The UK has over 10,000 parish and town councils. Mostly they deal with fairly low-key issues that affect local people from repairing benches to maintaining parks. Usually most time is spent looking at planning applications and passing on views to the next level up, who actually make the decisions. Gently ticking over is the norm – more than half of the councils don’t have elections as no one really wants the job, though a bit of Twinning and some Mayoral activity can make it all more interesting.
That picture has, in many ways, been fine for years. District and County councils along with national government, provided funds for local projects and were responsible for all the major inputs like street cleaning and leisure activities. But in the last decade this has radically changed. ‘Austerity’ – national governments ruthless squeeze on funds for local government – now means that the higher levels can only do what they legally must and has required them to cut everything they do back to the absolute minimum. For towns like Frome this has a huge impact.
Years ago all County and District funding in areas like the Arts went. More recently areas like youth services and mental health work were cut to nearly zero. Main services like street cleaning and leisure provision have been farmed out to contractors and the skills to understand and monitor those contracts lost. The result has been long contracts, little supervision and a bare minimum of actual work. Land and buildings owned by these councils was hardly maintained – if at all – with nothing added.
A town council can watch this happen and ineffectively moan, or look to ways in which to ensure that services and provisions are met. Simply taking over and providing what has been lost is not a plausible option – why should people pay the district and county councils for a service no longer provided, while also paying more tax locally to do the job?
Frome Town Council has worked hard to support and empower local groups to meet needs, enabling them to bring in significant funds from local and national fundraising. Fair Frome – working to support the most needs people in the community; Frome Fair Housing – looking at how to counter the chronic accommodation problems many face; and Health Connections Mendip – providing a vast range of services to improve wellbeing in the town, are all good examples of Frome Town Council’s relatively small inputs leading to real change. In parallel we have acquired back the town hall as a community building and over 40 acres of land is now owned by Frome and well maintained by a team of rangers – often working with the local people who most use the parks.
This is slow steady work. There has to be a build up of trust between the council and the people and a real transfer of power and ownership to those carrying out work. Success breeds success and as more projects are seen to thrive, groups and individuals who already live here, as well as others who come to work in such a positive place, can help to counter austerity and create a positive, ambitious town which is better able to counter the negative and build for the future. What Independents for Frome have shown over seven years is that by focussing on Frome and taking direction from the town, not Political direction from elsewhere, we can achieve real change and meet ambitious targets. There is an alternative, but it’s not pretty.