Metroland, and its home counties equivalents, is a victim of its own success. These are anywhere lands, where the existing cultural identity of the indigenous settlements has almost been extinguished, by a homogenous blend of identikit development, carried out since the interwar years. Would more devolution of local government to town and parish councils improve things?
In 1929, Clough Williams-Ellis, wrote a polemic called England and the Octopus. The octopus of the title is London, then extending its tentacles of suburban housing along all its arterial roads. This was the decade when the Council for the Protection of Rural England was founded in 1926 to limit urban sprawl into the countryside. As a Welsh architect, Williams-Ellis designed the Italianate town of Portmeirion. He was also part of a movement to conserve notable rural buildings. In his time, he was right to campaign against urban sprawl, that leaves communities bereft of coherent social structures. How much more so today, where some types of housing development can maroon the house-dwellers in maze-like streets with no social centres or focus.
One way in which community identity may be preserved is the formation of Town and Parish Councils. What powers do they have? They create the neighbourhood plan and have guardianship of common land, of unclassified highways and footpaths. They are consulted over appointments to the governing bodies of schools and local charities. The formation of such a council is optional. Some towns and villages have a strong enough identity and ancient heritage to form such a council and others, especially in housing sprawl areas, just do without.
There is a social void, not filled by the substructures of central government, which have become ever fainter and weaker because of years of continual austerity. The local voice is often drowned out by managerialist speak, which tries to manage decline, and does not increase wellbeing. Managerialism from the centre has created a situation where housing is built, but infrastructure both environmental and social fails to follow from the construction of dwellings. My story on the post local election fallout in Kent (link), describes the dysfunction and concern expressed in a part of Southern England, because of Whitehall top-down decision making.
The proposal to create a directly-elected mayor for Kent + Medway, shows just how out of touch some of our local elites really are. Devolution is not centralising everything on Maidstone, it is instead handing down power, responsibility and resources down to the lowest level possible.
In many parts of England, the humble Town + Parish Council is the local voice, and to some extent is the identity, or at least represents it in some form. There are 10,000 Town + Parish Councils in England, and they come in all shapes and sizes. They range from giants like Salisbury and Shrewsbury, to minnows based on village communities. In Kent, there is Tenterden (population 7,764), Hythe (population 14,000) and Ramsgate (population 44,000). There are 13 parish councils in Surrey.
The giants have multi million pound budgets, the minnows under £10,000, yet all abide by the same rules, most of which date from the 1890s, through to the mid 1970s. Like Topsy, these bodies have grown in number, and in some cases, economic power, because there has not been a proper plan for devolution to England. Forming a parish council has been the default option for inhabitants when faced with a tide of centralisation.
‘Dibley’ parish council
If I were to ask you what thoughts the words Parish Council would summon up, what would be your response? It is even betting that the word ‘Dibley’ would be the response. Unholy row over ‘Vicar of Dibley parish council’ is the sort of headline that is evoked by those wishing to keep power within their own remit. When a community suggests that they might like some small say in running their own affairs, the local great and good sometimes point to the fictional Dibley, with its crew of farcical bunglers, as being typical of a parish council. Why individuals with often only limited knowledge of local government would describe 10,000 councils in England, as all being Dibleys is beyond understanding, unless of course, they have some self-interests to protect. The UK is full of cases where self-interest has trumped reform and progress, and local government is an epicentre of such thinking.
Unfortunately, Handforth Parish Council and the Jackie Weaver had ‘no authority’ incident, gave energy to the view that Parish Councils are dull affairs, run by halfwits, pedants and bullies. It is true that there is still a Handforth tendency within the sector but, if that is true, should we also abandon the UK Parliament because of the extraordinary events of the last year with Truss and Johnson? No? So why point to a fictional council or a dysfunctional council, as being somehow typical of all Parish Councils?
It is inevitable that, within 10,000 councils, some will be more effective and progressive than others. Some seem to be nothing but fronts for NIMBYism, seeking to maintain a situation of stasis, often in a rural or conservation setting, but many others are tackling social deprivation, inclusiveness and isolation, with the limited tools they have available. The workforce tends to be female, and part time, but it is no less professional, qualified, or committed, than their counterparts in the so called principal councils.
The treatment of Jackie Weaver by Brian Tolver, in the Handforth case, does show that there is a problem with misogyny in this sector, but then that is true in all levels of society, and it is hoped that the Civility and Respect Project now going the rounds within this sector, will deliver a brighter future for the sector, without reliance on outdated, intolerant, and inefficient, ways of working.
As someone who has been involved in local government, as both poacher and gamekeeper, I know that the local council sector of Town and Parish Councils will deliver what most people want from their local services, if the legislation is reformed and the resources are devolved. All it takes is for central government to stop chasing its tail and, instead, to settle down, and hand down power gracefully. Devolution to local councils will not answer the problem of England and a constitutional settlement for the UK, but it will make it easier.