Terence Blacker: Parish councils and a quiet revolution

Tuesday 17 August 2010 00:00

The dawning of this new age of happy liberation from the state (or should that be "miserable betrayal by the state"?) has provided few greater surprises than the suggestion that the parish council, that whiskery old joke beloved of sitcoms like The Vicar of Dibley, will play an important part in the great revolution to come.

The idea emerges between the lines of a policy statement just issued by the Rural Coalition, a new body which speaks for a number of influential public and voluntary organisations including the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Local Government Association. When it comes to economic hardship and budget cuts, the coalition argues, people who live in the country will take the hardest hit.

The increasing cost of transport and the reduction in bus routes will affect anyone who has to travel to shop, work or even post a parcel. The job market within the rural economy is more fragile than ever. Now, according to the chairman of the Rural Coalition, Lord Taylor, the Government's new Community Right to Build programme is likely to provide a "do-or-die" moment for villages.

The requirement that at least 80 per cent of all local residents should approve the building of houses will create, says Lord Taylor, "not a right to build, but a right to block for a very small number of 'Nimbys'." It will divide communities. Instead, the important planning decisions should be made by the elected members of a parish council.

It is a sensible point, badly made. Behind the lazy, journalistic reference to Nimbys lies the awkward reality that those who care most about their communal back yard, campaigning against the closure of a post office or library, who pick up litter, who report farmers who grub up hedges – these are precisely the people on whom David Cameron's Big Society idea will depend. Almost invariably, the true Nimby is simply someone who cares about the community in which he or she resides and is prepared to do something about it.

In fact, it is not the selfishness of the few which will cause problems for the Community Right to Build scheme but a more general apathy. In the past, it has been difficult to prevent a cycle of social indifference being repeated generation after generation.

The average parish council is a perfect representation of that lack of involvement and interest. An elected body which has considerable powers over the way a neighbourhood is run, it is still something of a joke. Those who serve on it are thought to be – and indeed very often are – worthy, retired folk keen to do some community- minded good works in their twilight years.

If the Government truly wishes to unleash what it calls localism, its first step should be to enliven and invigorate parish councils. They have an image problem, being more closely (and wrongly) associated with the church or some vague voluntary body than being seen as part of local democracy. There needs to be more competition for places; at the moment there are so few candidates it is almost impossible not to be elected. The idea that councillors should be above the business of politics now looks rather odd, as does the casual co-option of an unelected replacement councillor if one happens to stand down between elections.

The Rural Coalition is right to warn of stagnation in villages, making the countryside, in Lord Taylor's words, "part dormitory, part theme park and part retirement home", but it is also under-estimating the energy and resourcefulness of those who have learned to expect little from central government.

Spreading the word of community involvement, David Cameron may have hit upon an idea whose time has come. Away from the big cities, there are signs people are beginning to appreciate the satisfaction of independence from government, of taking action rather than complaining. Where the Big Society meets the village hall, something interesting is happening. Having been marginal for too long in the political life of the nation, those who live in the countryside may be about to lead the way.

These dragons may need slaying

There has always been something distinctly whiffy about the TV programme Dragons' Den. It is not just that the set-up is unpleasant: a sweating member of the public with a business idea is sneeringly interrogated by a panel of sleek, smug millionaires whose brief seems to be to follow the humiliation-and-humour formula of reality shows. The financial basis of the programme seems more than a little ambiguous, too.

The BBC pays its well-heeled pundits to consider invitations to invest their own money in projects pitched to them. Much emphasis is put on the fact that the millionaires are risking their own capital. The programme is punctuated by loving, lingering shots of banknotes. If the investments make the experts more millions, we can safely assume not a single a penny is paid to the BBC which brokered it in the first place.

If, on the other hand, things go awry after the cameras have been switched off, the situation seems even murkier. A woman whose Dragons' Den experience led to conflict, misery and a nervous breakdown has been telling her story. An £80,000 "investment" turned out to be loan. There were endless problems in receiving the money. The "dragons" who had bought into the company sent in an invoice for time spent on it. A contract gave one of the investors a casting vote on all decisions. "I felt like a piece of raw meat, and that the vultures were all attacking me," she has said.

The BBC, predictably, has said the negotiations which took place after the programme were outside its remit. It seems that, just because it introduced those involved to one another and made a successful programme out of a deal which turned out to be rather less than it seemed, there is absolutely no reason for it to bear the slightest responsibility for what happened later.


For further reading: Commission for Rural Communities, http://ruralcommunities.gov.uk

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