Last week our MP Damian Green gave a presentation to the Kent Association of Local Councils (Ashford branch) in which he listed the powers that government has given borough and parish councils through localism:
- the Community Right to Build
- the Community Right to Land
- the Community Right to Challenge
- the Community Right to Bid
- Neighbourhood Planning
- the Community Infrastructure Levy
- and, last but by no means least, the General Power of Competence which enables local councils to do really anything that they would like to do so long as it’s within the law (borrow money, run a business, own a shop etc)
I applaud these initiatives as they do serve to give local communities more power over their own destinies. We can do things differently here in Wye, for example, to how things are done in Boughton Aluph or in Ashford. That is empowering and gives the potential for variety in how localities develop.
In theory, the local community should know best which initiatives it would most like to support. And here is the legislation to enable it to do so.
Wye is a progressive, close-knit community. We have embarked on a Neighbourhood Plan. We have taken on ownership of the Village Green (and the village loos..) We have also recently been in receipt of an Our Place grant. We therefore might be perceived as being at the forefront of localism.
So what’s the feedback to government?
Well… Councillor Bartley was also at the KALC meeting and he asked about money. Our Neighbourhood Plan has been largely funded out of parish council reserves. While the Our Place project itself is funded by grants, it might well give rise to initiatives for which the community will have to obtain funds. And the community has taken on responsibility for mowing and upkeep of the loos.
At the meeting there appears to have been discussion about raising the precept (and whether DCLG will put a cap on such raises), or whether individual initiatives would be funded through grants. The answer appeared to be ‘horses for courses’ depending on what one is trying to do.
That is both exciting and slightly worrying.
On the one hand, it really does mean that we could do whatever we liked. Let’s set up a mountain railway for example, or a ski-slope, or a community hot air balloon to get people to work. Come up with the idea, find the funders (easy for all of the above I’m sure you agree), and then just go ahead and build, purchase, create hot air.
But on the other hand, it does put a huge amount of pressure on a somewhat creaky local government machine. Wye currently has two (or is it three?) vacancies on its 11-strong parish council. The majority of councillors are standing down at the next election. It is currently not clear where replacements are going to come from – particularly now that the ‘thankless task’ has become even more onerous with the onset of localism. The hoops that we would have to jump through in order to exercise General Powers of Competence are therefore further away than ever.
There are also things that Wye has in common with other local councils around the country. Our council is overwhelmingly male. The majority of members are retired. Meetings are over-long and feature frequent bickering about small issues. Increasingly, as the electoral term has progressed, members have become disillusioned and resentful that council business takes up so much time.
Localism is a great idea but how can it work when the machinery of local government is so broken? I don’t think it can. Please repair the holes in the engine before you put petrol in the car.