To quote the now infamous line during the General Election TV debates: ‘I agree with Nick’. Except in this case it’s not Nick, it’s Rory – more specifically Rory Stewart, the new MP for Penrith and the Border and Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on local democracy.
NALC is currently working with the Group – whose purpose is to promote grass roots local democracy and community governance – to highlight the important contribution of local councils to community empowerment, localism and Big Society through fringe events at the three main political party conferences.
Last week’s fringe event at the Liberal Democrat Party conference in Liverpool saw the launch of a new new policy pamphlet – What is localism? – featuring a series of essays by parliamentarians and other key thinkers on what they think localism means to local councils.
In the pamphlet Rory Stewart MP comments on the critical role of local councils in the Big Society:
“….everything – from organising communities to building affordable housing or generating renewable energy, or taking over a community centre, or rolling out broadband across the fells of Cumbria – needs a democratic body. If a community draws up its own planning regulations, giving it the final say on what can be built and where, that plan must be approved democratically and this should require a parish or group of parishes.”
Hence the agreement with Rory. Local councils – of all sizes, big and small -have an important role to play in Big Society. And other contributors to the pamphlet equally agree on the vital role played by local councils and their army of councillors.
But to follow up Rory’s point about the importance of democracy and greater power bringing greater responsibility – part of that responsibility is about good governance. Local councils may be democratically elected (be it through elections or co-option) but they still need to get the basics right to be able to do their job effectively.
That’s where minimum standards as promoted through the current Quality Parishes Scheme become so important. What all local councils have in common is a commitment to their local communities and the Scheme encourages demonstrating to local people that they are representative, in touch with the community, competent, and also capable of taking on an enhanced role.
All organisations need skilled and trained staff. Likewise good communications and community engagement need to be at the heart of any civic and civil society organisation. Robust and proportionate financial controls are a given, as should be good conduct and behaviour by decision makers – in this case those councillors who admirably volunteer their time but hold public office.
These are some of the underpinning principles and philosophy behind the Quality Parishes Scheme: it’s not rocket science and all local councils should be aiming to meet these most basic minimum standards.
But there still needs to be greater support and recognition of the importance of minimum standards, good governance and working toward and achieving Quality status, and at all levels – by Government, MP’s, principal authorities, local councils themselves and by communities in general.
There is at present a real opportunity to unlock the potential of local councils to play a greater role at community and neighbourhood level, to facilitate and enable more voluntary activity and involvement in decision making and also to improve their productivity and effectiveness. To deliver the Big Society local councils will more than ever need to have the confidence that their house is in order. A commitment to minimum standards is an important way of increasing the profile, as well as improving the reputation and perception, of this bit of grassroots community governance and action already making a real and positive difference in local communities.
Being effective, modern and fit for purpose – the core principles advocated through the Quality Parishes Scheme – is more than just about ticking a box. It’s about an attitude of mind of being as effective as possible and getting the basics right.
On that point, perhaps Rory and many others would agree.
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