Following the recent annual conference of the National Association of Local Councils, and subsequent reporting in the media and on social media, I have been rightly reminded of the important (if not critical) contribution to our democratic life and well-being that parish, town and community councils can make.
Across the country, these councils and their councillors and staff (where they employ staff) are speaking up for their communities, challenging principal local authorities, providing services and supporting local people. All too often, they are plugging key gaps in service provisions as public services are being severely cut by the principal local authorities, the police, the NHS and other public sector bodies. Some are acting as the agents for others, whilst many are simply doing what is right for their local communities. Some have been granted devolved powers and resources by principal councils.
I served as a town councillor many decades ago, and when I was a county councillor, I worked in partnership with the local town and parish councils. I recognised them as being close to and, effectively, an important though not exclusive 'voice' of their communities. I believed strongly then, and looking back, I still do, that working in partnership in this way enabled me to be a more effective community county councillor. I know that many of my colleagues felt the same - and that many elected members of principal local authorities still feel the same today.
Recent legislation has enhanced the powers and potential for local councils. I am thinking, in particular, of the general power of well-being and the introduction of neighbourhood plans. Local councils have a power to raise taxation through a precept on the council tax, and many use this power to great effect to secure public benefit. They often will adopt a 'just get on do' attitude especially to address small issues which matter to local communities.
I have experienced some very imaginative and innovative activities and interventions by local councils. They are smaller and less burdened with statutory duties than principal councils, and so they are able to experiment more easily and be more responsive to local need and aspirations. However, because of their size, they are commonly constrained by their resource base, their human capacity (though many councillors will roll their sleeves up and mobilise volunteers in ways that would not be as practical or appropriate for a principal authority) and their legal powers. Too often, in my experience, they can also be constrained by the actions or inactions of principal councils and other public sector bodies. When this happens, it is very unfortunate.
Of course, not all local councils are as effective as they could be. Some (perhaps too many) have memberships which are not as representative of the community as they desirably should be (although this critique applies just as equally to principal local authorities, and even to Parliament). In my opinion, local town, parish and community councils are invariably stronger when councillors are elected through a competitive ballot. This enhances the democratic legitimacy of the members and their council. That said, we should not assume that those who stand and are elected unopposed are any less important or legitimate. After all, they are not (well, not usually, at least) responsible for the paucity of candidates.
I should also make it clear that I see no reason why party politics should not play a role in local councils. Rather, the focus of members although councils should always be first and foremost on place and communities.
When candidates seek election a party rosette enables the electorate to have a better idea of their values and approach Of course, many candidates will seek election on specific local issues. What matters is for candidates to be open and transparent about their party and other allegiances.
It is to be regretted that not all England benefits from local councils. They are more likely to be found in rural areas although it is encouraging that there has been some growth in parish and community councils in urban and city council areas. And I most certainly have no hesitation in urging all principal local authorities to explore the development of parish, town and community councils as their default position - and not as the exception. Of course, this is about localism so what is required should be locally decided.
When I hear of principal local authority leaders, members or officers opposing or making the creation of local councils difficult, I despair. In particular, I wonder whatever happened to the idea of 'double devolution'.
As local authorities move to merge and look upwards, surely more and stronger local councils can ensure that local voice and representation is both strong and provides a community or neighbourhood focus.
Of course, local councils are not the only voices within any community or neighbourhood. And whilst they are clearly the ones with a democratic mandate and legitimacy, they can still gain much from working closely with and supporting local community voluntary sector groups (VCS) and social activists. And they should also work with local businesses and the wider public sector.
Principal local authorities should foster, facilitate and encourage a range of participatory and representative bodies and arrangements to enhance local democracy. They must build positive relationships across the spectrum of bodies and such arrangements.
Of all these important relationships, the local council-VCS one is fundamental to local social well-being. It should be fostered and it should be built on mutual respect. There will be opportunities to act in partnership, to stand aside to allow one partner to act, to share and pool resources, and to provide mutual support, and crucially, to find common voice to other public bodies on behalf of the community.
Local councils and councillors should be both willing and ready for the VCS to challenge and to criticise. I am in no doubt that by listening and then responding appropriately, a council can dramatically strengthen its impact. Of course, many VCS activists may themselves by local councillors in their parish, town and community council - such is the rich tapestry of a local place.
I urge all parties to rethink their roles, relationships and act in the interests of local communities. Consequently I urge local councils and local VCS organisations to commit to greater partnership and where appropriate pursue shared agendas.
I urge the VCS to support local campaigns and initiatives to establish local councils in areas where they do not currently exist.
I urge the VCS to challenge those local councils, which are underperforming or which are not being responsive to local needs, local concerns and/or all local people. Complacent and inward-looking, self-serving groups must always be challenged and disrupted, should these ever appear on any council. I urge parish, town and community councils to support local VCS financially and 'in kind', and/or though pooling of defined resources, to establish ways to involve the VCS in decision making, to engage the VCS in local planning and strategic visioning, and to enlist the VCS when seeking to persuade principal local authorities and others.
I urge central government to promote and encourage the extension of parish, town and community council coverage. I also urge government to extend the powers of local councils and introduce guidance to ensure that its voice is required to be addressed in a meaningful way by principal local authorities and other public bodies on key policy, service commissioning and delivery, planning and budgeting decisions.
I urge all principal local authorities to explore with local communities and others, how and where to establish new local councils. I also urge them to demonstrate a respect and partnership with local councils. In particular, they should establish means by which local councils can be both heard and help to shape policy decisions, and thus enhancing their community leadership and place shaping roles.
Principal local authorities should involve local councils in the design and delivery of services in partnership or through agency arrangements. They should be be willing to devolve decision making and resources to local councils where this will lead to greater effectiveness and responsiveness and is both politically and economically viable.
Principal council councillors should be encouraged and supported to collaborate with local councils as a means of strengthening their representative responsibility.
In addition, it would be fantastic to learn that principal councils were appointing cabinet members with a specific brief for local councils, communities, promoting democracy and fostering civil society.
Let me be clear. There must be a greater role for and more parish, town and community councils or else localism will never fulfil its potential