Today I was present at the public meeting to discuss the creation of a community council for the area around London Fields in Hackney. The meeting consisted of a series of presentations and a question and answer session. Of particular interest was a talk about how neighbourhood planning, a feature of the current Localism Bill, could work with a community council. The questions highlighted a range of opinions about the necessity for a community council and the potential role it should play.
First some background. Hackney is one of those areas of London where the smallest unit of local government has been unusually large for some time. The apparently anomalous union with Stoke Newington, which was alluded to in the meeting, has been an intermittent feature of local politics since 1855. Whereas in other areas of London there is a tradition of very small units of local government that have been gradually amalgamated, in Hackney the local face of politics has always been quite large. Or to put it another way, there is no sense of a community council as a means to revert to something that has been lost.
The questions focussed on the usual bones of contention: the precept, boundaries and powers. There appeared to be a three way split forming on the precept: those who thought it was an unnecessary burden, those who thought it was worth paying to get results, and those who wanted it set as low as was possible. Politics in microcosm.
The potential planning power was explained in impressive detail, using the nearby example of Chatsworth Road (@chatsworthroad). I felt that it was perhaps pitched slightly wrongly for the audience, who might have become fatigued by buzzwords and vision, but nonetheless some could see the practical benefits of having some control over planning policy. London Fields is an area of reasonable public transport access and is close to the central London fringe. It is prime for intensification and this is not aligned to community aspirations.
On boundaries a conversation was clearly started. This could potentially be a thorny issue. London Fields is about as close to the urban core as it is possible to be. Natural boundaries are hard to discern and even using the canal as a southern boundary did not manage to form a consensus. This is a peculiar problem for parish councils in Greater London and is perhaps one that will only ever be fully resolved during the community governance review process which is undertaken by the London borough council.
What struck me about the meeting was how astute the members of the public who came were. They could instantly see the potential pitfalls and the benefits and asked questions accordingly. Some were unconvinced, even after hearing the example of a working parish council outside London and the impressive neighbourhood plan created by Chatsworth Road. What was also clear, as is the case in other meetings elsewhere, is that there are within the community a core of people who genuinely care about where they live and are prepared to make an investment in time and activity. It is unclear if in London Fields a community council will provide a vehicle for their efforts, but based on this starting point, it is certainly possible.