The Big Society is coming to North Laine

Neighbourhood Councils and Community First grants

By Peter Crowhurst, NLCA Chair

At the NLCA’s January 2012 meeting Kirsty Walker of the Trust for Developing Communities gave a talk about the way the government’s ideas on a Big Society will impact on us here in North Laine. She spoke about two developments that are imminent: Neighbourhood Councils and Community First grants to community groups.

Neighbourhood Plans

The recently passed Localism Act is shortly to introduce a number of changes which ostensibly give local communities more power to influence what happens in their own locality. Communities will gain the right to run a local service (e.g. a library) or they can bid for community assets (e.g. swimming pool). Communities can veto excessive taxes and vote on pay policies. Communities can draw up Neighbourhood Plans and will be able to grant full/outline planning permission with the consent of the community, which there is a requirement to consult. Communities can set their own housing policies. All this though has to be within the new National Planning Policy, which has a presumption in favour of development and says little about conserving and preservation of historic buildings or townscape. Brighton & Hove Council is shortly to announce a pilot Neighbourhood Council.

Community First

Community First is a government initiative to direct funds towards wards in need. St Peter’s & North Laine has been identified as such a ward and has been allocated up to £30,000 to spend on community projects. This is to be organised by a panel of local residents partnered by (in Brighton) the Trust for Developing Communities & Serendipity. Once set up the Panel will have to consult the community to identify neighbourhood priorities and produce a Community First Plan which should reflect the views of as many residents as possible. The idea is then that the Panel will identify projects/activities that complement the plan. The Panel will be able to give grants of £250-£2,500.

Will it work?

Schemes such as I have described above are intended to widen local democracy and empower local communities. I personally doubt very much that this will happen. Local councils have traditionally played a central role in providing local services and supporting local charities. They alone have the capacity to look across an entire area to identify gaps in services. They alone can offer full geographical cover and a right to a service. They alone have the expertise. Take away the role of the council and you have a free for all, with groups bidding for grants on the basis of whether there are sufficient volunteers in an area. There is no guarantee that the needier will necessarily receive the funds that formerly have been received. Charities that have hitherto been receiving support from the council will no longer do so as the council’s budget has been cut.

Will it widen democracy?

Neighbourhood Councils are intended to widen democracy; yet the residents who sit on Neighbourhood Councils and indeed on the Community First panel for North Laine have not been elected and are not accountable. At least if we do not like the Council’s current policies we can vote them out. It is claimed that the current system of local government is paralysed by the firm grip of the parties on the actions of councillors. We need to reform this system if it is not working (how about local primaries?), not abandon it.

Who will be able to volunteer?

This country has a tradition of volunteering, yet there could well be a lack of volunteers in the future especially as Cameron’s Big Society is based on ever more people volunteering. A large percentage of the existing volunteers are retired people who have the time for community activities. Will they want to take on more and perhaps take on roles traditionally done by paid workers? Will younger people have the time or inclination to get involved? In North Laine the majority of volunteers are retired or only working part-time whilst those in full-time work lead very busy lives, often commuting to London and getting back too late to attend meetings.

Will they have the knowledge and experience?

The new Neighbourhood Councils and Community First panels will have to work with sometimes quite large budgets. Will they have the requisite accounting experience and what insurance will there be for them? The process of bidding for grants can be quite complex. Will volunteer groups be getting the requisite support from the Council? If the Council is to provide support, one might ask why the body that has the resources and experience is having the role of dealing with the volunteer sector taken away from it. Should volunteers be doing the work previously done by paid workers?

Is there a lack of interest?

In North Laine there is an apparent lack of interest in getting involved. The NLCA seeks to protect the quality of life for the residents of the area by monitoring developments in the area and working with the Council on planning and licensing and many other environmental issues, as well as trying to raise awareness of what being a Conservation Area means and what our historical heritage is. All this is done by fewer and fewer people. The NLCA is invited by the Council to send representatives to sit on many groups within the city but we do not have the people to be represented on many of them.

Where is the sense of civic duty?

North Laine has a very diverse population with a varied social, economic and cultural mix. The population is also quite transient and residents don’t always have the time to put down roots and begin to feel they have a stake in what is happening here. Many residents, as I have said above, lead very busy lives and just don’t have the time to contribute to community life. The nature of communities is changing and perhaps people don’t always relate to a geographical community. Is it perhaps the case that more and more people relate to their own age or cultural group and maintain contact and discuss issues through less traditional means of communication? Whatever the means of communication, however, we still need to develop a sense of civic duty and pride in where we live.

Decisions will be made by an unelected few

If we choose not to have a say in what is happening in our communities, then more and more decisions will be made by fewer and fewer (unelected) people and we will end up with an uncoordinated free for all in which the active receive the funds. Those who will be helped will be those who help themselves.

Vacant roles within the NLCA

At the moment we have a number of vacant roles within the NLCA. We have no Vice Chair to chair the occasional meeting and we will need a new Treasurer from April. Both of these roles are ideal for someone who wants to begin to get more involved in some of the central issues that affect our area.

At present we have no representation on the City Liaison Road Works Meeting, the Community Waste Forum and the Community & Voluntary Sector Forum. We have been invited to take part in People’s Day this year but have insufficient volunteers for an NLCA presence. We are usually invited to take part in all the Council consultations affecting North Laine but do not always have someone to send. Additional volunteers who could attend consultations are always welcome (the last one was the Station Gateway Project, to improve the entrances and exits from the station).

The North Laine Runner which, as we know, is an excellent publication, needs people who can lend a hand in negotiating and collecting the advertising from the traders who support the newsletter. If you can spare the occasional hour or so during the day, we would like to hear from you. The Runner continues to exist through the advertising revenues collected from traders but at the moment we need several more people to help with this.

Could you contribute?

If you would like to know more about any of the roles described above, then either come along to a meeting or contact me at: nlcachair@nlcaonline.org.uk 


[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 215, March/April 2012]

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