishes can play a key role in delivering community power

AUTHOR: JONATHAN OWEN, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF LOCAL COUNCILS


Amidst all the current manifesto talk there is a frisson of excitement in the world of think tanks which is highly relevant to our movement, especially our largest ‘super’ local (parish and town) councils, about the concept of ‘community power’.

This is defined by Adam Lent from the New Local Government Network (NLGN) as “the idea that local communities and networks need to take the initiative to solve their own social and economic challenges sometimes with, but just as often without, the help of the state.”

Adam identifies numerous examples of how this is being delivered and concludes that “they remind us that our real power as humans is not found in the confected division of high politics but within communities that solve problems together.”

A new community power act is Adam’s siren call to give all this force, which you can read more about on the NLGN blog and The New Statesman’s City Metric.

I think the local council sector, and as I said at the start our ‘super’ councils in particular who have significant budgets and capability, would say amen to that, and point to countless examples of where they have delivered on this vital agenda. Indeed, the finalists in this year’s NALC Star Councils Awards – Woughton Community Council in Milton Keynes, Feock Parish Council in Cornwall, and Salisbury City Council in Wiltshire – also provide some inspiration and insight into the growing role of local councils in building strong communities.

In her response to the community power concept, Vidhya Alakeson from Power to Change has urged everyone “committed to greater community power to work more closely together to build a more urgent case for change.” Surely this must be true at the hyper-local level too.

Locality has stressed the importance of culture change as well in their contribution, suggesting that “for community power to thrive, it requires a far more deeply rooted change, embedding localism in the culture of our neighbourhoods, and growing local capacity and social infrastructure. Localism is a marathon, not a sprint.” 

The Centre for London’s Act Local: Empowering London’s Neighbourhoods calls for a ‘reboot’ of localism to empower communities to influence decisions in their local neighbourhoods. Incidentally, the report also calls for the creation of more local councils in London, which we welcomed in our letter in the Evening Standard.

Hopefully, this is a debate which will continue, and fingers crossed bear fruit, and it may, in fact, be more significant than some of the current manifesto froth. It is also a debate the local council sector should rightly be participating in too, putting local councils in the engine room of the notion of community power.

This would certainly sit well with NALCs vision for the sector as a community movement for change.

We want to see local councils across the whole country, and at the centre of community effort, the natural focus of a range of public activity and service delivery. Giving a democratic voice to communities in the deliberations of others, and supporting those agencies to build strong communities. Vibrant, dynamic and effective local councils will help communities to help themselves, building strength and resilience and improving quality of life for residents.

That is why in NALC’s open letter to the political party leaders we offered three ways – set out in more detail in our A prospectus for ultra-localism – the next Government can help build strong, thriving and resilient communities.

Firstly, empower people and communities. Level up the whole country and establish new local councils in unparished areas including cities such as London, so no community is left behind in having democratic local leadership that is accountable, open and transparent. And allow communities to take back control of their area and have more of a say over planning, housing and development by strengthening neighbourhood planning and ensuring neighbourhood plans have greater weight and protection

Secondly, build capacity and support local leadership. Free up communities to respond to the changing needs of their area by making it easier to access the general power of competence, supported by a new national democracy fund to encourage more people to become councillors and support for training and development. And by strengthening the standards regime to improve conduct and behaviour and increase public trust and confidence, and tackling intimidation of elected representatives

Thirdly, with flexible and diverse funding. Empower local leaders at all levels to plan for the future and invest in their areas by scrapping council tax referendums. And by reforming business rates, including re-introducing legislation to exempt public conveniences, which are an important and valued community facility and asset and provide both public health and economic benefit.

Returning to community power then, this approach would be designed to restore trust in public bodies, enable a move to preventative services and help create sustainable local economies. It strikes me given the changing and growing role of local councils, and the fact that they are already of the community, for the community, they absolutely have a key role to play. Now, more so than ever before, their time has come.

Inform — Influence — Impact