A quiet revolution

By Jonathan Werran | 09 January 2015

Tucked on the fringes of Bloomsbury, between London’s Tottenham Court Road and the British Museum, the office of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), seems the unlikely setting for revolution.

Which is not to say that this parish of London lacks a track record.  Karl Marx wrote his influential tract Das Kapital in the British Library, then located like NALC in Great Russell Street.  

Clearly, the influence has rubbed off on NALC chief executive, Jonathan Owen.

‘I think there is a quiet revolution taking place in the sector,’ Mr Owen tells The MJ.

He explains: ‘One million people are trying to set up new councils.  

‘We have a whole new raft of powers and responsibilities coming our way as principal authorities try to devolve services down as a result of austerity.’

‘We have got the whole Scottish question and we really have got to make people aware of that quiet revolution.’

According to Mr Owen, great change is required to get the whole of England parished.

At the moment, around 30% of areas have parish or town councils which control £1bn of public expenditure, making them significant community investors.

NALC’s constitution commits the body to getting the whole of England parished, an aim which has the support of the main political parties.

Five new parishes have been established in recent months, including one in Queen’s Park, in the northern reaches of Westminster City Council, the first new local council in London for 60 years.

Other large urban areas, including Bristol, Leeds and Manchester are also seeking to set up parishes. Currently, 140 communities are campaigning at various stages to establish parish councils.

Mr Owen sees the process as one of natural and dynamic growth.

‘We need to be working to a 10-year target for getting 100% of England parished,’ he says.

He believes this is achievable, desirable and would make a great difference.

Achieving this revolutionary goal will require a bit of breathing space to think about where parishes need to be by 2040 and the sort of skills, powers and capacity the first tier of government would require in the next two to three decades, Mr Owen says.

Academic research is being used to build the evidence base for how the sector should be strengthened and positioned in 20 years’ time – amid continued societal and technological change – to ensure it has a relevant role in supporting strong communities.

NALC’s manifesto argues for three principal sector demands: stronger local democracy; fairer funding and more powers.

It sets out tangible goals for making it easier to set up parish councils, a national democracy fund to support elections at first-tier level and a share of business rates to support economic development. 

NALC’s manifesto also seeks a parish councils Bill to simplify and streamline more than 100 separate pieces of statute law covering several hundred pages.

Mr Owen says the rules and regulations affecting the sector are difficult to follow and prove a big barrier to people getting involved in parish councils and having the freedom to deliver for their local communities.

To drive this quiet revolution NALC has its work cut out getting a strong message across and sharing its achievements with the political parties, think tanks and the media, Mr Owen says.

NALC also needs to do more to mobilise its troops on the front line, encouraging towns and parish councils to engage with social media and the wider community.

A second stage is to develop the sector’s capacity to ensure it can deliver on the new powers it is seekers and attract capable leaders able to drive localism further.

To this end, it is introducing a new local council award quality scheme, in partnership with government and the Local Government Association (LGA) to improve standards and make it easier for powers to be devolved. This latter aim takes on increasing importance, Mr Owen states, given the need to protect services that principal authorities are likely to forego in the next five years.

This is Mr Owen’s first foray into first-tier government.  

Previous experience in local government saw him director at Ipswich BC, working at Havering LBC, Suffolk CC and Local Government Association predecessor bodies, the associations of County Councils and District Councils.

He hopes to use his experience to support his colleagues, including 80,000 parish councillors and a number of officers, in arguing the case to make the sector stronger, more effective and better respected.

His experience of being responsible for Ipswich’s customer services taught him the importance of getting out and about to listen and learn from what is happening on the frontline.

Mr Owen is amazed at the passion and commitment at parish level, and the ability to take small but decisive actions, such as moving a bus stop by a few metres to ease town centre traffic congestion, that have a major impact on people’s everyday lives.

‘If we can see that collective political action can result in change, we might become a bit more reassured that it’s right to be involved in local democracy,’ Mr Owen says.

But as well as politics with a small ‘p’, NALC is keen to have its own dog in the devolution fight, as evinced by its vocal demand for a non-political commission to ensure the impact of Scottish devolution also benefit English localities.

‘It’s not just about national devolution, but devolving to the lowest appropriate level,’ Mr Owen says.

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