Our 10 Tips for Reinvigorating Local Democracy - in one place
Peter MacFadyen is a founder of Sustainable Frome (a Transition initiative) and Director of Frome's new Renewable Energy Co-op. He has worked with Comic Relief for 20 years, and was part of a group of Independents who, as Independents for Frome, ran for the town council and got in, a tale documented in his new book, Flatpack Democracy. During June, he shared his 10 Tips for Reinventing Local Democracy. Here they are, all gathered together in one place.
List of Tips
"The Transition Town model uses celebrate very much in its core already, and I think there’s a really clear role for Transition Town groups to be demonstrating the importance of lightness and laughter and celebration. I think councils have got very confused often with the difference between solemn and serious, something John Cleese talks about a lot. We think that we can’t be serious unless we’re solemn. But actually, councils can fund things like Big Lunches, community garden events, street parties, and there’s something that has come up in Frome called the Mens’ Shed Project, which is something that’s very widespread in Australia.
Those sorts of things, which would involve a lot of lightness, laughter and celebration, the role of the Transition Town movement is to really offer those to councils and then support them in carrying them out. To bring a lightness and a celebratory atmosphere to what happens in a community".
"This is about demonstrating and introducing new ways of doing things. One of the things that councils do in my experience is often have a row of men in suits who sit there and then give a speech and then might ask for some opinions from the floor and that’s called participation. Often it’s also called "consultation", which is even worse. The Transition movement’s got really engaged with things like World Café, Open Space, and then of course there’s the language of the Occupy movement and People’s Assemblies.
There’s a real role for Transition groups to be doing those things in their communities, so to be doing World Café, Open Space proper engagement, proper participation, and effectively embarrassing councils into being forced to revitalise local democracy because people simply won’t put up with that row of men in suits".
I became involved with the Town Council because coming from, effectively, a Transition Town, I engaged with the council, asked about their green strategy, there wasn’t one, so I tried to push them into having one. In the same way, people can be asking councils, so they have an ethical strategy, what happens to their compost, have they ever heard of Incredible Edible?
It’s about asking, pushing, demanding. It’s actually about getting things on agendas and then checking that they’re minuted afterwards. There’s a bit of work in there, and there might be some sort of press stuff, so again it’s about embarrassing people. The Transition Town demands action on closed allotments, things like that where politicians don’t like anything that’s publicly pushing them in a direction. So 'engage' is about a local Transition group actually taking the time to go to the council and then asking these questions and then pushing them a bit.
The Transition Town’s history comes from Peak Oil and climate change and concerns around those things, and I think it’s incredibly important that those things are right up there on the agenda, even in small towns and small villages. I think it’s false that just because you live in a small town with a population of a couple of thousand these issues don’t matter.
Of course they do, and therefore again it’s one of these things where Transition Towns need to keep at it. Keep having those talks. Keep showing those films. Get involved with things like anti fracking. Frome is a 'frack-free zone', the council voted for it to be a frack-free zone. In one sense it’s completely meaningless: nobody’s going to frack in Frome. But on the other hand, it keeps it in the public awareness and raises those issues that are really important.
So the role of the Transition Town is to put big national issues on the agenda and keep them there and make sure that councils engage with them.
It’s about linking to the outside world. It’s about moving on from the dog sheds and bus shelters that I mentioned earlier. It’s really saying that a council must be bigger. Frome Town Council’s new Neighbourhood Plan has One Planet Living at its core. So we’ve raised all the issues of the fact that we live on one planet. That’s a way into reduce, reuse, recycle and then maybe the council supporting things like a Restart project.
Again, it’s pressurising the council. Have they got things like a Fairtrade policy or are they part of the Fairtrade movement? Is there an ethical policy? We’ve just got a new ethical policy which interestingly clashes immediately with the pension schemes that all the staff have which are run at a national level, where the investment strategy includes investing in tobacco and arms and Monsanto.
The Transition Town movement is about challenging, pushing but also making things easy possibly. So for example, we’ve twinned all the public toilets in Frome with the community toilet twinning scheme. All the toilets are twinned with one in Africa, which is a scheme you can Google and look up. This costs sixty quid and that fundraises for a toilet in Africa. But the publicity that comes off that is saying we’re not just a little place that does its own little thing. We have ambitions and we want to be connected to the wider world, and I think that’s really important and something which the Transition movement can constantly be reminding the council and councillors, that it’s one world.
Food is already massive in the Transition Town movement. A lot of things relate around food, I think. It’s a fantastic way to bring people together. I’ve touched on things like the Big Lunch and so on before. But there’s a link to councils that can come through that, I think, which is partly to poverty. In Frome we’re now supporting a box scheme and one of the things that’s come out of discussions around poverty in Frome has been a whole new charity and a whole new group called Fair Frome, which is essentially focusing around food. That’s then linked into community meals and training around food, linked to the food boxes, leads into allotments, health and all those sorts of things.
What I’ve just described is part council agenda and part what most Transition Town movements do. Incredible Edible are brilliant I think in lots of ways. Most of the main flowerbeds in Frome are now run by an Incredible Edible group as I know they are in many Transition Town places. That’s a fantastic example of how everybody gains: the town council gets cheaper maintenance of their flower bed, the group gets everything out there. It’s just win win all over the place.
So food is really, really important. In a slightly personal way, I bake biscuits for the council meetings that I chair. And it’s really interesting how that broke down a whole formality, just by starting a meeting with tea and coffee and biscuits that come from a recipe that my mum made. It makes the whole thing more human and acceptable, and that’s exactly the kind of thing that Transition groups are doing all the time.
Most of what the Transition movement does, really everything that it does, is common sense. When people understand it, they’ll understand that. It’s easy to get bogged down, to run out of energy, to get a bit depressed about everything that we’re trying to do, but I think it’s really important for everybody to do the little things that they can, whether it’s one woman’s window box or another’s allotment.
Tipping points don’t come at 50%. In other words, at a certain point in a community, enough people will be doing things, and then everybody goes "oh right, we get it". Men and women are social animals. Much of what Transition Town is about is about rebuilding social links. That’s what councils love to do, and actually we can make it easy for them.
They love claiming ownership of things, so keeping doing things, keeping on in there, and even when it feels like it’s all an endless slog, it’s really important to make sure that councils see that because at a certain point, the tipping point comes and the whole thing suddenly goes ‘buddumph’ and you get a Totnes or a Frome.
I increasingly believe that the upper levels of the political system are not going to change. That ultimately turkeys will never vote for Christmas. The 23 out of 27 multimillionaires in the cabinet are never going to change the system. Localism, neighbourhood plans and so on are a brilliant philosophy, a great idea, but it’s not going to happen in the timescale that we need.
So what we need is Transition Towns to be running parallel systems which effectively come up and swamp the so-called democracy and make it irrelevant. The best example I can think of is photovoltaics in Germany. You’ve got so much private and small-scale photovoltaic production going on that actually the German equivalent of the Big 6, at some point they won’t be able to sell their electricity, because there’s so much being made off roofs that theirs has no value. Another example perhaps is the sharing of music that happens now on the internet, where the corporate music industry has effectively been completely undermined by the people.
I think with social media and new ways of engagement, particularly, Transition Towns can be part of coming up and around the system and just making it irrelevant. Enlightened councils can support this process. What we’re trying to do in Frome is to support those kinds of movements and accept less and less power for the council. The council does less and less decision making and more and more listening to what people really want. New parallel systems are what’s wanted.
Laughter. Now in a way this is a little bit of a cheat, because it goes all the way back to the beginning with celebrate in a way. I’ve been really inspired by Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement in Italy. The five stars, incidentally, are water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, connectivity and environmentalism. What could be more Transition Town than that?
It’s full of environmentalism and sustainable things. He’s a man who’s come from completely outside the system, a stand-up comic who took 25% of the votes in the last presidential election in Italy. His three steps for raising popular engagement are laughter, information and political action. The real role for Transition Towns is to up the game in terms of laughter, celebration, lightness which will reinvigorate local engagement and draw people in, especially younger ones. It’s based on this: that we’ll get the opportunities for revolution and all the things I mentioned earlier.
The Transition Movement has a real role in creating a situation where we behave in politics and in local democracy in the way that we behave in life. So the things that excite us and enthuse us in life, like laughter, why can’t we have them in the meetings that we have that are meant to be serious and solemn? There’s a real role there for Transition Town movements to make that happen.
Anyone deeply involved in the ideas of the Transition Town movement will have a sense of urgency. At a certain point, if all the demonstrating, sharing, offering, all the parallel systems and all that leaves power in the hands of a few non-representative people whose personal agenda and fear of change leaves them making poor decisions or missing opportunities then I think we have to revolt.
And so places like Frome, like Liskeard which has done things in a similar way, need to go "you know what, it’s not going to happen in the timescale that we need so let’s actually take over local democracy and support it to do what it needs to do". Hence Flatpack Democracy which sets out how we did that in Frome, and in some ways its evolution not revolution although thinking about that in the timescale I think we need there to be revolution. There’s a real role for Transition Towns to be the platform for that revolution because they already have a community of people who have that urgency, who can drive this forward in a way that is incredibly crucial.