Local democracy is a competitive business: how can Create a Council be more engaging?

Last night’s event on why Londoners might wish to campaign for the equivalent of local parish councils brought home to me the gap between new and older forms of engagement and representation – and prompted some ideas on how to blend the two.

I’ve followed up my earlier post about the event with one over at socialreporters.net, where John Popham and I are blogging for the Big Lottery Fund People Powered Change programme. I’ve copied that below to save you some clicks.

As you’ll see there was a strong case, in principle, for new local councils as a way in which local people could have more control over their area, raise funds through a precept, and decide how to spend it. I found the people from the National Association for Local Councils (NALC) – who represent 9000 parish and town councils – very knowledgable and engaging. They had invited along some passionate enthusiasts for local councils to talk to us at the Coin Street Community Centre, were generous with the wine and nibbles, and well equipped with leaflets..

It was a great treat to see Ellie Stoneley, who is tweeting furiously for @createacouncil, along with her #unbornbaby, and then read afterwards about her trip to the smoke.

BUT … not many other people turned up, and if more had, I think that despite the hospitality they would have felt that it was still in the mould of Local Government. OK as a start, but probably not enough on its own to mobilise enthusiasm in London for local councils, where there’s plenty else going on.

As the recent Pathways through Participation showed, people engage locally because of their personal enthusiasms, not because of Policy. The research – over 2.5 years – involved over 100 interviews, and as Tim Hughes reports in the latest newsletter:

… there were no examples from our 101 interviews of local councils or other public organisations proactively engaging with individuals and groups to bring about change within an area. Instead, ‘opportunities to formally participate in the decision-making processes of public institutions [...] were restricted to reacting to (and usually against) changes proposed by a council or other public body.’ Therefore, for citizens this restricts the motivation for engaging in public participation to maintaining continuity within their communities, rather than as a way to improve them, and it immediately sets up a them-and-us scenario, rather than a collaborative relationship.

Will local councils be any different, or just there for the representative democracy wonks?

Part of my reason for writing about the Create a Council campaign was to compare and contrast with other local non-representative offerings on local democracy like Your Square Mile, hyperlocal blogs, Transition Towns, as mentioned in my earlier post. They do aim to follow people’s concerns and passions, and make events fun.

I think the @createacouncil programme offers NALC a chance to try and show that small, local councils needn’t be boring, so I hope they will bear with a few top-of-the-head suggestions.

I’m an enthusiast for the sort of workshop games developed with my friend Drew Mackie, and it wouldn’t be too difficult to create a format within which – over a couple of hours – people set up a local council, developed a plan, and then tested out what difference it made. Here’s what we did recently at the Community Matters conference.

As an alternative, for those who like more structured discussion, Perry Walker is developing Crowd Wise. There’s an event on November 9 on How should we reform the banks offering a demonstration. How about an event asking Londoners how they think local councils could bring something new to the mix: less selling, more co-design. Maybe even a Talkaoke.

Or we could at least have had some videos created by people who are engaged in local councils … something which is extremely easy to do these days. I took along my iPad, co-opted Fred Garnet to hold that while I wielded the mic, then went home and had them uploaded in a matter of minutes. You can do the same thing on a mobile phone. Maybe NALC could equip its staff to gather some stories from local councils on their visits – I’m sure there are some good ones, and @justingriggs is in the space already.

John and I are talking to Big Lottery Fund about how their staff can become social reporters, and learn the craft as part of their job. I’m sure NALC would be welcome, if they wanted to join in.

In order to get people along to a meeting it’s not only necessary to offer something, but go where they are with the invitation. These days that’s probably Facebook and local sites … so NALC might research who is online in London, and engage with them there. The invite could be just an opening offer – what’s important is to show you are willing to engage in conversation, not just say come to our place on a rainy evening.

As Leroy Simpson, from Harlesden Town Team, said last night, councils are tools for getting things done. They are just structures, methods – as are events. These days people have a lot more tools at their disposal, and council advocates should borrow a few of them if they wish to engage. These days local democracy is a competitive business.

I hope that NALC may be prepared to have a go at more engaging activities in the next stage of their worthwhile campaign. Any more ideas?

Previously posted at Socialreporters.net

One theme in our reporting about People Powered Change will be around the structures within which people can have influence and make decisions.

Your Square Mile – which is one of the partners in ppchange – invites people to become members of the mutually-owned organisation, and has said it aims to foster the development of thousands of local democracies as more people join YSM and engage in their communities.

But what about more traditional democratic structures? As I wrote the other day over on my personal blog, the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) – which represents parish and town councils – argues that that “if local people are elected by their community to influence and make decisions that will affect their own area, it will have significant impact on improving lives throughout the capital”.

NALC are using the slogan Power to the People.

In their media release of October 17 NALC suggest the engagement of people after the recent riots, in helping clear up their neighbourhoods, could be supported by new, small, local councils.

The creation of new local councils in London would give communities a voice and this in turn could help address some of the underlying causes of the recent London riots. Local councils have already been created in urban areas such as Leeds, Birmingham, Bradford and Milton Keynes and have helped address social issues caused by deprivation by providing community leadership and brokering relationships with Government at large.

Localism and the Big Society have been much heralded and discussed by the Government and the Prime Minister himself, prompting much debate from Whitehall to town and village halls. What better way to ensure local ownership of decisions, control of assets and to get people involved in their area than to genuinely give power to the people.

Until recently Londoners were not able to campaign for the creation of local, neighbourhood-level councils like those in parishes and towns elsewhere. Their “local” is the borough.

On Tuesday evening I went along to NALC’s Create a Council event, where we heard from several people about the possible virtues of additional smaller councils that would have powers to raise money and control some local services.

I talked to David Drew, who is chair of Andover Town Council, together with Justin Griggs from NALC. David explained Andover now has a five year plan, a programme of consultation on developments with local people, and more powers than previously available to decide the direction the town may take.

Justin says local councils could put people in the driving seat in London, and bring a greater sense of community to the capital.

One area considering whether to go for a local council is Harlesden, where campaigns have already brought many improvements and the creation of the Harlesden Town Team. I talked to Leroy Simpson, chair of the team, about the possible benefits of a new local council. He felt it was one option that would give people more ownership and governance over the improvements that they have achieved.

Not everyone agrees that more councils would be good for local engagement.

There was a lively Guardian-hosted online discussion last week on whether local democracy is in crisis, where Will Perrin, who left a senior civil service job in Whitehall to set up Talk About Local, promoting and supporting hyperlocal websites, was scathing at the start of the debate:

Local engagement structures are jarringly out of touch with the communications practices and life pressures of the modern citizen. Possibly only the courts and parliament have a greater whiff of the C19th about them.

In Kings Cross we have used a very basic website for many years now to help people access, understand and engage with local politics to make their area better. It’s run by citizens following things they are interested in and the council takes part. We discourage party political slanging and bad behaviour. http://www.kingscrossenvironment.com/

Will argues that tinkering with structures won’t make much difference: you need to follow where people are going, and for many that is online. He and others agreed that neighbourhood plans and budgeting are going to be an important focus for local discussion and decision-making. As I found the other day, talking to Richard Edwards, participatory budgeting is one way to both engage people on local issues and increase voting.

Later this week I’ll take a look at the Transition Network, that “supports community-led responses to climate change and shrinking supplies of cheap energy, building resilience and happiness”.

As Leroy said in our discussion, what’s important is looking at the options for greater people-powered influence, and deciding what’s appropriate in any community. Fortunately there are now quite a few.

Thanks to Fred Garnett for camera work with my iPad. I was using an iRig mic, which works well in noisy situations.

If you couldn’t make it to last night’s London event, there’s another one for up to 30 people on November 29 – sign up here.

2 Comments

  • October 27, 2011 - 9:45 am | Permalink

    Hi David,

    Hope well. Just to say thanks for taking the social media footage at the NALC Coin Street event on 25/10 – it was great and really helped NALC get some grassroots profile in the capital for creating new councils.

    Thanks again,

    Chris (Borg)

  • david wilcox
    October 27, 2011 - 10:08 am | Permalink

    Hi Chris – there were some great ideas at the event. Thanks for taking the further suggestions, on how to engage, in good part. See you next time.

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