Three town councils are currently vying for the title “Star Council” in a national competition: Frome, Campbell Park Milton Keynes, and Oswestry. Each of these finalists deserve to be feted for their visionary, brave, groundbreaking work in their local communities. They have re-imagined what a first tier parish council might be, beyond the bureaucratic dross and fusty meetings that characterise the worst in their class. The winner will be announced on 27 October at the town councils’ national gathering in Birmingham organised by NALC[i].
Coincidentally at last year’s NALC conference in London, I met people from two of these star councils, Oswestry and Campbell Park Milton Keynes. They gave rousing presentations, full of passion and enterprise, commitment and energy. I returned to Ledbury feeling enthused and glad to report back to Council, the condition of my attendance. Amid barely stifled yawns and distracted phone-fiddling, it was a disheartening experience as usual. A couple of minutes in to my talk, chairman Cllr Paul Winter was seen pointedly looking at his watch. I might as well have been explaining the philosophy of science judging by the blank, bored faces of my fellow councillors.
Returning to morose, baleful Ledbury Town Council after meeting new friends doing great work, the contrast in energy and attitude could not have been more poignant. But enough of them! Banishing those bureaucracy blues, what does it take to be a star council?
Star one: Campbell Park
Campbell Park in Milton Keynes is a complex and diverse place with extremes of deprivation and affluence, a large established BME community and more recent arrivals from Eastern Europe and refugees from war ravaged regions. Its challenge is how its neighbourhoods work and share space with each other. So easily this city parish could be splintered and fractured by social, ethnic and economic division, become a community snared in apathy and frustration. Not a bit of it. Campbell Park Parish Council has built an animated, active democracy where local people argue and discuss, take charge of their community facilities – and are willing to pay extra for their own services. And not just the usual suspects, the white, educated and affluent; all sections of the community have become players in local politics.
Like everyone in MK, council chair Isabel Forsyth (they don’t have a mayor), is an immigrant. With typical Scots directness she said: ‘“This is not our business” is simply not an option for us. Our people are increasingly turning to the town council for leadership, asking: what are you going to do about it?’ She’s referring to the funding cuts and the resulting decimation of local services.
Unwilling to simply hike the local council tax (precept) the Council’s urgent priority was to obtain ‘permission’ from the community to take on extra services: what did they want, and how much would they pay? There followed an immense drive to consult with local residents, every facet of them. Added to the standard formal parish consultative meeting, town councillors determined to hit the streets and speak to people where they live and whose voices they wouldn’t otherwise hear: door-knocking (not just an election time special), running stalls in the shopping centre, turning up at local gatherings and school gates, all the time asking questions and listening carefully to answers. Aside from the ubiquitous frustrations (including pot-holes, dog mess and speeding traffic) town councillors are busy talking about the future with people, their hopes and dreams. They feel the pulse of their parish.
Campbell Park town councillors spend the majority of their time talking: not to each other but to their people. They believe ‘each and every town councillor has a role in engaging practically with the community’; it is in their DNA. The ‘lazy’ ones are soon made to feel very unwelcome indeed, says Isabel. They don’t last.
Another simple measure that brings rich returns in Campbell Park is apportioning roles and responsibilities to individual councillors. The Council runs a skills audit of councillors at the start of each term so as to find out who might do what, who is best suited to particular tasks and roles according to their circumstances and abilities. Councillors are happy and motivated as a result. They are doing what they love, and what they’re good at. It works. (When we suggested a similar initiative in Ledbury it was branded a ‘Spanish Inquisition’ in the press.)
Star Two: Oswestry
To those in Ledbury who say dismissively ‘we’re only a parish council’, think again. Oswestry is a market town with big ambitions. Its Town Council employs 18 staff and behaves more like a District Council. It is quite astonishing that its local precept is £379 thousand, just a shade more than Ledbury’s yet the town council’s annual budget is over £3 million. This is focused single mindedly on strengthening the local economy, attracting jobs and investment, providing training and skills development. It has recently negotiated funding for an £8.5 million business innovation park which has created three thousand jobs. Meanwhile the Council has galvanised the local community into producing a lively events programme aiming to bring visitors and locals into the old town year round. With a packed calendar of festivals and community celebratory events, proud Oswestry is determined to keep its town centre alive, understanding that this is the foundation of its community life.
You wonder how they do it. It helped that town leaders insisted on holding on to key financial assets like car-parks, land and buildings during the 1974 local government reorganisation. But that was the start. In recent years, Oswestry has built a close and productive working relationship with Shropshire County Council to secure major funding deals and to produce a Local Plan (‘Oswestry 2020’), geared to building a sustainable town.
‘The councils that shout the loudest get the best deal out of the county council’ says Chief Executive David Preston. ‘Just don’t take no for an answer’. Oswestry’s dynamic town clerk is not only equipped with a long term strategic plan but behaves as any good chief executive might, offering visionary leadership and strategic grip. Funding bodies like that, it gives them confidence. Last year for instance, West Mercia’s Police and Crime Commissioner invested £68 thousand in a new volunteer-run CCTV scheme throughout the town centre.
Star Three: Frome, Somerset
And what of Frome Town Council? That’s another story again, come back soon for the longer version. In short, what has happened in the Somerset town is nothing short of a democratic miracle. Councillors have totally ejected all the old protocols and conventional thinking. Council bureaucracy has been scythed with all that latent energy being reinvested in practical community engagement work. Starting from the ground up, they have concentrated on building a responsive, open, and proactive council, tapping into local people’s ingenuity and energy, working hard to imagine a future for their post-industrial town. The revolution didn’t happen overnight, but in this year’s election, the Independents for Frome movement won all 17 seats on the town council. Local activist Peter MacFadyan has written a book about their experience called Flatpack Democracy and run an inspiring website, both well worth reading. In a recent article, Guardian journalist and resident John Harris wrote:
“Over the last four years, despite regular tussles with a Tory-run district council still getting used to the arrival of these new upstarts, the IfF group has been very busy. On top of the annual £1m it gets from local council tax, £250,000 – donated by a local philanthropist impressed by the flatpack democracy idea – has been invested in the town via a specially formed community interest company. In the face of opposition from local Conservatives convinced that austerity had to apply even at the most local level, the council has also borrowed around £750,000 to invest in buildings and land, and to boost its regeneration work. Green spaces have been spruced up and game-changing help has been given to the local credit union. The council is involved in a new renewable energy cooperative, and has put money into the setting up of a new “share shop” – as far as anyone knows, the first one in the UK, from which people can borrow everything from drills and gardening tools to children’s toys.”
What these three councils have in common are the behaviours and values that Ledbury Town Council urgently needs to imitate:
1. Openness and Transparency: they are communicative and put their energy into engaging with their local communities. They don’t tell people what’s good for them but find ways to listen to what’s important. These councils determinedly face outwards into their towns.
2. Vision and Leadership: they have long term plans which guides their decisions and their priorities. All the things they do contribute to future success. They build on their assets and attributes, and design their organisations to enable good things to happen.
3. Proactive and Dynamic: they don’t spend all their time talking, they get on and do things. Councillors and office staff are busy with productive effort that yields practical benefits for residents, measuring their success in achievements, not the production of paper. They reflect on their experiences and learn from them, getting stronger as they go. Their energy is infectious – local people want to be involved.
There is hope. Some Ledbury Town Councillors are fully behind an overhaul of our council structures, finances and practices. They believe that the old ways are no longer capable of sustaining our prosperity and happiness. Ledbury doesn’t have to be Deadbury any more. Walt Disney famously said, ‘if you can dream it, you can do it’. In three years time, towards the approaching election in 2019, why shouldn’t our brilliant town be vying for Star Council?
Yes we can!
Note: Compare and contrast: Ledbury Town Council and Frome Town Council
[i] National Association of Local Councils