Okay, so one of the things the Big Society thing revolves around is an agenda to empower communities to come together to address local issues. This is to be achieved by giving new powers and rights to neighbourhood groups, quoted by the Coalition Government as the ‘little platoons’ of civil society and the building blocks of the Big Society.
Whilst this ambition is obviously to be applauded, again this approach doesn’t yet acknowledge or reflect the existing 80,000 people in England active in civil society as local (parish and town) councillors.
Whether they’re called community leaders or organisers, local champions, or bastions of grass roots democracy doesn’t really matter; current and future councillors play a big role in supporting the Big Society.
It was great that Civil Society Minister, Nick Hurd MP, got a taste of this for himself when he visited Crosby Ravensworth in Cumbria recently and met some inspiring local people. And, as he said on Twitter, it was “good to tap into the rural view” and “we need to make it easier for them”.
So, putting it simply – these councillors as community organisers volunteer a hell of a lot of time to help make their community and the lives of local people better. And not just time spent making decisions in meetings or banging on about services provided by their principal local authority. Their role is also act as organisers and convenors, bringing people and groups together to discuss and solve local problems. Arbiters when things aren’t going quite so well. Advocates when the voice of the community needs to be articulated. Decision makers when they can exercise their powers to benefit community well being.
It is critical that this growing army of grassroots activists of all ages, shapes and sizes – there are around 2,000 more councillors now than there were just over 10 years ago as a result of the creation of new local councils across the country – play their part in supporting the Coalition Government’s ambitions.
But they will need support. Just like other volunteers, and certainly just like the 20,000 or so paid councillors in principal authorities. Training and development for local councillors has been a key feature of modernization and reform in the last 10 years. In the past, modest investment from Government and other agencies has been critical in supporting this, but more on that in the next post.
The successful model from the US of generations of community organisers trained by Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation – which also trained Barack Obama as a community organiser in Chicago – gets a mention in the Big Society literature. So what else can we perhaps pinch from other countries? Participatory budgeting, which originated in Brazil, is starting to be used more and more by local councils to involve people in spending decisions. The new well being power is also now being used in innovative and creative ways by local councils – be it saving local pubs and post offices, building health centres or giving supermarket vouchers to the elderly at Christmas.
Given the Coalition Government’s support for strengthening local leadership there is, we think, merit in piloting and experimenting with stronger, more visible models of mayors in some local councils. Particularly among the larger town and city councils. Visible and influential local community leaders are a successful feature of many other countries around the world. So, why not here? They have been advocated by many, including the New Local Government Network, to help reinvigorate our democracy and improve civic engagement.
There are 1,600 small towns and large villages (with populations between 1,500 and 40,000) in England. Yet none with a strong local mayoral model to lead and serve these places. Let’s innovate and give this a go.
Current opportunities for reconnecting local people with what happens in their local places are very exciting. But new and valiant ideas, however tried and tested elsewhere, shouldn’t detract from the existing excellent efforts of many councillors and councils serving their communities. Whether this effort is from voluntary sector groups or from (statutory) local councils, now is the time to be smart and find and harness complementary solutions. Baby and bathwater time it ain’t.
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