The Big Society #1: And our local parish and town councillors

The central feature of the coalition’s programme for government, other than addressing the budget deficit, seems to be the Big Society thing.

The Big Society thing is all about the activity of the state being too pervasive and crowding out community life and individual responsibilities. The Prime Minister himself has made it clear that “the Big Society is not just going to spring to life on its own: we need strong and concerted government action to make it happen”. He wants to see the state supporting ‘social entrepreneurs’ and “more community activism and more community activists”.

The voluntary and community sectors are mostly loving the Big Society narrative. The blogosphere is full of discussion and debate about the risks and opportunities facing their sector.

But we think there is a big missing part of the story. Namely the role of councillors and in particular the 80,000 or so local (parish and town) councillors and their 9,000 local councils. In a short series of blog posts we want to address this gap. We want to explore how grassroots community governance and its councillors are already, despite all the barriers, demonstrating the Big Society and localism in action. This will include looking at reforms to land use planning, the use of local data and the emergence of ‘hyperlocal’ websites and how these can deliver more for local people, and why these 80,000 community champions need to be better supported, recognised and celebrated.

We think that local councils are a tried and tested and trusted model of grassroots neighbourhood action that we could do so much more with. And this is especially the case in London and other metropolitan areas.

We will suggest how local councils can improve, develop and become more effective. We have lots of questions, ideas and suggestions to put forward.

In particular we are keen to get some feedback on whether or not we’re on the right lines, or just barking up the wrong Big Tree.

So firstly a few words in praise of our fabulous army of local councillors.

They get virtually no support from central government. There are limited tailored grants or programmes. In some areas of the country they are treated with suspicion and given little support from principal authorities. Likewise this is sometimes true of their own local voluntary and community bodies. Local councillors get no pay. And often no praise. The political parties generally ignore them, except at larger town council level. Local councillors quite often get ignored or laughed at by the mainstream media, and they still get tarred with the same brush as all other politicians.

Being a local councillor seems like a pretty thankless task. So why on earth do they volunteer so much time to do it?!

By and large because they care passionately about their communities and want to contribute to putting something back into their local societies. This is fantastic and not to be overlooked – that’s a lot of people already actively supporting the Big Society.

Local councils do have a range of powers and responsibilities. They can levy local taxes and can borrow to invest in the community. They can work in partnership with local voluntary and community sector people, such as those managing village and community halls. Sometimes they are the very same people! Local councils help to develop very local plans, such as community led plans and they then help deliver on the action plans that result. They can monitor local public services and speak up for the community when improvements are needed. Importantly local councils also provide and support an extensive range of local services more directly. And, by goodness, they do.

But we think that maybe they could be doing a whole lot more. And we think that central and local government (for example, through CLG and the LGA) could help them to do more. But not by spending loads of money or reinventing the wheel. Where there is a will, there is a way. More to follow in later blog posts!

Crispin Moor is one of the Directors of the Commission for Rural Communities
Justin Griggs is Head of Policy and Development at the National Association of Local Councils


  1. Also good to see new Conservative MP, Rory Stewart addressing these issues in Cumbria. As reported in today’s Cumberland and Westmorland Herald :


    PENRITH and the Border MP Rory Stewart visited Government Office North West in Manchester on Monday to meet directors and talk about giving more power to rural communities.

    The newly-elected MP requested a meeting with regional director Liz Meek to discuss how the Government’s ideas for a “Big Society” could help devolve greater responsibility for budgets to local people, bringing decision-making powers to the levels of local and parish councils.

    Mr. Stewart says he is using his position as an elected Member of Parliament to energetically promote community-led projects in his constituency such as the Upper Eden Community Plan and the Lyvennet Valley Community Plan, which will be the focus of a ministerial visit to Crosby Ravensworth on Thursday by Nick Hurd, minister for civil society.

    Liz Meek, who has been regional director since 2008 and whose career has focused on urban policy and regeneration, said: “This was the start of a dialogue about how we can make the ‘Big Society’ idea come alive for the people of Cumbria. It is something which has real potential for rural communities and working closely with local representatives is part of making that happen.”

  2. I am very pleased to have found this blog (via the Big Society blog). I live in a rural village in the New Forest and we have to rely on our Parish Council to represent us in all manner of local government issues. My own experience of the 37 PC’s within the New Forest National Park is that they often lack a mechanism for collating the views and needs of their parishoners when it comes to broader issues – my own (limited) ‘research’ shows that PC’s have little or no members of the public attending their meetings. Those few who do, are there only to either uphold or object to a neighbours planning application.

    There needs to be much reform within the PC’s I have dealt with over the past 2 years – I cannot comment on others elsewhere. They find it difficult to fill vacancies, and so some councillors feel it necessary to continue another 2 or so years, just to ensure numbers are kept up. It is very difficult to get “new young blood” into these councils and so it goes round in circles.

    There are many ways that the PC’s can bring themselves into the 21st century but that takes time and effort. The voluntary sector can only do so much! Sometimes you need to take a step back to see where changes can be made or communications improved. Some PC’s even have meetings to decide what they will have on the Agenda of another meeting! They put cumbersome tiers of committees in place and so everything takes far too long to come to a conclusion. They write their own standing orders alongside their statutory responsibilities and these really need to be looked at on a regular basis.

    I am particularly worried that the upcoming “Review of National Parks Governance Arrangements” will rely heavily on these 37 PC’s to represent the residents’ views when they have no mechanism to involve them except by a notice on the Parish Notice Board, and word-of-mouth.

    Can anyone reassure me that, in their current format, our 37 PC’s are the best chance we have of being represented?

  3. Justin, I too have only just found your interesting thoughts via the Big Society blog. I think your points re parish and town councils are important. If anything, I think that they highlight the overlap between civil and civic society – and that too often we think that the two are oppositional when they are one and the same.

    Its a couple of years old now, but my colleague did some case study work on parish councils and their relationship with vol and community organisations that is still relevant to the discussion. Its at

  4. Sorry, not sure why the ref didnt work but it’s here:

    Some points included:
    The report A Broader Parish examines the relationships between
    parish councils, VCOs and the individuals involved in their
    activities. The research focussed on three projects in rural Devon
    and highlighted the particular dynamics of the relationships
    between parish councils and other community groups in the
    area. The report demonstrates that:
    • Most people are attracted to short-term action based roles
    rather than sustained participation in neighbourhood
    governance structures.
    • Both parish councils and VCOs contribute to community
    governance and at different times take on a community
    leadership role. There can often be a blurring of boundaries
    between their respective roles.
    • The relationships between parish councils and VCOs vary over
    time as circumstances change. However they can have a lot to
    offer one another as partners especially when trying to
    influence other tiers of governance.
    • By undertaking activities and also by advocating on behalf
    of their community, together parish councils and VCOs can
    improve the lives of residents.

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