by Councillor Michael Chater OBE – Chairman, National Association of Local Councils
All too often in recent years the debate and narrative around community empowerment, Big Society, localism and the future of local government and public services has overlooked or merely scratched the surface of the role of local (parish and town) councils.
Whilst successive Governments have aimed – successfully in some instances, less so in others – to set out a vision, policy framework and series of tools and levers to develop the potential of our first tier of local government, there tends to be a feeling that more could be done. It is also true that sometimes local councils themselves could react and respond more dynamically to this rapidly changing policy context and to local needs and aspirations.
The National Association of Local Councils is the nationally recognised membership and support organisation representing the interests of around 9,000 local councils and their 80,000 local councillors in England. We have long supported the notion of devolution and a fundamental shift of power to councils, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals. That’s why we so strongly hold the view that empowered local people coming together to take more responsibility for their community through local councils is a tried, tested and trusted model of grassroots neighbourhood action.
Local councils serve electorates ranging from small rural communities to large towns and small cities, are all independently elected and raise a precept (a form of council tax) from the local community. Over 15 million people live in communities served by local councils – about a third of the population – and over 200 new local councils have been created in the last 10 years or so. The most local level of our democracy works tirelessly to be the voice of and represent the local community, providing services to meet local needs and working to improve quality of life and community well being.
Put simply our sector is full of brilliant people doing brilliant things to make a difference.
Fuelled and driven by what their people and communities want, local councils take social action which makes a real difference. They can achieve outcomes for their respective very local societies – often working closely with principal authorities – in ways that are unique, diverse and effective. Whether it is helping to run the local library; working with local schools; saving the pub or Post Office; providing leisure, sports and recreation facilities; organising community galas, shows and events; working with and often providing funding to local voluntary groups; coming together with business to support economic development and prosperity; delivering community broadband solutions; local councils at their best are standard bearers for community empowerment and localism in action.
That is why I have been proud to serve them as the chairman of their national body and advocate their interests – and those of communities and people more widely – on a national stage with Government and other organisations. I’ve welcomed much of the Government’s localism agenda and more latterly their ideas around open public services. The Localism Act provides some very welcome tools for local councils in particular to respond to the needs of local people, especially the new general power of competence. Long overdue reforms to the way local councils can make payments are also hugely welcome, as are initiatives to provide support and investment at the local level to encourage the take-up of the new community rights and neighbourhood planning.
But we really must start thinking about the future of local councils, and asking what next for localism?
We need to think about whether the current policy, legislative and financial frameworks are right, and what can be done to improve them.
We need to work out what support is needed to really unlock the capacity and potential of local councils – including everyone working in and around them – and what can be done to enhance their delivery capability and productivity.
More than anything we must come up with radical new ideas to help hyper local democracy truly flourish into the future. The Localism Act does not mark the end of our ambitions for local councils, it marks the start of the next phase. This might mean new powers, reform of old ones, red tape swept away, more investment in some initiatives and less in others, radical changes in practice and procedure, much more innovation and creativity.
I’m delighted to be working with the All Party Parliamentary Group on local democracy and its Chairman Rory Stewart MP to kick start this debate through our ‘What next for localism?’ inquiry.
We want this discussion to be open, transparent and inclusive – that’s why we’ve set up this microsite.
We want to hear from everyone with an interest and passion for local democracy and neighbourhood action – be they involved locally or nationally.
We want to hear your ideas to help shape the future for local councils and help us answer the question – what next for localism?
NALC has also published a short pamphlet – available on the homepage – aimed at kicking off this debate which includes a series of essays from parliamentarians, think tanks and others sharing their ideas and thinking. I look forward to hearing your ideas too in coming weeks and months.