Looking at Sussex from outside Sussex
A change of tone for this entry on the BLOG. My guest author is Crispin Moor from the Commission for Rural Communities and I am very grateful for his contribution:
“I spent two days in rural Sussex earlier this week testing the temperature of local democracy at the parish and town council level. I was accompanying my Chairman, Dr Stuart Burgess from the Commission for Rural Communities and also the Chairman of the National Association of Local Councils, Councillor Michael Chater.
It was a contradictory experience. We visited some tremendous examples of parish and town councils doing great things for their communities. For example, in Fishbourne and Kingston and Burgess Hill. We also spent some time at a rural primary school in Birdham and were inspired by its approach to sustainability and learning. We learnt that parish councillors, even of quite small parishes, can make impressive changes for the public good when they want to. For example, having the foresight and confidence to take out loans from the Public Works Loan Board to match fund Big Lottery and other funding to build and refurbish village halls. Or to stop waiting for action from cash strapped Highways Departments; and to pay for local traffic calming themselves. The cost to parish taxpayers was usually a few pounds on the precept per annum, thanks to long back periods and low interest rates. And in Burgess Hill the town council has taken on managing local roads from the county council and local environmental management from the district council. And they’re doing a great job at a good price. And are now delivering the same for a cluster of surrounding parishes. So, there is a lot to celebrate and promote to others.
Yet in our various discussions, with parish councillors and clerks, district and county councillors and officers as well as colleagues from AiRS and the Sussex Association of Local Councils, we were perplexed. We were puzzled why more parish councils did not aspire to achieve more. Why so many parish councillors could still get away with doing very little and representing their communities only when they wanted to stop something from happening (although representation to stop and prevent clearly has an important place).
Many of those we met thought that the parish sector might be at a collective point of decision. The challenges of the future are great. They included the coming public sector austerity (to reduce our national debt); our ageing rural communities; our lack of affordable housing and also big housing and other development pressures in many parts of the county; the opportunities of next generation broadband (and the dangers of not being part of that); the new South Downs National Park and more generally our complicated local government system. As one councillor remarked, when people complain about the council it would be nice if they knew which council they were complaining about!
So will the parish and town council sector embrace these changes and challenges? For the optimists (including myself) the future agenda for parishes will include many more parishes becoming Quality parishes and many more Parish and Town plans (community led plans), leading to action benefitting local communities. It will mean close links with the local voluntary and community sector; and more qualified clerks and a lot more training and learning within the sector. It will mean, despite some of the practical challenges, more joint and cluster working between parishes and more local management of services. Despite arguments about the merits of two tiers versus unitary local government structures we should look to more genuine co-operation and joint working with principal local authorities (building on the good practice that undoubtedly exists). If we are at some collective point of decision for the future direction of the parish sector, then maybe now is the ‘time to grow up’ time. Parish and town councils, as a whole, must be willing to take more responsibility and leadership for the well being of their local people. And yes, to use the precept and the Public Works Loan Board where there is local need and support.
It’s worth remembering that parish and town councils are the most un-reformed part of our local government system. They were set up in 1894 in pretty much the same way as they remain today. Reform probably lies within the sector itself, rather than waiting for national politicians and Acts of Parliament. So, in which direction lies the future for parish councils in Sussex?
My thanks to Jeremy Leggett for letting me guest blog here.”
Crispin Moor, Executive Director, Commission for Rural Communities