Once again, there were three main sessions that I attended: James Derounian from the University of Gloucestershire led a very topical discussion on parish councils' role in the Big Society and Localism, Gary Stephens, Planning Policy Team Leader at Warwick District Council talked about the Government's proposed changes to the planning system, and then Nick Booth from Podnosh spoke about the benefits of social media as a means of effective consultation.
All three sessions were really interesting. The Localism debate, and what the Big Society actually means in reality, rages on and it's clear that parish councils have a big part to play in this, as borough and county councils across the country end up cutting services (whether they want to or not).
Given its very broadest definition, I would imagine its hard for anyone to disagree with the philosophy behind the Big Society, and I am a huge supporter of the principles of localism given how chronically over-centralised this country has become over the last generation or so. But (and it's a big but), I'm not sure of the capacity parish councils have at the moment to step in and fill the void left by retreating county/borough councils and other service providers.
Attending conferences such as this one opens your eyes to many of the amazing things that some parish councils do within their community, but the parish council sector as a whole needs to be honest enough to admit that there is a mixed bag out there and many local councils just do not yet have the capacity, skills, knowledge and ability to deliver effective public services to their community. The challenge will be how this can be addressed over the coming years.
'Planning' is always a contentious subject matter for parish councils, where it is almost impossible to please everybody. It was therefore interesting to hear of the Government's new approach to the planning system that is contained within the Localism Bill. Back in May last year, the Government announced that the Localism Bill would, amongst many things:
develop greater powers to councils and neighbourhoods, and give local communities control over housing and planning decisions.Of particular interest to parish councils within the Localism Bill is the creation of Neighbourhood Plans, which are intended to give a focus to the local planning aspirations and objectives of a parish area and are written by the local community itself. These plans cannot contradict national planning policies or the borough council's Core Strategy, so it might be argued that they serve little purpose - especially as they're projected to cost £17,000+ to produce. If that turns out to be their true cost (which to my mind seems ridiculously high) I can't imagine any Neighbourhood Plans being produced. The value of producing such a plan appears to be where the community wishes to encourage more development than might otherwise be envisaged in the borough's Core Strategy. As Gary Stephens said, the Government see Neighbourhood Plans as "not a means to prevent growth, but to stimulate more". Any takers?
The day finished with Nick Booth from Podnosh demonstrating how social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and Blogger etc can be used to engage with members of your local community. Clearly, he was preaching to the converted in my case(!), but it was interesting to see the many examples of where the internet is being utilised to spread the word of what parish councils and councillors are getting up to. The flip side of this is that social media is also increasingly being used by local residents to hold public services to account. I talked about this back in 2009, and another more recent example is the whatsinKenilworth.com community website. As the traditional local print media seems to get less and less 'local', many people predict that it'll be sites such as this one where people will look first for their local news. Anyone out there planning a 'whatsinRugby.com' or even a 'whatsinFosse.com' website??
Overall, it was really interesting day with plenty of ideas to mull over in the coming months (and at a very reasonable cost of £15 to the Shilton taxpayer).