In a guest post Gareth Davies argues that whilst activism matters, there is a more mundane, and often overlooked way LGBTQ+ people can make a difference in their own communities.
It’s January, the month named after a two faced Roman god, where we look backwards over the last year and forward to the next one. New Year’s resolutions are much more obvious an idea than they might seem from the sunlit uplands of summer. As we reach the turning of the year, and the return to longer days and shorter nights we look back, checking where we are and where we’ve been, and we look forward to where we want to be. Sometimes that path leads to the gym, or the weight loss class. Sometimes it might lead to a conversation with a therapist or the most suitable 12 step group. These are all good things to do. Sometimes the resolution is less tangible, less individual, more about a sense of wellbeing with the world.
Like all the other people writing New Years Resolution articles I’ve got a pitch to make.
If you are LGBTQ+ get involved with your local council. If your local council is a parish council, even better. If it’s not, then, as you’ll see below, I’ve got some thoughts about how you might get a parish council for your area, and why that’s a good idea.
Of course there are hurdles to cross, and one of them starts with the image and even the name of parish councils. There is no association between parish councils and the church other than their name. It’s about being the smallest level of administrative unit on the map nothing more.. In Wales they’re called community or town councils; in England they’re called parish or town councils.
You can argue, plausibly, (buy me a coffee and I’ll do it) that lines on maps no longer describe the communities we all live in, which are better described by the intersections of our lives and interests, but for local government purposes, only the lines on maps count.
If you are LGBTQ+ get involved with your local council. If your local council is a parish council, even better
Why get involved with your local council? I’ve been working with or for parish councils for the last seven years; in that time I’ve helped them put on music festivals, food festivals, sports events, arts and cultural events. Dancing on the beach to Dr and the Medics or The Christians live on stage may not seem like a typical outcome to having a parish council, but that’s the beauty of them; they really can make an impact.
Councils I have worked with fund design and improve everything from local buses to advice services as well as being good with events. Those are examples, not hard limits. Among the unfulfilled ambitions which I hope to see come to fruition in the next five years are pop up cinemas, alternative markets and an incubator service for new community organizations, and hopefully more stuff that I can’t even imagine at the moment.
There is no association between parish councils and the church other than their name. It’s about being the smallest level of administrative unit on the map nothing more..
That’s a long way from Vicar of Dibley, and a long way from most people’s impression of what a parish council does. It’s traditional when writing about parish councils to mention the Vicar of Dibley. So I have. It’s a very funny TV programme, not a documentary. Parish councils aren’t just about villages, or warm hearted comedy about our human frailties. Larger parish councils have budgets that run into millions of pounds; the local vicar might be welcome on the council, but it also needs a team of volunteer councillors who can cover a range of skills from HR to project management, with listening to the community they belong to at the heart of everything.
Is that what you were expecting? A sales pitch for the most local form of local government in England and Wales? It’s one that isn’t made often enough, in my experience, and one that I think needs to be made.
What if you could shape the way local services are delivered in the place where you live? What if you could be one of the voices that is heard when resource are being allocated? What if you could be the person every parish council needs, the ideas generator who asks why not, rather than why?
Larger parish councils have budgets that run into millions of pounds;
One of the big obstacles to anyone getting involved in local government in England is that, structurally, it’s a mess. In a very post modern way, it’s feudal, with power being passed down from the top in a piecemeal fashion. Councils only exist because parliament says they can, and in the case of parish councils, they only exist if the local community also says they want one.
Take that to its extreme and you have the example of London, where there’s only one parish council for the entire conurbation, even though any community that wants to can talk to its local borough about the process of establishing a parish council.
You’re bound to ask, what stops people from acting to bring a degree of power and accountability closer to home?
Part of the reason is that, up until a few years ago, parish councils had very limited powers. They were allowed, simply, to do whatever parliament said they could do, and most of what they could do was small scale environmental issues and projects. In the last decade though parish councils have acquired the right to apply for something called the general power of competence – it means, broadly, that well run councils can do anything it would be lawful for a person to do.
That’s a pretty amazing remit to have, to do anything that will benefit the people who elect the council. It’s also an enormous challenge, to talk to the people you live amongst, who share the spaces where you live about what they want, about things that would improve their lives.
Right now, in the parish where I work, we’re preparing to go out and survey our LGBTQI community about their experience of living in and visiting our town. We’re also working as part of much larger community projects, to regnerate historic buildings, and to support much smaller projects like a cafe that will recycle food discarded by shops and provide training and support for those in need. It’s a far cry from the bickering gentlefolk of Dibley, or JK Rowling’s use of a parish election in fictional Pagford to write a dystopian parable about modern Britain. Increasingly parish councils are using their new found powers to look outwards, and that includes thinking about our equalities duties and our ability to relate to all our communities, not just the sections of them that traditionally stand for election. A modern parish should be capable of welcoming as councillors members of all the communities bounded by sexuality, gender, faith and ethnicity that live within it, bringing with them their experiences, their knowledge and their ambitions for the place where they live.
Parish councils vary hugely; the one I work for has monthly meetings that begin with a public session where anyone can ask questions or make suggestions. It’s astonishingly democratic, and as an officer, I’m routinely amazed by the brilliant ideas people bring to our meetings.
So why not you? Why not check out the NALC website for more information about local councils, or how to become a council. Why not ask the council you pay council tax to if you have a parish council in your area, and ask them if not, why not? If you’ve ever felt the urge to be a volunteer, but haven’t known which organization to volunteer for, I’d argue that a parish or town council is the perfect place to be that all purpose volunteer. Why not give it a try?
Follow Gareth on Twitter (@gareth_in_blyth)