Can new local councils offer Power to the People?

One theme in our reporting about People Powered Change will be around the structures within which people can have influence and make decisions.
Your Square Mile – which is one of the partners in ppchange – invites people to become members of the mutually-owned organisation, and has said it aims to foster the development of thousands of local democracies as more people join YSM and engage in their communities.
But what about more traditional democratic structures? As I wrote the other day over on my personal blog, the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) – which represents parish and town councils – argues that that “if local people are elected by their community to influence and make decisions that will affect their own area, it will have significant impact on improving lives throughout the capital”.
NALC are using the slogan Power to the People.
In their media release of October 17 NALC suggest the engagement of people after the recent riots, in helping clear up their neighbourhoods, could be supported by new, small, local councils.

The creation of new local councils in London would give communities a voice and this in turn could help address some of the underlying causes of the recent London riots. Local councils have already been created in urban areas such as Leeds, Birmingham, Bradford and Milton Keynes and have helped address social issues caused by deprivation by providing community leadership and brokering relationships with Government at large.
Localism and the Big Society have been much heralded and discussed by the Government and the Prime Minister himself, prompting much debate from Whitehall to town and village halls. What better way to ensure local ownership of decisions, control of assets and to get people involved in their area than to genuinely give power to the people.

Until recently Londoners were not able to campaign for the creation of local, neighbourhood-level councils like those in parishes and towns elsewhere. Their “local” is the borough.
On Tuesday evening I went along to NALC’s Create a Council event, where we heard from several people about the possible virtues of additional smaller councils that would have powers to raise money and control some local services.
I talked to David Drew, who is chair of Andover Town Council, together with Justin Griggs from NALC. David explained Andover now has a five year plan, a programme of consultation on developments with local people, and more powers than previously available to decide the direction the town may take.
Justin says local councils could put people in the driving seat in London, and bring a greater sense of community to the capital.
One area considering whether to go for a local council is Harlesden, where campaigns have already brought many improvements and the creation of the Harlesden Town Team. I talked to Leroy Simpson, chair of the team, about the possible benefits of a new local council.  He felt it was one option that would give people more ownership and governance over the improvements that they have achieved.
Not everyone agrees that more councils would be good for local engagement.
There was a lively Guardian-hosted online discussion last week on whether local democracy is in crisis, where Will Perrin, who left a senior civil service job in Whitehall to set up Talk About Local, promoting and supporting hyperlocal websites, was scathing at the start of the debate:

Local engagement structures are jarringly out of touch with the communications practices and life pressures of the modern citizen. Possibly only the courts and parliament have a greater whiff of the C19th about them.
In Kings Cross we have used a very basic website for many years now to help people access, understand and engage with local politics to make their area better. It’s run by citizens following things they are interested in and the council takes part. We discourage party political slanging and bad behaviour.

Will argues that tinkering with structures won’t make much difference: you need to follow where people are going, and for many that is online. He and others agreed that neighbourhood plans and budgeting are going to be an important focus for local discussion and decision-making. As I found the other day, talking to Richard Edwards, participatory budgeting is one way to both engage people on local issues and increase voting.
Later this week I’ll take a look at the Transition Network, that “supports community-led responses to climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy, building resilience and happiness”.
As Leroy said in our discussion, what’s important is looking at the options for greater people-powered influence, and deciding what’s appropriate in any community. Fortunately there are now quite a few.

Thanks to Fred Garnett for camera work with my iPad. I was using an iRig mic, which works well in noisy situations.
If you couldn’t make it to last night’s London event, there’s another one for up to 30 people on November 29 – sign up here.

  1. Back from the smoke « Mush brained ramblings - pingback on October 26, 2011 at 8:56 am

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