The Big Society #2: Strengthening local leadership

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

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8 comments

  1. Good post Justin. Learning Pool’s Dave Briggs was speaking at the NALC Localism in Action conference for parish councillors yesterday in Bristol & we met & spoke with most delegates over the course of the day.

    There was an awful lot of interest from everyone in a new project we’ve just launched with Central Beds that people can view at http://www.letstalkcentral.com

    It’s a simple & cost effective way for any organisation large or small to open up a two-way conversation with the citizens of a local area. If anyone’s interested in finding out more they can contact breda@learningpool.com or dave@learningpool.com

    1. Viewer · · Reply

      This looks good, Mary, but what about people who do not have internet access?

  2. chrisconder · · Reply

    there are many people would love to be involved, volunteers abound, but only if the town and parish councils get some real power… power to make things happen.
    These people don’t need training, they know what to do to make their communities better already, they just need the means to bring about that change. Far too much time in councils is spent doing useless stuff, ticking boxes, set the councillors free to do their jobs and empower them instead of making them work with one hand tied behind their backs. Let them talk to the people and find out what is needed and then do it. A case in point is the current telecoms infrastructure to rural areas which is failing to deliver internet connectivity to many. A far seeing council could build this infrastructure itself. Currently it hasn’t the wherewithal to attempt it, but there is no reason why it shouldn’t be given it. Or is the big society just another talking shop? Local people don’t tend to complain about such things to the council, but if they knew the council could address and deal with issues they would communicate with them more. Once a decent infrastructure is in place a lot of it could be done online. There again, a lot of councillors don’t ‘do tech’ so many don’t take advantage of social media tools in their work. A lot of the council’s beat is also offline due to not being able to get a connection in the final third. Therefore a real job for councils to get to grips with is to join Martha Lane Fox and lets build our own infrastructure and get everyone connected who wants to be, and the rest will follow once they see all the advantages.

  3. Good post. My only quibble is that I’m not sure it’s the role of local councillors to “play their part in supporting the Coalition Government’s ambitions”, at least in cases where they don’t agree with them.

    They rather need to understand local communities, and support civic action and participation.

    If that’s done in such a way that it supports the Government’s ambitions, so much the better, but the needs and desires of their local populations have to come first.

  4. […] The Big Society #2: Strengthening local leadership – Good post on the role of parish and town councillors in motivating civic action. […]

  5. The new emphasis on local leadership and more general local involvement is indeed welcome but I wondered what NALC/your take is on some of the difficulties? In particular, the need to ensure that the most local councils/neighbourhood forums genuinely represent the whole community they serve and not just the interests of those who have the time and (admirable) motivation to be a local councillor. How do we go about encouraging more people to play a part in determining how their local area is run, how it develops, how it is represented? Does everyone have the time? If not, how do we ensure that they still have a say?

    There seems a risk sometimes that those who shout loudest, or are the most articulate, are the ones that are heard and they are deemed to be ‘the voice of the community’, but are there others whose voice is not heard or who perhaps feel unsure about becoming a parish councillor because they do not see others like them on it?

    This is certainly not to say that power needs to be imposed from above, but with power being devolved to a more local level, we need to ensure that support and training and recruitment drives are also undertaken to provide all members of society with an equal say.

  6. […] The Big Society #2: Strengthening local leadership – "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." […]

  7. cyberdoyle · · Reply

    On our parish we haven’t got noisy people. We have genuine caring villagers. They turn up. they listen. they go home. Nothing much changes. Until they get something they can get their teeth in to and make a difference big society won’t hear the little quiet voices. Give them some power and watch the lions roar and watch stuff start to happen.

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