Very local councils are empowering local people, making a difference locally and already building the Big Society according to a series of leading localist Parliamentarians speaking at the recent Conservative Party Conference in Manchester.
The packed audience heard contributions from Nick Hurd MP, Minister for Civil Society, Rory Stewart MP, Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on local democracy, Micah Gold from the Big Society Network, NALC Chairman Councillor Michael Chater as well as Minister for Decentralisation Greg Clark MP talking about the Big Society and the crucial role of local (parish and town) councils.
The event also saw the launch of a new policy pamphlet – What is Big Society? – featuring a series of essay by parliamentarians and other key thinkers on the Big Society who underline the growing importance of the first tier of local government.
Speaking at the fringe event Councillor Michael Chater said: “The Big Society is not a new concept for our local councils. They are made up of around 80,000 locally elected people who have decided to give up some of their time to work together for the common good of the area they live in. They have helped pioneer ‘localism’ and ‘Big Society’, hence we support efforts by the Government to shift power to a more local level through the Localism Bill and aspirations to see more local councils established as set out in the Open Public Services White Paper. Whether the collective efforts of our local councils are labelled as Big Society or whatever, our local councils always have been doing it – and making a real difference to people and communities – and they’ll certainly be doing even more of it in the future.”
Nick Hurd MP said: “I know parish councils are keen to do more and I’ve seen and heard some brilliant examples of your innovation, but I know there are issues about capacity and support. We are keen to address this and look at how we can help, be it with principal authorities who don’t get it and are blocking and getting in the way, or to help you take on new powers and opportunities. Make no mistake, this government is absolutely serious about doing something Governments aren’t good at, and that’s giving up power.”
Rory Stewart MP said: “The very exciting part of what we’ve been engaged in over the last year and a half is realising that so many of the criticisms flung at the Big Society have been misguided. I have been told that the kind of projects we’ve been involved in won’t work because communities don’t want them, communities can’t do them, communities ought not to be allowed to do them. The view is that they should be done by experts. This is wrong because communities prove again and again that there are certain kinds of projects where communities know more, care more and can do more than distant experts. Big Society matters because for some issues the community brings something that distant experts can’t. For us in Cumbria Big Society is about communities represented democratically through their parish councils. If Big Society is about anything, it’s about recognising that communities have that spirit, that will, that ability to do things that other people can’t do. Whether it’s working out how to organise the community pub buy-out, designing the neighbourhood plan, thinking through affordable housing or where to lay fibre optic cable, what communities want is the ability to get on with it, to use their common sense, to be trusted rather than micro managed.”
Micah Gold said: “Some of the biggest challenges lie in what principal authorities need to be doing. Notoriously they don’t tend to give up power or trust people. Often they are not trusted by local communities and are part of the cause of apathy. In order to create a Big Society we need to see a step change to involvement, it’s about changing the relationship and instead of seeing the person as a service users, we need to see them as a citizens every time, we need to engage citizens at scale, moving relationships from service users to citizens, engaging the front line and changing the choice architecture for citizens. This is about local people really having genuine influence.”
Local government minister Grant Shapps MP sets out his support for local councils in his essay in the new pamphlet: “Parish councils are living proof that small is beautiful. The practice of neighbours coming together to decide how to administer local services and improve their area remains vital to the future of our democracy. As we look to the future, Government is committed to helping parishes – and other forms of neighbourhood democracy – thrive. I see every prospect of parish councils continuing to grow in importance and prominence in the years to come, matching a long and rich heritage with a bright and busy future.”
James Morris MP writes: “Potentially a large network already exists to boost the Big Society revolution further: parish councils. They have the undoubted potential to make a difference. Now is the time for citizens, councils and communities to step up to the challenge, grasp the nettle and deliver the benefits which the Big Society can bring.”