There has never been a more exciting time to become chair of the National Association of Local Councils.
2017 promises to be a big year for the sector’s 10,000 parish and town councils and the 80,000 councillors representing more than 15 million people.
Local councils, the first tier of local government, are well placed to address the sense of disengagement felt by communities from traditional politics and governance, which was such a feature of 2016.
That could be through building social capital in Campbell Park, Milton Keynes; alleviating rural elderly isolation in Feock, Cornwall; modernising engagement with and accountability to citizens through digital transformation in Stone, Kent; or the much-publicised ‘flat-pack’ democracy of Frome, Somerset.
We are the only growing sector of local government. Kidderminster and Sutton Coldfield town councils were created last year and we currently have 150 communities working towards creating parish councils in places such as Swindon, Ashford, Lowestoft, London and Birmingham.
Local councils are doing incredible things. Recent LGC research for NALC identified extensive involvement in big ticket items – 15% of councils said they were delivering health and wellbeing services and 12% were active in economic development, including Oswestry’s health forum and Sevenoaks’ support for the local economy. Encouragingly, 70% of councils said they wanted to add such services to their remit.
We are at the forefront of neighbourhood planning. Ninety percent of all neighbourhood plans are led by town or parish councils and they are using them to shape communities and boost housing provision. Local councils are also working with principal councils on the austerity and devolution agenda in Cornwall, Wiltshire and Buckinghamshire.
As the new chair, it is my job to lead and accelerate these developments. I want to work with all tiers of local government to build the capacity and competence of the sector through an improvement strategy with the Local Government Association and the Department for Communities & Local Government. This will promote training and accreditation through the local council award scheme. We also need to ensure councils embrace new transparency requirements for financial planning and reporting. I want the sector to be truly representative of its local communities and I have launched a diversity commission to examine this.
Local people understand the needs of their areas best. More powers must be transferred to parish and town councils so people can make more decisions locally, solve their own problems and create strong, attractive and thriving neighbourhoods.
And finally, a plea to the government post-Brexit. Millions of volunteers are giving their time to support their local communities including those 80,000 councillors. These contributions are as important to social cohesion and everyday life as big business or glamorous infrastructure projects. The government needs to factor support for these activities into its policy.
If 2016 taught us anything it was that some communities feel left behind by our national economy and politics. Local councils and the work they do to support these communities must be part of the solution.
Sue Baxter (Ind), chair, National Association of Local Councils