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Localism and Urban Neighbourhood Councils

It is a source of frustration, though not surprise, to many that the silos of Government have not been broken down in the early stages of the Big Society roll out.

Government is currently hitting communities with new initiatives from all angles. Whether it is GP commissioning, free schools, Green Deal or neighbourhood planning it is the community at a local neighbourhood level that needs to respond. In urban areas the governance structures are mainly missing. The lack of a formal organised neighbourhood level structure that can attract people with the time and energy to help support and deliver these initiatives seems pretty fundamental.

Few businesses would attempt to roll out a new business model, never mind multiple new business models, without having a plan for its management structure and its sales channels but that is effectively what Government is doing with Big Society. Either urban areas haven’t been thought about (probably the case in relation to  neighbourhood planning) or the assumption is that structures will emerge and it wouldn’t be ‘localist’ to try and impose or even enable this process.

In Bermondsey we are struggling to get neighbourhood planning going although it has been a good week as the start of the process of collecting the issues the community wants us to cover has created a really positive buzz locally. A number of people here are also really committed to moving sustainability forward locally with initiatives like urban food growing, eco retro fit of buildings and even an outpost of the UK Green Film Festival being pursued. But we all only have so much time. There are 23,000 of us living in this roughly square mile between Borough High Street and Tower Bridge Road to west and east, and Old Kent Road and the Thames to south and north, but we all have jobs and lives and it is a major challenge to organise ourselves to get all of these really important initiatives going at the same time.

There is a local authority structure, called a community council, that covers an area about three times the size of our neighbourhood but it just doesn’t seem fit for this new purpose. It is party political which immediately alienates it from community activism and it is run as an arm of the local authority rather than as an organising structure for the community. A Parish council it ain’t.

I know Parish councils often get bad press as parochial and full of aged and out of touch nimbys but I also know that many of them are the opposite and of course they are generally operating in much smaller rural communities. A Parish council in somewhere like Bermondsey would be an amazing beast. We have huge numbers of amazing people in this neighbourhood and many of them would be happy to use their time and energy in a more formal and democratically elected structure.

It will be interesting to see whether the apparently rather tortuous process of parishing takes off in cities as a result of the pressures of Big Society. Communities in London have only had this right since 2007 and as far as I know, none have been formed. The process is relatively straight forward and should be completed within 12 months and starts either with a decision by the local authority to undertake a community governance review or with a petition of 10% of the population of the neighbourhood. It is explained in a helpful guide here http://tiny.cc/gpexa.

Of course this process takes power away from local authority politicians so it is easy to see why they might not have actively promoted it but it does provide for an interesting political battleground. Localism is a bit like regeneration politically. All the parties generally tend to compete to be the best at it. In relation to the creation of neighbourhood councils the ability to claim leadership lies with local authorities. It will be interesting to see if there is a council out there that puts itself at the front of the race to claim localism for itself by undertaking a community governance review.

Anyone want to take up that challenge?


9 Responses

  1. Interesting blog Chris. There has been a similar debate over on the Neighbourhood Planning Group on Linkedin where the question was posed: ‘what is a neighbourhood when it isn’t a Parish?’ A summary of the mammoth discussion that followed was produced and can be read here: http://tinyurl.com/45xtjvq. Lots of interesting things here, including some implications for the frontrunners

  2. The Localism Bill appears to have been designed for Tory voting rural areas that have long established Parish Councils.

    In some ways I can’t see the point of neighbourhood plans in cities. How much detail can you plan for? Most Council plans contain general policy goals/site allocations and developers often have their own visions of sites that can be judged in a planning application. If the people of Bermondsey want green retrofit buildings or a film festival they can do it now without planning permission, why wait for a plan to be drawn up?

    Surely a neighbourhood plan would be of most use in a rural area where a Parish Council wants to stop new wind turbines, housing, infrastructure etc.

    Sorry for being negative, perhaps I have missed something.

  3. For me, the crux of the Big Society is contained in one statement from Chris: “We have huge numbers of amazing people in this neighbourhood and many of them would be happy to use their time and energy in a more formal and democratically elected structure.” Brilliant – the community working together to achieve what’s best for their social, economic and environmental circumstances and well being. Just one problem with that – what happens in deprived neighbourhoods where there simply isn’t that level of interest or aspiration? It seems that there are two possible outcomes. One is that the Local Authority will be stymied and unable to implement anything because of a lack of neighbourhood support. The other is that Local Authorities will implement in these areas whatever they can’t implement elsewhere because other communities are more vocal, organised and understanding of their power and the processes to use it. Either way the deprived community is the loser. The fundamental role of the community in delivering the Big Society is crucial and could produce fantastic, well thought out and desired results with many beneficiaries – but I can’t help thinking that it’s a bit of a pipe dream that just won’t happen in reality. Please – someone tell me I’m wrong?!

    • Trouble is, Tina, you’re absolutely right! The theory sounds good, but….. It’s just like local comprehensive schools – great for those in a prosperous community, but not for those in deprived ones. And the Local Authority might be forced to spend money on the vocal areas, thus neglecting neighbourhoods which don’t have the time, energy or ability to organise themselves. We need our elected representatives to look after the whole area and bring it all up to a high standard. How can we force them to do that?

  4. I agree with Tina, and it sounds like this proposal is aimed at creating an enclave which includes the wealthy and gentrified parts of the area and excludes as much as possible the deprived areas and leaves them to Bermondsey Community Council and Southwark Council. The Community Council is actually very good – “it just doesn’t seem fit for this new purpose” looks like a polite way of saying it involves rather too many poor people.

  5. What’s the difference between nimbyism and localism? *Your* nimbyism; *my* localism?

  6. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that there’s a big volume of opportunity of aspects of public life for people to choose/not to get involved in. In theory it gives people a chance to decide what to prioritize. What needs to be guarded against though – which may be what you are getting at – is serried ranks of ‘facilitators’/’organizers’/outreach workers looking to achieve their targets; could = suffocation or a new contagion of paralysing partnership-itis.

    Sure you know it but the development of a Parish Council in Paddington, West London seems to be a space worth watching. http://bit.ly/l01Rue

  7. […] the time and energy to help support and deliver these initiatives seems pretty fundamental…..read on on his blog page Share and Enjoy: This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← […]

  8. […] interesting document references Neighbourhood Forums and makes the sensible suggestion, debated here previously, that they could develop into democratically accountable neighbourhood councils with a […]

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