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What’s the difference between a parish council and a trade association?

Robert AshtonI recently spoke to what I initially saw as two quite different audiences. The conferences took place on consecutive days and so comparison between the two was inevitable.

The first event was a group of 60 rural parish clerks in Norfolk. They wanted my take on localism, and specifically to hear what opportunities I saw for their councils. As you might imagine I was quite outspoken; I see the localism act as a great vehicle for sustainable rural social development, but unfortunately nobody tells you where to find the key. I think they got the message!

The second event was the Trade Association Forum’s annual conference in central London. Here I faced more than 100 people running membership organisations. Between them they represent vast number of businesses both large and small. They too faced tremendous opportunity, because as I explained, they had the ability to collect together groups of otherwise hard to reach businesses. This can make it possible for members to take part in skills and enterprise development initiatives they’d probably otherwise miss out on.

And so to the similarities; both trade associations and parish councils represent their respective ‘memberships’. Both lobby for what their constituents want and need. Both are democratic and hold elections. Both are also funded by subscription, although of course you can’t opt out of paying your parish precept!

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, both have the ability to lead on new community enterprises and initiatives. Parish councils can lead on saving their village pub, controlling local development and even raising funds for a new village hall using the exciting but underused ‘community right to build’ programme. Trade bodies can do the same, setting up new social ventures that benefit their members.

Of course the only real difference is that a parish council is a statutory body and a trade association entirely voluntary. But that should not make a difference to the enthusiasm applied by either to meeting stakeholder needs and exceeding member expectation!

I’m reminded of Chambers of Commerce I’ve visited on both sides of the North Sea. Membership is compulsory in the Netherlands and voluntary in the UK. I’ve heard members argue for and against both models in both countries. It’s human nature to complain, whatever the deal!

And so to my conclusion, having reflected on both conferences and the conversations I had their and since. We’re living though something of a revolution, where power is being devolved to those at the grassroots. Sure it also means taking responsibility and if budgets are involved, they’re never big enough. But the fact remains that organisation, elected to lead any community, be it households, businesses or voluntary groups, has to do just that; lead!

Nobody tells you what’s possible, you have stop doing more of the same old stuff, listen to your audience and lead audacious and sustainable change. That gets my vote. Does it get yours?

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