Councillor Mel Usher
Emerging roles for Parish Councils
I want to talk about the role of parish councils in the future. I have no special skills to do this, I have been a parish councillor for 7 years, some of you will have been around much longer. I have however asked throughout my short career….why do we do this and that’s the question most PC’s should be asking themselves.
Rather than waiting for others to tell us what to do, now is time for this sector to seize the opportunity to shape it’s own future. We need to look ahead positively, maybe even rediscover the role of the original civic entrepreneurs such as Josephs Chamberlain and Rowntree.
But to do this we need to forge a new social contract with citizens, to reinforce and restore people’s faith in local democracy as a progressive and vital institution… and make no mistake parish/town councils are right at the coalface of that local democracy.
But councils and councillors will need new a new mind set to do this successfully ….more , much more, ambition, less emphasis on formal networks, greater participative democracy , better engagement with all of our constituents, a thirst to winkle out new talent as councillors and a broader more dynamic influencing role.
Many of these possibilities will be addressed throughout the day.
I want to start off however by making an assessment of where we are now…as a sector.
The Sector. 5 Points
Learning as a sector
Short answer, we don’t. How many of you see the Nalc magazine? Hands up?
There are 10000 parish councils and 100000 parish councillors and we are fiercely independent, often in an odd “ if it wasn’t made here it can’t be any good” way .
So that’s the first point…how do we learn good practice and help one another? And that’s one of the things we hope will emerge during the day.
We often lack confidence as councillors and slot neatly into the hierarchy with the CC (or unitary) at the top, districts next and then us…..we are here in this lowly position, they think, because we can’t make the grade at one of the other two tiers. And yet most parish councillors I know work harder and longer hours, have to face their public much more and have a better grasp of local issues than anyone else.
So its important that we feel confident to step up to the mark.
We don’t really reflect the population at large. Most meetings I have attended have been dominated by the middle aged/elderly and by white men. I am not criticising that, we put in a lot of hours….but how can we expect to be relevant to the young, the unemployed , single mothers under such circumstances….it’s like asking a blindfolded man to navigate a maze.
So its important that we break out and find new talent.
Lets just have a quick poll stand up if your council has 25% women, upto 50% women, more than 50% women.
Rethink our role
How many of you think your district or CC provides better services than 5 years ago?
Most districts and counties have lost 40% of their funding, they employ less than half the staff in some cases, they have withdrawn many services valued by the public especially neighbourhood services. And and this is the important point none of it is coming back, this is not a temporary blip we can ride our way through this by keeping our head down. The party is truly over.
The first sign has been that the other tiers want to dump as much as possible on us as soon as they can. Suddenly we are of interest. The question we have to ask ourselves is do we really want that highway verge or could we invest our money better elsewhere.
Are we forever locked into the traditional service areas of allotments, bus shelters and grass cutting?
Is it more of the same or are we going to rethink our role?
Sometimes we are our own worst enemy with Trumpton mayors, wigs and cloaks for Clerks, truly bizarre procedures and rules and a complete misunderstanding of our role. This is a communication business and yet we seem to go out of our way to exclude people. How can we be relevant if many things we do look and feel so alien and out of place?Don’t thinks so?
Ok I’ve got that lot off my chest.
What’s to be done? 5 Points
Building a Civic Platform.
Making best use of the General Power of Competence.
Should we see our locality as a system in which we provide what I am calling a multi purpose civic platform on which much is built or co-ordinated. So we might not want to build an organisation exclusively to deal with the internal affairs of the council but one that has an external perspective based on a rethink of our role.
To do this we need to turn ourselves inside out…. so we are seen as the place where not just council stuff can happen, where “yes” is heard more than “no”, where real issues come to the surface, where “your voice is as important as mine”, where “doing”is more important than “tradition”, where there is a clear idea of where we are heading even if we are not quite sure yet how we are going to get there.
This is sometimes hard to grasp so let me give you a few examples;
- addressing topical local issues as they arise
- distributing power and money to local volunteers, charities etc. 20% in our case
- advocating for those less well off
- building relevant databases of needs and resources like volunteers
- promoting and running alternative systems of provision for example around transport
- generating new ideas by bringing people together in effective formats
- engaging more people in decision making and create new sources of funding
- ..around this platform circle the next 4 elements.
Using our democratic legitimacy……people voted for us……we can ask fundamental questions like “what is this community”, “what unique problems do we face” “where do we want to be in 5/10/15 years time”, “how are we going to get there” ,and “how much do you want to engage in this thinking” and “ crucially how much are you prepared to pay”
Why shouldn’t we have high expectations for ourselves, our parish our street. Encouraging residents to feel involved, good about themselves and committed to where they live should be a significant part of our function. And people do want to be involved…. but at a local level…….. they care about their street, their neighbourhood, their town.
They now also expect to have a say. And why not? Local decisions are often the most sensitive and best made collectively.
Civic leadership is not about internal organisational matters but about….. connections, oiling wheels, breaking down barriers, building trust, innovating, having an entrepreneurial spirit.
Its also about enabling and supporting the work of others. We must find , celebrate and spread good examples of individuals from all walks of life and organisations from all sectors in order to inspire others to do the same and more.
The new era requires a new “civic leadership” culture to replace the hierarchical and formulaic one that so often produces meetings, reports and inertia rather than action to improve people’s lives.
We are marooned in a local govt environment where we are often poor at the one thing we should excel at….the relationship with our citizens..
We should be bending over backward to engage with people, embracing all of social media, listening to and hearing what people say, involving communities in decisions, breaking down barriers, sweeping away practices that hinder communications and being humble…..recognising that parishioners as individuals are quite as likely to have a solution to a problem as we have.
Perhaps just as importantly we need to share power and influence taking calculated risks . None of which we are famous for and not something that happens much in other walks of life either
96% of pop aged 16-34 have a smart phone. 57% aged 55 plus use a tablet to go online. Staggering stats.
People change places….. and its civic entrepreneurs who permeate businesses, communities, councils and charities who change towns and parishes for the better.
All communities big and small, and I include here even the smallest parishes, have a variety of individuals, volunteers, philanthropists, interest groups and public bodies who together make up the rich tapestry of local life
Who helps them to see the wider picture, who helps them to get on with the job they really set out to achieve, who identifies glaring gaps and helps to co-ordinate actions? Who tickles them into action? Who provides them with the skills and resources to be successful?
Surely our aim should be to create the conditions that help the community to flourish; where individuals can influence events around them, where there are strong local connections and support networks and where we can create a sense of belonging.
So does the council seek out and nurture those individuals who can stand up and be counted ….and closer to home for all of us…how do we search out, encourage,select and develop local councillors who can make a meaningful contribution?
Civic funding….It’s not “our money”
The precept is money we raise locally…..for our community….not just to run the council. It is spent locally by local organisations (not just the Council) for the benefit of local people. What’s not to like about that? On the day a decision is made to raise more local tax perhaps we should have celebrations, whooping on the streets, it shows we are concerned about one another.
Just to prove a point last year 20% of our budget was used by others in the form of grants, crowdfunding, the peoples budget and so on. Many of these users double or treble what we give them and draw in hundreds of volunteers (all of whom gain from being involved). Without us that would not happen, other institutions are just not close enough to the ground.
The power to change all of that is in your hands ..but ensure that funding too is used as a resource for change.
Its a hackneyed phrase but the world is changing fast. You only have to think about environmental changes, the fragility of our communities, the rise and rise of social media, the changes that Brexit will bring, the death of local government as we know it, the struggles of the NHS, the hollowing out of the state, ageing demographics and the desire for people to be heard and able to influence events that unfold around them. I could go on but essentially how do we build more resilient communities that will be able to withstand the shock of the unknown?
None of this can be delivered top down, most answers, where there are answers can only be found locally ……and there is no more local than us. Through adversity there is opportunity, if we get our act together we may be able to fill some of the holes, take the pleasure of achieving something in our own community and have some fun.
So I leave you with a question which I want you to think about throughout the day.
Are you ready to step up to the mark?
And if you can’t Mark Twain will be proved right “If you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.”