England & Wales, Scotland Communities and society, Covid-19

Cinderella goes to the ball? Localism finds a champion in a time of pandemic

James Derounian and Elisabeth Skinner, from the Society of Local Council Clerks (SLCC) locate a focus to spearhead community action…

In the end, Cinderella did get to the ball. Is this the year when government and other stakeholders recognise the genuine potential of over 10,000 ultra-local town, parish and community councils to deliver meaningful localism to the urban and rural communities of England and Wales? At a time of pandemic, people are waking up to the idea of more local and customised solutions. Created in 1894, these local authorities provide the bridge between citizens and government. Some, serving sizable towns such as Shrewsbury and Salisbury, operate multi-million-pound budgets, while others represent small villages achieving innovative action with limited finances.

In terms of place-based action, the unit of a town or village makes sense to those who live and work there and are firmly embedded in the locality. Like other residents, councillors carry a mental map in their heads of streets, landmarks, monuments, eyesores, opportunities and development sites. As the local shopkeeper, social worker, postie or teacher they are in touch with both a sense of place and the spirit of community.  Besides, an ultra-local council focuses on the needs of a specific place in a way that the principal authority cannot; with the latter having to grapple with multiple and competing demands.

So all action taken by ultra-local councils is grounded in a specific place with a particular identity. The fact is that these councils can undertake practically any action that is legal and supports their electorate. For example, they create Neighbourhood Plans establishing the level, type and location of future development; they lead on affordable housing schemes and draw up climate action plans; they create local services such as community-run shops and post offices, facilities for young people, a volunteer-driven minibus or community hub. Frome Town Council in Somerset is blazing a trail with their approach to the climate emergency while Kendal Town Council in Cumbria is supporting a citizens’ jury to discuss the town’s response to climate change. Chiddingstone Parish Council in Kent is planning an affordable housing scheme for their Tudor village and Stoke Orchard and Tredington Parish Council in Gloucestershire runs a modern community centre with shop. The innovative projects that they can undertake for their communities are almost endless.

However, they are not perfect.  They need the vision, confidence, skills and the money to make things happen. Across England and Wales there are stimulating training programmes for councillors and comprehensive professional qualifications for officers designed to ensure that councils have the tools they need to reach their full potential. Furthermore, these councils can precept (locally tax) to fund appropriate initiatives that benefit their communities – provided they have community support. It requires nerve and confidence to gain a mandate from the community to levy and spend such finance on local projects. Without ambition and a willingness to generate such finance very little can happen – and this serves no one.

It is high time that ultra-local councils in towns and villages were trusted by other agencies to ‘think globally and act locally’. Whether it is the crisis caused by the pandemic or the crisis of climate change these councils have the power to deliver place-based, practical and sustainable solutions.

For more on ultra-local (parish, town and community) councils:

  • The National Association of Local Councils (NALC) – representing elected councillors https://www.nalc.gov.uk/
  • The Society of Local Council Clerks (SLCC) – the umbrella body for paid staff, especially the chief officer https://www.slcc.co.uk/

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