Fascinating talk on Flatpack Democracy
‘The political system at the national level is defunct’ stated Peter Mcfadyen speaking to the second public meeting organised by the Salisbury Compass group on Saturday 21 October 2017. Peter is the author of Flatpack Democracy and is a member of a group of independents who have transformed the politics of the small town of Frome in Somerset. Frome is one the poorer parts of Somerset and sits in the top corner of the county distant from County Hall in Taunton.
The need for a functioning local democracy is needed more than ever now he said as a result of several years of austerity. Following the cuts money is no longer coming down from the county. Many local services funded by the county have seen funding reduced or withdrawn yet the needs are still there or are even greater. Added to which, fewer and fewer people want to be involved in local democracy for a variety of reasons: there is no money; there seems little they can do, and it is hidebound by party politics. Although there were some ‘independents’ who stood at elections, they were often those thrown out by one of other of the established parties. Many elections were uncontested or had no candidates at all. There was also a lack of ambition.
They realised there was a need for a new approach. They did this by rethinking the basic ways of running a town (parish) council. Firstly, to get rid of large numbers of the ‘standing orders’. These were procedures – familiar to anyone with contact with local councils – which can have the effect of stifling activity: things like requiring people to give notice if they want to speak and limiting their contributions to a few minutes. Some standing orders have to be retained – audit for example – but many served no useful purpose and belonged to a previous age. They also got rid of the committee structure. Frome had 9 subcommittees and the town clerk spent most of his time preparing agendas and minutes for them, not doing useful work.
They also employed good people (and they were lucky to engage some staff that Wiltshire Council had made redundant). They employed a resilience officer to focus on green and sustainability issues. They tried hard to get functioning democracy to work at the local level. At the start of some meetings, they invited someone with knowledge of a particular subject to speak on it. One such was on poverty and rough sleepers. Another topic discussed concerned loneliness and wellbeing – not the sort of thing one would expect to hear at a town council meeting. Where possible, they delegated power down to organisations such as the Allotment Association, and bought land for them to manage themselves.
Secondly, they spent time on agreeing a set of basic values and this lay at the core of what they did in Frome. For example, a commitment to consult more and changing the culture from an instinctive ‘no’ to a proposal or idea, to ‘yes’ if at all possible. Visitors to Frome will be familiar with the Cheese and Grain building adjacent to the car park which had lain idle for many years. They borrowed £½m to refurbish the building and it is now a thriving community centre. Communication was a major theme and they employed a communication officer. They established panels to ask ‘what should we be doing?’
Following Peter’s presentation, there were a number of questions from an audience of 25:
- One questioner said that conservatives were about creating wealth and socialists were about spending it. He did not hear anything in the talk about wealth creation. Peter said that they had revitalised the breakfast meetings of business people and around 50 or so attended these now whereas previously they were largely moribund. They had created the Frome curated market. The question depended of course on what ‘wealth’ meant as distinct from creating profits.
- Would they do it differently a second time knowing what they know now? They would approach the District Council in a different way. They did not have a happy relationship with the District who were often unhelpful. Things about Frome were put to the bottom of the pile by them and several initiatives have been frustrated.
- Did he think the Frome approach could be scaled up? He thought not. There was a need for policies at the national level and their approach would not work on a bigger scale.
- There was a question surrounding Men’s Sheds and repurposing retirement which led onto a general discussion about involvement. Peter said ‘we have allowed politicians to take politics from us and there was a need for more engagement.’ A big help had been the 2011 Localism Act which although it did not live up to expectations, did provide some impetus to their activities.
This was a fascinating talk by someone who is part of a group of people who have adopted a radically different way of doing politics at the local level and who found the existing party system to be moribund and ineffective. While money flowed from County hall the system might have continued to work as it always did. Following austerity however, and the relentless cutting of services, there was a need for local people to get engaged and do something for their community. For many, the notion of national politics being played out in town and parish councils is seen as absurd and the way they have gone about doings things in this town seems to have demonstrated that.
The ideas have caught on and there are other towns taking on a similar approach. Could such an approach could work here in Salisbury …?
Peter’s book is available here