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How to reinvigorate local democracy

Peter-Macfadyen-2-266x300I’ve been a town councillor for just over three years and am currently mayor of Frome. I stood with a disparate group of individuals fed up with the distraction from reality we felt party politics created.  As ordinary concerned voters we had watched on horrified as continual and corrosive inter-party warfare led both councillors and council workers deeper into a mire of negativity and inefficiency.

With the promise of localism on the horizon we saw opportunities that a group, working together with the betterment of our community as our sole aim, could access.  We recognised that ‘more of the same’ would just increase the cynicism of voters, undermining any remaining legitimacy left in this vital local layer of democracy.

We looked around for models of independents working as a group. Where elected they tended to implode once in power, having found little common ground after whatever it was they stood against had been achieved. So we devised ‘ways of working’ and agreed principles on how we’d behave in office – rather than attempting to focus on specific policy promises. We made it clear and unequivocal that we were standing for Frome, not following the agenda of some far off uninterested political party. Thus Independents for Frome was born.

We must strive to reinvigorate the most local level of democracy,

to make it something people feel comfortable engaging with

We ran a positive, high-energy campaign. We increased the vote by 75% – half of it for the Independents – and won 10 of the 17 seats. Once in power we dissolved all committees and reformed them in a simplified, more accessible structure. We needed the public’s views on where to take action, which meant drawing them into the process by exercising proper consultation, using a recent community plan as a starting point.

We formed working parties of local experts in key areas – from open space management to forming an ethical policy – and took their advice.  We trebled the budget for community grants, contracted support for community fundraising and employed a staff member to work with voluntary groups.  As funding from higher levels of local government has reduced (we now receive none for the arts or youth) we’ve increased our spend in this area still further.

FlatpackOf course not all the policies we implemented have been successful. Recognising that the ideal of frequent ward councillor consultation was unlikely, we initiated ‘participation week’ with a raft of initiatives to involve people more.  Some ideas worked well while others simply illustrated that it will be a long process to reach widespread involvement. Plans for participatory budgeting have not materialised and public voting on grants was a short-lived experiment.

As our story spread, we were increasingly asked to share it.  So I wrote ‘Flatpack Democracy’ which has led me into a range of fascinating discussions. As town councillors we are volunteers and all of us still have day jobs; inevitably, real action tends to go where councillors and staff have energy. A talk to the council on increasingly high levels of local poverty was picked up with one councillor’s energy and interest, leading to a new charity being established, staffed and funded.  My own enthusiasm has led to a raft of ‘green’ initiatives through the employment of an energy and recycling officer.

We still need to further strengthen two key areas. Firstly, to engender genuine participation with clear links to action based on that participation. Secondly, further support for the voluntary sector, mainly through careful development of partnerships, but being aware all the time that a few individuals tend to take the load.

My dealings with higher levels of ‘local’ government have been largely depressing. Watching their floundering has led me to conclude that without a functioning town/parish level they have no means of knowing what communities really want or need. All of which leads me to the conclusion that we must strive to reinvigorate the most local level of democracy. To make it one people feel comfortable engaging with. Properly organized their voice becomes heard loud and clear, they engage meaningfully with their own governance and everybody wins.

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Perplexed
Perplexed
9 years ago

This post misses the elephant in the room that is the general local authority mess in England. Fundamental unitary reform is needed along the lines or Scotland and Wales first. Counties are anachronistic hangovers. Real change will begin when we have a tier of unitaries based on sensible economic geography and metro areas.

Peter Macfadyen
Peter Macfadyen
9 years ago
Reply to  Perplexed

I don’t miss it so much as disguise it so much it’s not clear. (Which amounts to the same thing for a reader!) My last paragraph mentions largely depressing dealings with higher levels of government. Our attempts at enacting ‘localism’ have been systematically undermined by the district level. So, yes, a functioning unitary level, based on new areas or not, would be a huge help. BUT I’d argue that level must be based on proper, empowered, democracy to work. Will the Scottish fallout make any difference – I dearly hope so but am not holding my breath!

Charles Wood
Charles Wood
9 years ago

My long reply to the original post talks of ‘sensible alternatives’ to the three tier local government system Somerset has now. We voted on a unitary a few years ago, bounced on us by the Lib Dem county administration with no real detail as to how it would work, and not much extra local responsibility being apparent in the proposal. Somerset is a big county with Frome and many other areas being a long way from county hall – Frome is almost as close to Reading as to Taunton and abuts two other unitary councils, Wiltshire and Bath and North East Somerset. It was voted down. Perhaps we should study how the French and Belgian commune system works, which has strong local impact not least through a mayor with real power. If true democracy is a worry, then perhaps there is also a similar, continental, place for proportional representation (PR) as the electoral method for local government. Frome might well then have a few more Conservatives, at least one Green, a Labour or two, and an interesting mix of Independents and Lib Dems. Not a very Conservative view though, bringing a high risk of continual infighting as different groups use blocks to get their own views accepted, shifting alliances, general uncertainty but perhaps ultimately a middle way that satisfies no one fully but is just about acceptable. It would certainly bringing a lot more dialogue and less arrogance (depending on the mayoral powers though) to the decision making process. Of course the electors would then get the councillors the groups nominate, with a likely loss of a councillor of your choosing for your electoral ward – if indeed the ward system would survive, probably not. PR would probably kill off the lone Independent though, with ‘Groups of Independents’ being needed, as indeed happened when Peter and his fellows had to group together under the ‘Independents for Frome’ (IfF) banner. It is interesting that the IfFs then appointed a Leader, who has also been made the leader of the council, and who seems to have the last word on most things in the council. I am assured there is no ‘whip’ within the IfF to fall in line, and indeed there are often differing votes on matters within them. But there is still a strong impression that one man calls most of the shots – but then that is what a continental mayor does, so perhaps that is the way to get decision making out of a disparate group or what you might have with PR. But I am not sure it is what Brits would be comfortable with.

Charles Wood
Charles Wood
9 years ago

This will come as no surprise to Peter, that as a community colleague I don’t wholly agree with his analysis of the difficulties with local democracy as it it is currently set up. The problem was not political infighting, although the differences in views between the various political groups (which is why they were part of the groups in the first place) did tend to feed through; this is still the case in our town council, but Peter’s group is in a position to not give much weight to contrary opinions due to their large majority. Interestingly, the previous party-based council used to have regular meetings between the leaders of the groups to discuss the best way forward on things for the town. This doesn’t happen now, although I understand there was some effort to get across-group participation in the early days, which didn’t come to much. So now Peter’s group just goes its own way, albeit I believe there is no group-whip and everyone can vote as they wish. Perhaps this is true democracy, but some in the other groups now feel they have little impact on council business and wonder what value they can effectively bring to the table. The problem faced with the previous council was more vested in the individuals, and the local government attitudes and way of working (you elected us to do a job, we will give you 3 minutes in a total of 30 minutes at the start of decision meetings, and we don’t want to hear from you again, in fact you are barred from interruption, during our various meetings, whilst we make up our minds and vote on what we will do – with the frequent arrogance that we don’t need your help thank you and we will only consult once in a blue moon). As to the individuals, just occasionally I had to tell myself I was not watching the Vicar of Dibley. OK, I will now come clean that I am a local Conservative, but I consider myself to have just as big an interest in our town and all levels of its community thriving – I don’t have to be an Independent to do that; the key again is in the individual. What is missing (and Frome just won’t elect Conservatives) is the influence of a Frome Conservative presence in the district and county managing group, which are both Conservative; but that is the result of our current first past the post system – strong government and decision making but less real representation of the population’s views. It is not surprising that Frome feels it is a bit left out at these levels and is a bit ignored (knowing my Conservative colleagues, this is a long way from the truth by the way, but they are now resigned to never pleasing the Frome management no matter what they do, so there is a quite a feeling of doing the best they can in the current very difficult local funding situation, with no longer worrying what Frome might think or feel or so it seems to me). But as someone much involved in the Community Plan as referenced by Peter, and no doubt one of the community members who tend to be most involved and therefore to be watched with caution, what has happened under Peter’s group over the last 4 years has been invigorating, a cause for optimism, worrying in some degree, and an interesting social exercise to watch the adage of “power corrupts” very considerably weakened but now beginning to take some effect again; not in any kind of corruption, just in a drift towards the same “you elected us, we decide” attitude. Although I cannot fault the Independents in that they stick to their commitment to let community voices be heard strongly and at any point during their council meetings. That being said, I have a particular hobbyhorse about the Independents spending every bit of money they can get their hands on to implement their projects, whether in their budget or not – and am predictably ignored, mainly because the Frome population are a bit supine on what is being spent, surprisingly so. But to end, I do so agree that the established council system does indeed have too many flaws for a modern, engaged, society, that wants to be more of a master of its own destiny at the local level. It will be a long haul to find an alternative, but it is better to do this whilst trying to work with the system to achieve things, and get it changed by sensible alternatives, rather than going out on a limb, which, for all its good achievements, our town council has a real risk of doing.

Peter Macfadyen
Peter Macfadyen
9 years ago

In responding to Charles’ postings I will deal directly with him on the Frome specific points. Here I would focus on one issue: Charles misses my fundamental point that at a parish/town level political parties are a real problem. In finding candidates they draw on a small membership; those people’s loyalties are divided; their potential as councillors is disguised in (national) party ideology and once elected they often vote as a block demeaning their own local knowledge. Finding and electing people directly connected – through improved methodologies of engagement and participation – to a much much wider population is the real challenge. I am all for ‘going out on a limb’ to show how this can be done – the time for tinkering is long past.

Charles Wood
Charles Wood
9 years ago

Sorry Peter, I didn’t miss the point; one part I disagree with and said so above, one part was not clear but is quite true. It is true that finding good councillors from a small party membership is a problem. This tends to be self regulating though, as membership numbers reflect support in the community and ultimately relates to numbers elected. E.g. In Frome Conservatives have been short of support, and therefore low in members and elected councillors. Peter’s group has been the opposite, hence their big majority. Peter is quite wrong about how party politics operates at town council level. There is little or no political dogma, no imposed policies from above, just people in a party – or even groups like his – who are so because they have common views on things and therefore tend to vote in a similar way. There is no whip, but the strong-minded might lead others in the group to vote in a particular way, unless they are strong minded enough to differ. Interestingly, one of the big factors that initiated the forming of Peter’s group was the way the council intended to change support, with across party support, for a valued community facility. This differed radically from how many in the community wanted the support to be applied, but the council members arrogantly refused to give the community any sort of voice in the decision-making. So it was the individuals, their views, and the way the council then worked that was the problem, not party politics or infighting. Peter’s group was formed to change this in Frome, and did so. I for one would not want to see the old ways return, as the IfF changes have been good for Frome and local democracy. Only time will tell whether their ambitious, and sometimes rather fringe, programme can be sustained, without their substantial borrowing causing a number of financial chickens to come home to roost at a substantial cost to precept payers pockets. But this still wouldn’t negate their substantial improvement to local democracy.

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