Something remarkable is happening in Frome, a story that offers many useful insights for increasing the impact of Transition and reimagining how it relates to local politics. Peter MacFadyen is author of Flatpack Democracy and very recently became the Mayor of Frome. Previously he worked for Comic Relief as a development consultant, and is also the director of an undertaking firm. In 2011 he was one of a group of ‘Independents for Frome’ who ran for, and were elected onto, the local Town Council. I asked him to tell me the ‘Frome story’.
“The Frome story starts four years ago really. In January before a local election, I was the Sustainable Frome representative who was meant to have a relationship with the town council. Sustainable Frome is the Transition Town equivalent and a member of the Transition Network. When I went to the town council, their sustainability policy consisted of “we’ve got a park, what more do you want?” Essentially I found that rather unsatisfactory, and I met a number of other people who were also finding all sorts of other bits of the town council’s work unsatisfactory really, because they were missing opportunities rather than that they were particularly evil in any way. It was just that they didn’t do anything.
That then led, as so often happens through probably too much beer, to “ok, let’s try and whip this up a bit, make it more interesting, raise some issues and see if more people will vote”. Like many places, we have a lot of wards that have not been contested for years. That led to an election in May 2011 where a group of people stood as ‘the Independents of Frome’ and won 10 out of 17 seats. [Here’s a piece from local TV just after their election]
We have an outright majority and have continued over the last three years with a very ambitious programme which has at its core a lot of green things because a lot of the people who got involved were green in everything but politics, because we’re independent.
So why Independents?
It’s partly anti-party politics because part of the history of Frome was party politicians bickering around party issues and spending their time doing party things. For instance, a number of the party politicians last night couldn’t come to the meeting because they were all off campaigning for the Euro elections. Things like that, we just felt, at this level, they should have Frome at the core of their interest and they shouldn’t be driven by ideologies that are actually irrelevant and often corrosive at a local level.
The thing that’s slightly different about us is that we work as a group of independents, which is not the same as a party. But we do have a way of working, we set out some rules of behaviour really which are essentially common sense: accept that if you lose a vote, you move on from it, things like that. Ours and many other councils and councillors get terribly involved in stabbing each other in the back, revenge for previous votes and that kind of thing. That’s probably one of the best examples of where we’ve said we’ll work as individual people with individual ideas but we’ll work with a common purpose which is around the betterment of Frome.
As part of this month’s theme I interviewed Natalie Bennett from the Green Party and I asked her what her thought was about the role or otherwise of party politics at the very local level, and she said it’s really useful because it means you have all the support of a party, advice and policy and all of that immediate profile. Do you see anything to be said for that or really do you feel that party politics just has no place at the local level, it does more harm than good?
I think it does more harm than good. I think you can pick and choose. I’ve had some really interesting discussions in the last few weeks with the prospective parliamentary candidate for the Tories, the guy who’s going to stand for the Tories in the next election. If I was a Labour politician I probably wouldn’t feel I could do that or he wouldn’t want to see me. I think it’s really important to be able to pick and choose and the vast majority of what Natalie was talking about just wouldn’t be relevant at a parish town level.
What are the things that you’ve been able to do? One of the things that’s really interesting in the book I think is how you set out that there are powers that town councils have that they may not know about, which you’ve taken full advantage of.
We have. Some of that comes from localism. We were very happy at the beginning of Independents of Frome to have some of the really key people who were involved in the new localism Act as it was created, and to be able to tip us off on what might be useful. There are powers through which local communities can try and buy land, can try and do things in a way which they didn’t used to be able to.
Essentially, what you had to do before was what’s on a list, and the list was dog shit, bus shelters, and at our level very limited. What we’ve now done is to break out from that and we can now do anything that isn’t illegal other than, apparently, “form an army”. Other than create an army, anything that’s legal, we can do it. This means we’ve been able to, for instance, borrow significant sums of money in order to do up buildings or create opportunities which we wouldn’t have been able to do and wouldn’t have had the ambition to do…
I have to say I’m very relieved to hear that you aren’t able to form an army in Frome, that’s a great relief. You’ve done some work around allotments and you’ve been looking at bringing assets into community ownership I think? Tell us more about some of the things?
We’re just about to bring a significant asset into community ownership. We agreed last night to pursue the purchase of what will become a major community hub. This is an ex-Somerset County Council building that we’re going to buy with yet another loan. These loans, incidentally will add up to about 10% of our budget. So it is significant, but it’s not a problem, just not something that was done before.
The allotments was an interesting combination of the council combining with a local donor who wanted to support Frome, so we used his money to buy some land and then added council money to that, to get rid of a 10 year waiting list overnight.
A lot of what we’ve done actually is to up the buzz of Frome though. There’s now a very large market in the town which closes the whole middle of town, brings thousands of people in once a month in very much a European-style market. Again, that’s happened because the town council’s combined with local entrepreneurs, with the district council to do all the road closing and so on.
We’ve done that partly by the nature of the people who we’ve attracted to the council. In many ways, it’s not very tangible, but one of the main things we’ve done is to massively the structure. There were five layers of council management, there are now three. There were a plethora of meeting, there are now two main ones and two committees. With that cleanness, we seem to have been able to attract staff who would definitely not have worked for local councils before.
We’ve got some really, really good people who come with a different outlook. I don’t mean that negatively about the people who were there before really, but they’ve brought in ideas to up the whole game, in that kind of way.
You mentioned localism, and the Localism Bill gives communities some very interesting powers it didn’t have before. What do you see as being the opportunities that localism presents and also perhaps some of the down sides of it?
I think the ethos is really exciting. The idea that communities really can do things, essentially a Community Right to Build, the Right to Challenge, the Right to Bid. They basically say that if the community comes together and has a referendum around something like a building which was going to be sold – which might be a pub or something, it doesn’t have to be a public building – then that community can really have a say in what’s going to happen.
There was also meant to be money that came down to support a lot of that. The challenge is that certainly for us, the interpretation of what local is, and much of that has been ‘district’ so it has stopped at the level above us. We have a very highly politicised district who are very short of money. They all are, we do understand their problem, but they’ve creamed off the money and basically held the decisions at that level.
We’ve done the consultation, said what the people want or found what the people want, we’ve set everything up and then it doesn’t happen. At the moment it’s got stuck, and not surprisingly in many ways, the government’s moved on to things like the recession and fracking and whatnot and have kind of lost interest, I think. So it doesn’t have the weight from the top down to make this happen.
One of the things in UKIP’s EU elections mainfesto which is interesting is how it takes the idea of localism a stage too far, I think, saying that local communities should have the power of referendum on everything, basically. On wind farms, solar farms, any housing development, any development at all. If you can get 5% of people to say they want to have a referendum, then there should be a referendum. Which makes me think actually that the piece that’s missing is if you give people loads and loads of rights but you don’t give them the responsibilities that go with them in terms of national targets for cutting carbon, then it just doesn’t make any sense at all. So actually if you were to say, yes you can have a referendum on planning but in total over 5 years those have to add up to a 10% cut in carbon emissions over a period of time, then you’ve got something quite different. I wondered what your thoughts were on the extent to which giving people power over local decisions is wise or not?
That’s a very interesting point. Obviously I must go out and read the document before I rush out and vote, which I haven’t done yet. This whole thing of giving people power is also without information. So people will vote with their instincts. There’s a real dilemma there. I went to a meeting about fly tipping the other night as there’s a particularly big issue on fly tipping in one area of Frome, and for some people the answer was to close the road. But that’ll just mean they’ll move somewhere else, the answer being that we don’t care. So we’ve got things like that to deal with, NIMBYism at its most astute, which I suppose is what you get with wind farms and solar farms and so on.
But also a lot of these issues are complicated aren’t they? They are difficult things to get our heads around. Quite a lot of people elect people like me as a councillor and then say – look, I trust you, I’ve elected you in order to make all the decisions for me, so I don’t have to read all these papers and get involved. And it’s really difficult to find that point where you engage people enough so they actually understand the issues and can make the decisions and could take part in a referendum sensibly. At the other extreme you have a dysfunctional democracy like we have at the moment. So I don’t see an easy answer, but giving that level of power to what would inevitably, at least initially, be a very few people who turn up, would be deeply dangerous I would say.
At the moment I imagine Frome has a town council, a district council and a county council. Do we need all those tiers, and if not, which ones should go?
We don’t and the district should go. In my view, it’s now irrelevant. Not least because it has so few resources. Much of what it does they have sold off anyway, so it’s been privatised. All the street cleaning, for instance, is on a 10 year contract. A lot of the other services which they used to provide they’ve sold off, so they’re not really doing anything. Probably technically they’re managing them, but they’re effectively gone. It seems to me they just cost money and are completely unhelpful now. Certainly for us they’re just another layer which serves no useful function at all as far as I can see.
We talked about how the powers of localism have helped what you’ve done in Frome, and given you new powers that you can do a lot with. And how you see the work that you’re doing there as an extension of the Transition work that was happening before. What would more government help and better legislation, what would need to change in order to help you deepen that work and help you move further forward? How much further could government go to enable that?
There’s a lot of training that people need, a lot of confidence that they need to get that actually if they were to have the skills and if they were to participate and engage, that participation and engagement would lead to change. Then they would do it. I think what’s happened at the moment is everything’s got sucked to the top. I’m not at all surprised that Russell Brand can say what he said and 11 million people can watch him and most of them will agree, that actually “voting only encourages them”.
Actually, our system is collapsing from the top down, and what government could do is to give real powers to local people and the resources, partly to have an army if you like, of facilitators and well-trained people to help people to help the community to make those decisions and to engage. We’ve lost those skills, I think, and we need to regain those skills. The government could really help in training people, working with people to get them back again. Then, crucially, make sure that decisions that are made at a local level actually lead to real change. That people will get pissed off really quickly if that doesn’t happen.
What would your advice be to people who are thinking “I wonder if we should do that and get a few people together like they’ve done in Frome?” What would your advice be to them?
My cocky advice would be read my book, Flatpack Democracy, but there is a real moment actually. What the book set out to do is to try and help people to see actually how easy it could be to take power at a local level and then really put in place some change very quickly. We are at a unique moment.
Although unemployment may be falling, there are vast numbers of young people who are either unemployed or under-employed. If they continue to be totally disenfranchised as they effectively are now, (well not totally, but really have a deep cynicism from the system), we’ve set up something which is potentially really explosive. There’s a real need but there’s also a real opportunity particularly to bring young people into the system and to running things like councils.
The mayor who I replaced was 21 when he took over, and he’s done a fantastic job. There’s no reason why young people shouldn’t be much more engaged than they are. There is a moment, particularly with social media where cheaply, quickly and easily, new bunches of people can come in at the bottom level and make things change.
It strikes me that what you’ve done in Frome is really imaginative and bold and creative, and town councils aren’t renowned for being bold and passionate and creative. Is there a way that they can have an injection of that? How can we get these ideas into councils?
Hopefully Frome and other places, because we’re not alone, can be examples and things do spread quite quickly. I think it’s a social media thing. Something like Incredible Edible which I know wasn’t a council idea, spread quickly. Transition Towns, blimey, world domination in only a few years! Good models can spread quickly. The effect of somewhere that is functioning being put out there is that it puts pressure on those that aren’t functioning. Other councils and other groups of people hopefully will think, why not us?
That’s definitely happening in the conversations that I have. I have a significant number of conversations now with people asking for advice or support and will you come and talk to us and so on, who want to do similar things. We’ll come to things talking a bit more later about the Transition Town movement because I think that’s the same thing really. A lot of what the Transition movement are doing is parallel democracy really. That puts a huge pressure on town councils to up their game.
The advantage of a town council is you have access to money, which a Transition group doesn’t have in the regular way that a parish or town council does. There’s real potential in there for the two working together to lead to a really significant evolution or revolution.
[Here is the podcast of our interview in full]