Report from National Association of Local Councils Conference 2022

Jonathan Wallcroft is a Town Councillor in Keynsham; and LCC’s Field Organiser for the CPTNetwork.

I had the pleasure of attending NALC’S conference on November 7th. Unfortunately the conference was online rather than in person, but in its own Zoomy way perhaps it painted a more accurate picture of life as a town councillor in the last few years. With much of the work of town & parish councils driven online by the pandemic we have been forced to change decades, and sometimes centuries, old ways of doing things. 

The conference served as a valuable advert for our tier of government. A common theme throughout the day was the idea that third tier (especially town) Councils are on the frontline of delivery for their communities – and all too often the frontline of resisting and mitigating government policy. When youth services are cut, as in my town of Keynsham, the stepped in to take over. Mitigating austerity at the town council level is often the only way of protecting vital public services from being erased. We learned that many third tier councils are setting up warm-banks in their communities, warm-banks exist as a way for people who cannot afford to heat their homes adequately due to the cost of living crisis to stay warm in the winter months. 

The environment is another area where town councils are on the frontline, Labour Coast & Country’s Ant Reid noted that when new housing is built it would be helpful if town councils can insist on better ecological standards for new houses. Take for example Blandford Forum Town Council, spearheaded by Labour Coast & Country’s Pat Osborne, it became the first inland council to adopt the Ocean Recovery Declaration.  It’s common for town councils to be leading on declaring climate emergencies and taking direct action to reduce their areas carbon footprints. This can range from raising awareness, moving meetings to online to reduce travel or supporting efforts to make our homes more energy efficient. 

This also means dealing with the most dangerous side of climate change, the wildfires we saw in London will likely become more common and supporting community resilience projects to prevent and mitigate such climate related disasters are an important part of a town council’s remit. One of the conference speakers (Fiona Howie from the Town and Country Planning Association) encouraged us to draw up neighbourhood plans that are more ambitious than national and local plans specify – current law allows stricter or more ambitious plans than current national or local guidelines.  This is a very empowering position for our third tier councillors.

Planning in general is one of the major issues that a Labour Town or Parish Councillor will have to contend with. If we are to create communities & homes rather than just houses then we need to consider ideas such as the 20 minute neighbourhood principle with green transport links – rather than simply building on a greenfield sight nowhere near any infrastructure. Sharon Taylor of Stevenage Council urged us to be bolder when it comes to solving the housing crisis, new towns such as Stevenage were brave decisions when they were taken – and we need to be brave again in 2022. Dealing with expanding existing communities, and even building new ones, are vital tasks for a town councillor and its important that Labour voices are heard in those discussions. 

Town councils can also lead by example by putting civility at the heart of your council. Councils have a responsibility to ensure that public life & discourse is positive. If we want people to engage with local democracy, they must feel that these environments are supportive and not hostile to new ideas. We all saw the debacle at Handforth Parish Council last year, and whilst it entertained it projected a wholly negative image of parish councils and the aggression and dysfunction may have discouraged people from putting themselves forward. If we are to make these meetings more representative then we don’t just need Labour members to put themselves forward, we need to rethink the way things have been done – for example meetings are often held in the day, preventing working people from attending, but then meetings that are help in the evenings do not encourage busy parents to attend, either.  Think about your local demographics, who you need to attract, and then how.  

One speaker pointed out that hyper-local knowledge is the keystone to parish and town council effectiveness, and this cut across all of the topics to create empowered communities – from levelling up projects, through planning, housing, infrastructure, supporting dementia and vulnerable people, to encouraging more of our community to stand: our local knowledge will be key to our community’s success, and that’s the main purpose of a community, parish, and town council. 

We saw in the pandemic the vital role that town & parish councils fulfil across the country. The view from NALC that we are the frontline is an apt one, and we need people from the Labour Party to put themselves forward to ensure that they continue to be that. 

The team at Labour Coast & Country is here to support you too with the development of the new Community, Parish and Town Network (CPTN), funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.

Click here to join the Community, Parish, & Town Network (CPTN)

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