The Plums – easy wins to change your council’s focus

Councillor Peter Macfadyen

Most – if not all – town and parish councils will put some of their budget towards community groups and projects. The amount of money depends on two factors: Firstly, the council’s decisions around raising taxes and redistribution of funds and hence the size of the overall budget. Secondly, the extent to which the council’s ethos is weighted towards representing the community and acting for it, or acting in partnership. These two factors interact – the end result usually being somewhere on a spectrum where there is a degree of community spending and a certain amount of participation and engagement.

In Frome we recognised that many of the services that used to come from District and County would not remain in place with a central government policy of austerity. Given this, we’d need to provide for ourselves – but that the town council could not possibly do that work alone, so partnership was the only option. This is one reason we have chosen to put considerable resources into the voluntary sector. The other is that we recognised Frome already had a massive bank of expertise and experience which could – with the right support – do a better job than ‘service providers’ and if this work was truly owned by the community it would be far more likely to be sustained, with a range of benefits from the empowerment this brought about.

Over that same period we have raised the level of tax, but not significantly – certainly in real terms. What has changed is the proportion of budget spent directly or indirectly on both funding and working in closer relationship with the community. That has meant increased funding to the community, not simply through direct grants but also by providing staff time to enable groups to function better and be more able to attract other funds. This has been very successful with significant initial funding from a local philanthropist (channelled through a standalone community interest company); large and small lottery funds along with funds from trusts; and direct community funding which has bought land for community use and is invested in solar arrays on the health centre and football club. To achieve this, the town council has played a key initial role and provided some funds, though the vast majority has come into the town from outside, and has crucially contracted fundraising support for groups over the last six years.

Changing the relationship between the council and the community will be touched on in other papers and panels of ‘Breaking the Mould’, but it is important to make the link here. The tradition model in which the council sits remote and largely ignored until people want to complain or demand, cannot possibly provide fertile ground for the successful projects we need to foster.

Frome Town Council’s initial work to make the council an informal and welcoming place to come to, where ‘yes’ is the default answer not ‘no’, has been vital in establishing a new relationship. The People’s Budget and Public Panels, to define council strategy with community expertise, have taken this further – looking to cement that new relationship. This work continues to evolve, but the new relationship has provided the bedrock for many of the successful projects that have recently emerged in Frome. There are many examples of how this has worked, and below I cover two approaches:

The symbiotic relationship between Frome Town Council and Fair Frome.

As is painfully obvious getting elected does not necessarily mean councillors have skills or wise views. So at the start of every council meeting we invited people from the community from whom we might learn, choosing one issue at a time. Recognising that we needed to better understand the impact on the streets of ‘austerity’, we invited agencies to come which were working hands on with issues of poverty – welfare groups, the housing associations, and church and youth groups. They told a story which was, frankly, shocking. This led very rapidly to the council supporting the creation of a separate charity to focus on issues of poverty. FAIR FROME firstly took over the food bank, then added campaigning on poverty issues, and more recently furniture and white good provision. Crucially, they attracted around 40 new volunteers and a great bunch of trustees, adding to the pool – that includes town councillors – giving their time to the town. Connected in various ways are now the Community Fridge (which redistributes more than 4,000 of fresh food each month); the SHARE shop…… and now Frome Fair Housing, which has arisen from the community to help meet the housing crisis, as a discrete organisation with its own new group of enthused directors and volunteers.

Handing over control of activity.

The best example of this is probably the allotments. Six years ago the 10 year waiting list was instantly resolved by buying a field for 100 new allotments.

At the same time, the Allotment Society was given complete control of management and the rents collected. This has changed a power relationship in which the Society was in a position of regularly asking for help and funds, to one of genuine partnership with council help where it is really needed to an independent body. Again, this relationship frees up council staff time, while empowering and engaging members of the community.

Health Connections Mendip.

This pioneering project builds on the thriving voluntary community to develop a unique relationship between the Health Services and wider society. By using professional staff and a large number of volunteers to ensure people requiring health support are better linked into the community – especially when returning from treatment – Frome has seen hospital admissions fall by 17%, with a 21% reduction in costs, while emergency admissions across Somerset have increased by 29%, over the same three year period. The project has also catalysed a significant number of self help and support groups, which along with the rest, can take advantage of the council’s assistance.

Find out more about Health Connections Mendip.

The subtitle of the Picking the Plums panel in the Breaking the Mould programme is ‘Easy wins to change your council’s focus’. Ideally the changes we have made in Frome appear easy to the community and are therefore seen as accessible and replicable. But to describe re-engineering the relationship between a council and the community as ‘easy’ does not do justice to a long term policy of consistent work in this area. It has not been easy so much a well conceived. And it would not be true to suggest that Frome has fully developed this new relationship – in many ways we are at the early stages, continuing to make mistakes and learn from them, looking for new ways to strengthen the links and further blur the lines between the council and the people. The original premise that a key way to tackle austerity and take control of services would be through expanding and properly empowering the voluntary sector, has, however already been significantly successful.

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