‘Being a community minded sort of person, and feeling, like others, despite whatever various administrations of local and national government have said over the years, I don’t believe we get listened too’, writes long time community activist Marilyn Beale from Penhill.
We cheered when the last Labour Government brought in the ‘Real People, Real Power – Communities in Control’ Bill, in 2008, and worked tirelessly with others from around the town to see what we could make of that. Then the Conservative Government modified the proposed legislation into the Locality Bill.
Real People was supposed to give people more power over their own area, and the right to be listened to, i.e. actually take in what we said. I should point out that it also said that councils and councillors should give up/use some of their power and start representing the people that voted for them.
The Locality Bill was slightly different, it made it clear that we had more power. What it actually meant was we had more ‘power’ to turn out and do the councils/governments job for them, i.e. litter picking and befriending an elderly neighbour. But, it didn’t give us any better say when it came to our areas and no push to get councillors to represent our wishes or needs.
Somewhere in amongst the two Bills was a move to ‘Neighbourhood Management.’ Well, that didn’t take off either. Both the bill and move to Neighbourhood management, sort of meant that you go out to work to pay your rates and then come home and at weekends turn out to do the jobs for which you are paying those rates – if you get my drift. So that extra democracy wasn’t working via Locality.
They also, amongst other things, wanted us to write Neighbourhood Plans –and we felt most importantly, the opportunity to decide where any new built development (housing, employment) should be in our areas. This would incur a lot of work from volunteers; believe me, I attended the training session! Some areas did undertake this work and produced their own beautifully bound plans. I wonder how they are feeling about that now? I wonder if the plans are applied and what success they had in influencing the placing of developments?
What was forgotten, was that all of the above had a basic aim, to engage local people in their local area, to give them a push and interest in getting out to vote. Turn out numbers at all elections were way down, interest in politics is/was at an all time low and therefore the calibre of those standing for election was getting, well, I’ll leave that to your imagination and experience!
If you haven’t felt the need for improvements in interest, turn out and calibre, you’re living with your head in a bucket.
So now, in 2016, we have the idea of parishing parts of Swindon which are not already within a parish council area. Great I thought, this has got to give us more engagement and participation. It’s another level of local democracy, even if we have to pay a bit more and do a bit more. I’m not against volunteering so long as it enhances what local councils do.
But I can see one huge bug-bear with the idea. I have had two recent experiences with parishes. Although where I live is not parished, we are situated right alongside the boundaries of two parishes and my ‘area of interest’ is in two wards.
On the one side, within months of taking over a new area into the local parish, they blocked up a pathway used by all the surrounding areas, without consultation with anyone, other than those who lived very close to it – because they are their parishioners and the other users are not.
On the other border we have a play area, well used by our neighbourhood but just across the parish line from it. Quite a few years ago we actually negotiated this play space in a new housing development, so that our children had a flat green area and it would replace an aged play area that was about to be removed on our side. However, because of the perceived chance of vandalism. that Parish Council is not interested in taking it over from the borough and maintaining, despite its very close proximity to their own parish children that play there too.
We tried negotiating with our Swindon Borough Council neighbourhood workers to maintain it but were told ‘it’s not in our area’. It is now in danger of being taken out, not because of lack of use, not because of vandalism, but because it is the only Borough maintained play area in the middle of a huge housing development.
So maybe that extra democracy could be a real burden to local people who live on the edges, one side of the border not taking into account the other side of the border. In fact quite literally one side of the hedge might be cared for/carefully managed and the other not! If a stream marks your demarcation line, woe betide your services and facilities.
If the neighbourhood in which you live has had some future planning in place, will the parish that takes you in or live next to respect that?
I would like to see that real commitment to the democracy that those two bills referred to above was supposed to gain for us, that led to the parish idea. Surely the principles written into those pieces of proposed and actual legislation take precedence rather than the very obvious aim to save Swindon Borough Council money.
At what point is the spur to more democracy and an improvement in participation, going to be the main aim and legislation not manipulated to something else?