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