Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The rise of the parish council - the Tory "localism agenda"

"... But with the principal authorities that oversee housing, rubbish collection, education and other essential services across the country making cuts and sharing functions or even merging, there are calls for greater neighbourhood organisation. If budgets for libraries, swimming pools and parks are to be cut with unpaid volunteers – the "big society" – expected to step in and take over, there must be a way of holding new service providers to account.

Conservative MP Rory Stewart, who chairs an all-party group on local democracy, and deals with 105 parish councils in his Cumbrian Penrith constituency, says these ultra-local councils are "vital" if the government's decentralisation agenda is to work. "If the big society is about something distinctive, it is about local democracy," he says. "It's about communities organising themselves and if government is going to interact with those communities and make assets available to them, those communities need a degree of legitimacy."

Advocates believe parish councils enhance democracy, as well as accountability. Elections are often timed to coincide with other local elections. There is a tradition of putting aside party politics, but some candidates will stand on a party ticket as in any other election.

"You are much more in touch with your electorate because of the size of the area you are representing. What people want to see is that you can make a difference to their lives," says former Labour MP David Drew, a parish councillor for 24 years in Stonehouse, Stroud in Gloucestershire.

Fordham says "every planning decision made locally is better than a decision made far away", and that community politics offers a way for people turned off by party politics to get involved.

But the transfer of assets from principal authorities to community councils also presents challenges. Clearly, there needs to be careful oversight of any negotiation between a big authority with a professional finance director whose job is to offload costs, and a group of enthusiasts who fancy running the youth club.

Findlay says the devolution of services without accompanying budgets is a "big problem" for parish councils. And they seem unlikely to catch on in Labour-voting urban areas if people see them as providing cover for a shrinking state.

There is a danger of nimbyism too, for example with objections to the building of new homes. "Parish councils have a responsibility to think about things that happen outside their parish boundaries and to think about the minorities within them," says Stewart. "Democracy is not supposed to be about selfish majoritarian interests." "


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