Our final fringe event at the political party conferences was held today in the Birmingham Library Theatre. The theme of the fringe event was again local councils in urban areas. Speakers at the event, from left to right in the picture were Councillor Guy Jackson, NALC; Andy Sawford, Local Government Information Unit; Lord Hanningfield, Essex county council; and Jessica Prendergrast, Social Market Foundation. Eric Pickles, the shadow local government minister was held up at another event and was unable to attend.
Lord Hanningfield said: “I am a keen supporter of parish councils, who are a central part of the local government structure in our country. I would like to see principal authorities and the Conservative party do more to support them.
“A future conservative government should devolve more power to parish councils and continue to advocate and support the creation of new parish councils.“My own county council in Essex is keen to develop the role of grass roots local government and has provided a range of grants programmes over the last few years to help build their capacity.”
Andy Sawford said: “The challenge to parish councils is to change the perception of being the ‘Cinderella’ of local government. Whilst their collective image and public perception can be improved, parish councils of all sizes play a big role within their communities.
“We should recognise the quality and legitimacy of parish councils, who exist largely without bureaucracy and are more efficient that the rest of local government.
“Parish councils should also be much more involved in the scrutiny of principal authorities, but who themselves tend to fear the challenge provided by parish councils. There is more that can be done to support parish councils, particularly on training and ICT and important initiatives such as the Quality Parishes Scheme.
“Parish councils are a vital part of our infrastructure to improve our communities and that’s what they are good at. This can be, and already is, the case in urban as well as rural areas.”
Jessica Prendergarst commented that: “Local government and various partnerships at local level are too often complicated and people don’t understand them. We see at the moment a disconnect between local people and the people who represent them.
“We should be proud [of parish councils] and promote this model of electoral legitimacy. We should recognise that the first tier of local government and its councillors can talk to people in a way that principal authorities cannot. Parish councils are much closer to their community and although the model is not universal, there is an argument in favour of parish councils in all areas. People in urban areas demand the same opportunity as everyone else.”
Councillor Guy Jackson responded: “There are currently over 8,500 local councils in England and this is growing. Over 200 new local councils have been created in the last 10 years, in direct response from local people. This has included urban areas such as Bradford, Stockport, Birmingham, Leeds and Milton Keynes.
“Local councils have a wide range of powers and are well placed to respond to the needs of local communities, particularly in taking forward the aspirations of local people through community-led plans.
“As the powerhouse of local communities, local councils bring devolution to people and places, and long may that continue. People in urban areas also deserve to have more say in the decisions that affect them and have grass roots local government if they want it. NALC will continue to support this, despite the fact that those in power may be reluctant to give any of their own power up.”