Archive - 2018

Lasting communities?
A game of two halves
Frustrations and hopes.


Flatpack Democracy has certainly introduced me to some unexpected, often slightly surreal, situations in the last few years – who’d have predicted the book would lead to interviews yesterday with the South Korean documentary crew who have been in Frome for a week?

They follow others from Denmark and Belgium.  A significant number of people have come to Frome to live, having read the book (or maybe they liked the cover?).  On Monday I was in London talking to Swedish politicians (in a Hilton hotel basement) and am invited to the Scottish parliament soon to meet ministers. There are at least two PhDs and innumerable other studies drawing heavily on the methodologies Independents for Frome evolved and that the book described…. what started as a short story book with a good title has morphed into a Movement.

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Lasting communities?

Lasting communities - Rocks on a beach

The UK’s tryst with Siberian weather has brought out both the worst and best in people’s behaviour – mostly the best, as locals carry sandwiches to people stuck in their cars for hours and shelter is found for freezing rough sleepers.  So on Sunday, when the snow melts and we go back to endless Brexit news on how not to behave in neighbourly ways, what happens at a local level?

Hopefully some of the contact made while shovelling snow or shopping for neighbours will be retained and become the ground for deeper relationships.  George Monbiot’s recent article on links between community building and improved health (based on ‘Compassion is the Best Medicine’ in Resurgence/Ecologist) shows both what we can achieve and a direction that makes sense in every way.

The evidence – drawn from work initiated by Frome’s Health Centre – puts figures to the obvious fact that a well connected community will be a healthier place in which to live.  Why the work becomes newsworthy is that caring for each other saves millions of pounds and reduces stress on what remains of the NHS.

The Health Connections Mendip project is doing so well because it is built on many years of community building.  The project creates the link between existing community groups, the health service, and individuals in need.  Frome has had an enviable record of community activity for many years – the annual Carnival, for example, has raised thousands of pounds each year since 1929 – money that is quietly distributed to those who need it…. and around 400 other groups now perform  in other ways.

All this is great, but I believe that bedrock of engagement also needed a Town Council that was prepared to change the power relationship between community and Council, for something like the Health Connections Mendip project to thrive as it is.  Over the last 8 years the council has helped nurture community groups, hugely increasing support not just in money but in training and guidance.  Crucially this is being done as a partnership – with the Council recognising its ambitions should be met with a symbiotic relationship rather than the traditional paternalistic one.

[Incidentally, the thinking behind this – and much more – will all be shared at the Council’s Breaking the Mould conference in April.]

A game of two halves

I’ve just come home after chairing Frome Town Council’s ‘Town Matters’ committee – the one dealing with issues out in the community.  A game of two halves.  Much of the meeting was our response to the Local Plan Part Two.  Eight pages of detailed report that hours of staff and councillor time has gone into, looking at areas of the town which will be earmarked for development – or not.  If we don’t recommend enough space for housing then the whole thing is declared illegal and developers can do what they like – so it’s not an option to reject the lot.  And to make it worse, the District Council (who make the decisions) are so under resourced and under skilled that what we are offered is not a plan, but a set of one off options around the edges of the town with no strategic thinking….

So I am faced with a room full of bemused people, forced into approving things we can all see are madness.  What can I say to the group of local residents who want to know we have listened to their plea not to have a housing estate on an area that the District has previously declared unsustainable for development, but now put forward for development?

Come in Kafka.  This is local democracy at its most dysfunctional.  This is where ‘Localism’ is a joke.

And then the second half brings us plans for real engagement with the community supporting groups to take control at a local level of the things that matter to them.  And a report on fantastic work that has been done to enable struggling groups to emerge from near collapse to thriving action.  And a discussion with Harry’s Hydro – long supported by the council to bring hydro therapy to around 100 people a week.

I guess the moral is to pour energy into the things we can affect.   But the massive frustration remains that it is the crap planning that will stick Toy Towns in the fields around Frome, without forcing developers to provide the infrastructure needed and without even a nod to joined up thinking, that will impact more on lives in the future than efforts of so many at a local level.


Frustrations and hopes.

Independents for Frome has had two electoral periods of controlling the town council.  The first started in 2011 (when we had an initial 10/17 seats) and the second in 2017 (when we started with all 17).  In each period we have faced a bye-election just before the final year.  In each case the ward with the bye-election already has at least one councillor – so people are represented – and the new councillor will make no difference to the balance of power.  But the Political Parties seek power and – at a cost to the town of £6,000 – demand an election.

I respect their right to contest elections and that of the electorate to vote. What I am so disappointed by is the tired old crap that gets wheeled out which encourages the electorate to stay in the status quo we know is so corrosive.  Already leaflets are being delivered focussing on one unfinished project of the current council and listing a set of lies and half truths to demonstrate……. well what?  Presumably, that this group of councillors makes bad decisions.  Read More

Copyright © Peter Macfadyen 2014