In order to be clear from the outset, I’m a fan of Stoke-on-Trent. There is a general perception of the city which I think is unfair and I like the diverse places that make up the Potteries and I particularly like ““ and have an affection for ““ the people. I lived in the city for several years whilst studying at the University and after that when I worked for the City Council.
Again so people are clear where I’m coming from, I’m passionate about local democracy and the role effective local government plays in improving the lives of local people. Working for the Council ““ both when I was a student on a year-long work placement and again when I graduated ““ helped reinforce my own beliefs about the important combination of democracy and people coming together to help each other and their community. It was a privelege to work for the Council and I have continued to stay in touch with developments in the city and at the Council over the years. I am a regular visitor to Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire and both are places that always feel like home.
So my starting point for this post is not about knocking the Council. Far from it as I have friends who work there and I often bump into councillors and officers at local government conferences. I am full of admiration of the tens of thousands of councillors in all layers of government who up and down the country put themselves forward to make a difference in their community; and also the local government workforce committed to implementing their vision and delivering local services. The current economic climate and challenges facing local government and public services are meaning tough choices are being made. There are no hiding places for councillors at the moment and irrespective of political affiliations or the unfortunate low level of trust in politicians at all levels, they have a tough job right now and have my total respect.
Hence I am rooting for the new Chief Executive and the Councils’ political leadership to respond successfully to recent challenges such as the Governance Commission report and the current challenge of tough financial circumstances.
But the point of my post is that I think now is the perfect moment for principal authorities ““ like the City Council ““ to give up some power, to trust local people more and allow them to shape their places and make the decisions that ultimately affect their lives. And I think that one of the options that the Council ““ or more directly local people themselves ““ should be looking at is reinvigorating local democracy and community action through setting up new local councils.
What people across the Potteries may not be aware of is that for many years people in all parts of England have had the right, if there is local support, to set up a new local council. In rural areas these are usually called parish councils although there is no link to any church, and in more populated areas they are often called town councils. Only in recent years was this right actually extended to London where people in the capital had been specifically prohibited from setting up a council to represent their neighbourhood or community. And again only recently were local councils allowed to change their name to community, neighbourhood or village council to better reflect local identity.
But “Ëœpower to the people’ has been a familiar phrase in over 200 communities over the last decade where new local councils have been established in those areas. People living across Stoke-on-Trent, familiar previously with both the City Council and County Council but now just the former, may, if they so choose, take advantage of establishing a local council in the same way residents in any other part of the country have and continue to do so.
Empowered local people coming together to take more responsibility for their community through local councils is a tried and tested and trusted model of grassroots democracy and neighbourhood action.
In areas without a grassroots local council, people need to decide what geographical area their local council would cover and these will vary to suit local wishes. However the very distinct places ““ or towns ““ that make up the Potteries lend themselves to a natural definition as these are real places where real people live.
But perhaps being a sceptical bunch and whose perception of the activities and services of the City Council may at present not be the most positive, people may question the benefits of having a smaller local council in the same area. For a start, the structure of local government is acknowledged as being fairly remote from people. In European countries, the most local of democratically elected representatives will often represent just a few hundred people, and everyone knows who their representative is. In London for example, a borough councillor will often represent nine or ten thousand people.
So the first benefit is that a new very local council would be made up of elected representatives who must have a direct connection to that locality or community and who then qualify to truly represent the interests of local people. Decisions on a range of issues specific to that area can then be made as locally as possible and based on the strength of the views of local people. This helps people feel that local government is relevant to them and to their lives. It also means their views can be easily heard and acted upon promptly. This already happens in over 9,000 communities up and down the country, where local councils of all shapes and sizes are a central part of the fabric of the community, so why not in Stoke-on-Trent?
Local councils have a wide range of legal powers and can invest in the community to meet and deliver its aspirations through the precept, a form of council tax. In stark contrast to the £100 billion spent in the rest of local government, local councils do not receive money from Government, but raise money directly from their community ““ local councils raised around £500 million this year. As is often the case, this acts a lever for drawing in further investment and funding from other sources. Because county, district or unitary councils are large and with a complex range of functions, they need large numbers of staff and complex structures. But because a local council is concentrating on a relatively small area, overheads are low, and numbers of staff can in some cases be counted on one hand. The result is that the money is then carefully invested to provide and maintain a range of very local services ranging from sporting, entertainment and tourist facilities, community centres, car parks, crime reduction measures, open spaces for recreational use and bus shelters to name just a few. These are all highly desirable visible services designed to meet the particular needs of local people, and with the expenditure remaining under very local control.
The versatility of local councils is also a distinct feature, as they have a wide remit for activities in which they can get involved with, and can focus upon the priorities that emerge from within the community. For example, they may choose to fund dedicated community development workers to help them develop their vision for their area through a community-led plan. They might want to pay for a new Police Community Support Officer, or respond to queries from individual residents and represent the needs and interests of the community to other service providers.
Local councils provide a meaningful and effective conduit for local people to get involved with local services or issues they would not otherwise be able to. They can act as a focus for really empowering the local community, by stimulating action to improve services, providing facilities and supporting the aspirations of local people. Interestingly, there are many successful local councils around the country made up of people who are elected as independents and they operate in a bi-partisan way. Local councillors will all have their own views on national politics and vote in national elections accordingly, but in order to improve their community, the vast majority do not to stand for election wearing a party hat.
The National Association of Local Councils, who I work for as the Head of Policy and Development, has long been an advocate of extending and developing the role of local councils. We have persistently made the case that neighbourhood and local community governance is becoming increasingly relevant and its spread should be encouraged, and particularly in urban areas. This is a view I share personally too.
NALC has welcomed the Government’s commitment to empowering people, communities and local government through its localism and Big Society proposals and we believe the creation of new local councils can be an excellent way of supporting these objectives.
However, the exciting prospect of local people starting to plan to set up community councils in their bit of Stoke-on-Trent will raise eyebrows and come in for criticism from some quarters. Possibly predictably this will be from people already in positions of power and who may feel threatened. This is unlikely to improve the already low levels of trust in politicians. I would acknowledge concerns may even be raised about community cohesion. This is vitally important, but one of the reasons and benefits for establishing local councils is their ability to contribute to and enhance community cohesion. Any rise in extremism at local council level would be as much a failure of the political parties and our democracy collectively rather than of a particular local government system. Local councils are well placed to lead and organise events to celebrate the fact that in their areas there are so many different faiths and cultures living and working together. A local council in Milton Keynes, for example, has been highlighted by the Home Office for their work in this area.
Only by giving local people a real voice and say over the way services are provided will communities feel connected to their governance and democracy. The key principle must be to empower communities, not restrict the democratic process. People and communities should not be constrained by those already in positions of power and responsibility seemingly taking the view that an extension of democracy is a good thing but people in Burslem, Longton or Shelton are not quite ready for it yet.
Ultimately people have to be trusted to take a little more control over the things that most affect their day to day lives. The great people and communities in Stoke-on-Trent have a right to set up a new very local council if they want one. I for one think that they should be allowed to decide what is best for them and take decisions accordingly
Justin Griggs is a runner, a dad, a passionate local government geek, a technology and social media enthusiast, a school parent governor and works for the National Association of Local Councils