Time to power up communities to meet devolution goals

The National Association of Local Councils’ (NALC) What Next for Local Councils event, 15 July 2015, looked at the implications of the general election results for communities, neighbourhoods, local (parish and town) councils in the context of austerity and devolution.

The overwhelming view of the event was that if very local councils and communities were given a chance to become ‘local powerhouses’, this would lead to greater community buy-in, and more devolved services. Further to this there would be a huge leap in the number of neighbourhood plans and a boost to local economies of around £3bn in community investment.

Sarah Benioff, director of Community Rights and Integration, department of Communities and Local Government (CLG) commented: “The Government is driving towards more devolution and we think there is space for parishes to do more within this agenda. However we recognise this is not easy and we will offer what assistance we can to help support councils’ ambitions.

“Parishes have the strength because of their size and locality to do service delivery cheaper and better. They also have the best knowledge of needs and demands of local areas because of their proximity to communities.”

Cllr Garry Porter, chairman of Local Government Association, said: “I’m only in the first few months of this post but I promise to work more closely with the parish tier of local government than perhaps ever before, but in return the sector needs to up its game in terms of effectiveness and efficiency in certain areas. But I acknowledge there are huge swathes of parish and town councils doing great work in their communities on behalf of local people.

“I will be encouraging my member councils to work much better with their counterpart parish and town councils. And in fact I am encouraging communities in my district council of South Holland, Lincolnshire to set up parish and town councils and will be encouraging other principal councils to do the same.”

Jonathan Owen, chief executive of NALC said: “To seize the opportunities of ‘localist powerhouses’, there would need to be changes in government policy and changes to the way parishes worked too. Many of the very best were already leading the way, running devolved services, engaging their communities, enabling affordable housing and agreeing neighbourhood plans. Others needed to improve their efforts - embrace the Localism Act, work in partnership with other parishes and principal (county, district, unitary and borough) councils. Look to build their own capacity and engage more people in their work.

In the think tank session, we heard from Professor Tony Travers (London School of Economics), Dame Jane Roberts (New Local Government Network) and Alex Thomson (Locality).
Professor Travers said: “Clearly there will be fewer principal councils doing service delivery, so naturally there will be a possible extended role for parish and town councils.”

Dame Jane Roberts told parishes, “to leap in and grab the agenda, without seeking permission. Don't just be an advocate for your place; but also look to facilitate and harness community power.

Alex Thomson demanded that: “Parishes grasp the neighbourhood planning nettle and do more of them to have a say in the way their communities will develop in the future.”

They all acknowledged that there are real opportunities for parishes to grab as the state including principal local government will be shrinking so leaving gaps over discretionary and quality of life services that these very local councils could step in and take over."

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