Steve Chambers

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A parish council for Barking Riverside?

The latest area in London to look at setting up a parish council is Barking Reach. This area, also known as Barking Riverside, was in the news recently because of plans to connect it to the London Overground so further house building can take place. As much of the area is undeveloped, delineating boundaries should not be as problematic as it can be elsewhere in the urban sprawl.

The boundary follows the new development area

The organisers of the parish council plan have benefited from the new councils grants that are promoted by the Department for Communities and Local Government and the National Association of Local Councils in order to assist in setting up a council.

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What next for localism? What next for London?

On Wednesday 26 March 2013 the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) held an event asking the question “What next for localism?” It was attended by everyone from parish councillors and clerks to the minister and shadow minister for local government. Also represented were academics, officers from principal authorities and the Local Government Association.

Speakers came from every level of community, local and national government
“What next for localism?” is a useful to question to ask at this time. A general election is a year away and the flavour of government that will be returned is far from certain. Which isn’t to say the political parties are offering dramatically divergent policies right now, there appears to be consensus for “more localism”. However, the event was much more focussed on what those involved in delivering community governance had to say. The delegates had a few messages for the ministers.

We’ve been doing localism for over 100 years

Delegates were keen to note that localism didn’t just happen with the Localism Act 2011 or any other piece of legislation. Town and parish councils have been offering a wide variety of services for some time, either alone or more typically by forming partnerships with other tiers of local government or agencies. The flip side of this was a sense that the coalition hasn’t “done localism” by passing the Localism Act.

One size does not fit all

Another theme explored was that the powers available to councils, such as neighbourhood planning, right to challenge and right to bid will not be taken up by every council. Many councils felt able to achieve their objectives without having to ‘challenge’ anyone. There was also a fear of devolution of bureaucracy occurring, where new powers create new processes that waste time and resources.

Finance, finance, finance

Perhaps unsurprisingly finance was a theme that came up. Councils have lost out because of changes to council tax support, where money isn’t always passed on by principal authorities. Local councils are concerned about referendums for precept increases that might be implemented. Looking to the future, councils want to keep some of the business rates that are collected in their area, given their role in creating places for businesses to thrive.

Planning and housing
Housing came up as a theme throughout the day. Local councils are excluded from the New Homes Bonus intended to incentivise house building. As this scheme has not met its goals, devolving it to local councils could be the answer. It will also allow communities control over where houses are built. There was a sense that the removal of regional strategies hadn’t devolved powers over planning enough and local councils needed to be involved.
The reception to neighbourhood planning was surprisingly ambivalent. Smaller parishes with meetings rather than councils are excluded and even some parishes with councils felt it was too bureaucratic a process for too little gain. There was also concern that there wasn’t adequate safeguard that plans would be followed. Annette Brooke, representing the Liberal Democrats on local government, said a right of appeal might need to be created.
Wrong way round
More radical ideas came from academics who suggested it was about time councils had a constitutional right to exist and shouldn’t be granted that right and powers piecemeal from the centre. Principal authorities shouldn’t have the power to remove councils and, ideally, everywhere should have a parish council. This frames “what next?” as whatever each council needs. It became clear that councils don’t just use powers as they become available, they select them based on their own local requirements.

What next for London?

The take up of parish councils and powers such as neighbourhood planning in London has been slow. The radical idea of systematically creating parish councils might be the only way to get these initiatives moving. However, localism is at best a “bottom up” exercise. Having a share of business rates might encourage parish councils to form in London that otherwise wouldn’t. The fear of taxation through precept would be turned on its head with the prospect of a revenue stream being ‘lost’ without a local council to make use of it. The experience of councils outside London with regards to the new powers available could be useful to communities in London. Many were able to do the things they wanted through informal partnership working. So, perhaps the benefit of forming new parish councils in London isn’t about gaining new powers, but creating a structure that will give the community a voice and the corporate form needed to act.

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Homes Before Roads


I’ve written a collection of articles on Medium about Homes Before Roads.

In 1967 the GLC announced what it claimed was the most immense decision of any local authority. By 1973 the project was cancelled and thought forgotten. Homes Before Roads was formed as a political party to fight the 1970 Greater London Council election, on a platform of no new urban roads. Although they didn’t win any seats they were successful in their objectives, breaking the political consensus that had developed that London needed new roads. By the early 1970s public opinion had shifted against new roads in London. But the GLC had another idea

  1. Homes Before Roads
  2. London’s roads — a programme for action!
  3. Plan B: Build roads in tunnel

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Book: Local Councils Explained

The National Association of Local Councils (NALC) has published a book which aims to be a comprehensive guide to the workings of parish councils, also known as town, community or neighbourhood councils and collectively “local councils”.
Local Councils Explained is a much needed publication, in part because of the additional powers available to parish councils since 2010. The book has been written by the NALC head of legal services, Meera Tharmarajah and has a sound basis in the legislative framework councils inhabit, but is also an accessible document, written in a style that is engaging and clear.

The book include all relevant information for the running of a local council 

There is no one single piece of legislation governing parish councils and the powers and functions are drawn from legislation going back over 100 years. A guide such as this is therefore invaluable to anyone with an interest in the workings of local councils, including parish clerks and of course councillors.
In particular, those trying to set up new councils in areas that have no recent or nearby experience to guide them, such as in London, will benefit from the book and several chapters have been written with them in mind.
The book went on sale on 4 October and is available from NALC.

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Making it easier to set up new town and parish councils?

The Department for Communities and Local Government ran a consultation on the process of setting up new town and parish councils that closed in January 2013. The results of this consultation were published in September.

Since the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 authorities such as London borough councils have the role of deciding if new parish councils should be formed in their area. Previously this decision was centralised. The 2007 act introduced a procedure called a community governance review which could be triggered by local petition. In London this procedure was triggered in 2011 by the Queen’s Park ward of Westminster and led to the creation of a new parish council in 2014. The length of time it took to create this parish council points to the failings in the existing system. The campaign was well organised and followed the procedure as set out.
The responses to the consultation came from principal councils, parish councils and individuals, and are were overall in favour of some changes to the process of setting up a parish council. The options available were:
  • amending existing guidance;
  • changing the law;
  • making it easier for neighbourhood forums (used for neighbourhood planning) to start the process for creating a new parish council; or
  • some combination of the above.
The responses broadly favoured the changes proposed in all options, with some respondents strongly opposed to changes in each category.
The government response similarly proposes changes drawn from each option:
  • limiting the time for a community governance review to twelve months from the receipt of a valid petition;
  • reducing the number of signatures needed on a petition for a community governance review;
  • making it easier for neighbourhood forums to start the process for setting up new parish councils; and
  • amending guidance to local authorities undertaking community governance reviews to favour parish council proposals. 
The test of these measures will be how quickly a new council can be set up under the adapted guidance. In the case of Queen’s Park the council added the extra challenge of a local referendum. This kind of extra hurdle is not to be explicitly prevented. Within London perhaps part of the problem is the lack of experience the borough councils have of parish councils. However the community governance review was introduced to London at the same time as the rest of the country and other parish councils have been set up under the 2007 regime in less time. The reduction in signatures needed to trigger a petition might make campaigners feel they have less of a challenge in order to start the review process. The other changes should ensure the review happens in a timely manner. Hopefully a community will want to test this out soon, so I can do a comparison!

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Save our pub!

The community in Nunhead, Southwark have organised and successfully used the ‘community right to bid‘ part of the Localism Act 2011 to prevent their local pub from being sold to developers. It will now be run as a co-operative enterprise.

Meanwhile in Elm Park, Havering a similar 1930s pub is being sold off for development and the community aren’t happy. However, the voices there have not organised in order to use the rights the community have available to them.

In both areas the community identified the pubs for what they were, the scarce resource of an enclosed public space. But what happened to make the Nunhead group organise and held back the group in Elm Park?It might have been luck. It might be something to do with social capital. Perhaps the Elm Park group had not heard about the rights available to them? It could be that the Nunhead group cared more, or felt they did not have enough alternative facilities. It might have been because of effective leadership.More questions than answers I’m afraid. One of things I am trying to learn in my PhD thesis is why some communities are able to come together to organise and others do not.


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