Monday, 21 December 2009

A tall order

One of the most daunting aspects of PhD research is the requirement to read everything that has been written about your subject. The upside of this is you automatically become the world expert on your chosen subject. The downside, you have a lot of reading to do. The right to create neighbourhood councils in London dates from 2007 and there has been some limited reaction from stakeholders.

London Councils had something to say about it during consultation in 2006. London Councils (formerly known as ALG) represents the interests of London borough councils, who currently exercise the rights that would have to be devolved to any new community councils. Quite rightly they point to the variety of existing ad hoc community management schemes that are already in operation, suggesting that community governance is already happening.

In November 2008 think tank LondonSays published a document of opinion pieces, including the views of Simon Hughes, MP for Southwark North and Bermondsey. He describes the current devolved arrangements in Southwark as a rationale for formal community councils in London rather than one for “do nothing”. His concern would seem to be that under the current system the powers of the communities rely too heavily on the willingness of the local authority to co-operate.

One aspect of my research is going to have to be a study of these ad hoc community management arrangements in all of the 32 London boroughs. I want to know how their powers and functions shape up to those of a statutory community/parish council. So, taking a step back, another important area of research is revealed: I firstly need to have complete understanding of the full range of powers available to parish councils. I known many of these date back to 1894 and others come from later incremental legislation.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

What is your research about?

I so often get asked this question. As I'm in the early days of my PhD the answer has to be quite vague and rambling, as I'm just finding out myself. There are some things I am certain about. I know I am only interested in Greater London and I am only looking at community organisation below the borough council level.

The catalyst for my research is part four of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 which extends the possibility of creating parish councils to Greater London and allows for new alternative names of "community" and "neighbourhood" council as well the existing "parish" and "town" alternatives.

Parish councils are essentially a rural solution to local governance. In their modern form they have existed since 1894 and were a way of ensuring rural communities had some control of local affairs, whilst other services were provided by district councils covering a much larger area. During the inter-war period of the 1920s and 30s all of the remaining parish councils in Greater London were abolished and in 1965 the creation of parish councils in London was explicitly prevented by law. Elsewhere in England parish councils were extended to towns who lost control of their own affairs in reforms of 1974.

They have traditionally been excluded from the major urban areas, but have started to resurface in the metropolitan counties and conurbations. According to the NALC, over 150 new parish and town councils have been created since 1997. The borough of Milton Keynes for example is completely divided up into parishes. Elsewhere, the creation of a parish council has been used to help pull an urban community together, such as New Frankley in Birmingham. One potential weakness of the application of parish councils to urban areas is that little has been done to amend the powers available to them. I wonder if the tool-kit of responsibilities is so limited in the urban context that community organisers fail to see the potential return on their investment in setting up a council.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Setting out your stall

Ask a Londoner where they are from and "London" is unlikely to be  the response. Invariably it will be one of a series of ambiguously defined micro localities such as "Abbey Wood", "Mile End" or "Yiewsley" (can't find a London place name starting with 'z') The 32 London boroughs, with their often arbitrary boundaries, are even less likely to be given as home localities.

It is perhaps surprising that the organisation of our local government is primarily focussed on the two levels we identify with the least: the Greater London region and the London boroughs. Very little is organised at a community level, and where it is, it tends to be ad hoc in nature and little-known about. There are examples of highly active groups, but some are focussed on a single issue, lack enough influence to be successful or fail to engage with the community at large, relying on the tireless effort of a single personality.

Elsewhere in England small communities have elected bodies, usually known as parish or town councils, who take over some affairs from the local authority. Greater London hasn't had this sort of local democracy since the 1930s. However, in 2007 a change was made to the law to allow neighbourhood or community councils to be formed. As yet, no community has taken up this opportunity. I am going to find out why, and follow any attempts to set one up.