Friday, 1 May 2015

Power to the people- but will we want to use it?

Penkhull Village Hall on a sunny but still chilly April evening is as good a place as any in which to sit and think about how things will be when the election is over.

It is the evening of the annual general meeting of the local residents association, there are maybe forty people milling about in the hall drinking free tea and coffee and being gently badgered into buying raffle tickets.

The hall itself is the site of the former church school, built in the mid-nineteenth century by concerned local worthies to offer an education to the poor, and revived a century and more later by local people giving their time and effort for free.

Things may have changed in almost every other respect, but the feeling of being untied by a willingness to do something for the the good of the community that motivated those Victorian villagers is still very much apparent.

The star turn of the evening is a talk on Community rights and Neighbourhood Planning given by Andy Perkin, a community and enterprise consultant with Potteries Heritage Society. At first glance the subject mater may sound dry, its substance though is very much of the moment.

Mr Perkin gives an outline of what the Potteries Heritage Society does, as the name implies they work to protect and promote the unique character of the six towns making up Stoke-on-Trent as expressed through its historic buildings.

The 'community rights' he has come to talk about are a product of the localism that was all the rage during the coalition's salad days flirtation with the big society. That project collapsed under the weight of, often understandable, public cynicism; it left behind though some useful powers for communities that want to protect the things that make them distinctive.

The most valuable of these is, perhaps, the power to protect things like shops, pubs and community halls from being used for other purposes or even being demolished by registering them as assets of community value.

In the context of Penkhull, a village that had its historic heart decimated during the demolition frenzy of the 1960's this is more than usually pertinent. Half a century on and villagers are using these powers to give the former infants school and the village hall where we are sitting a new lease of life.

Communities also have the right to challenge how services are delivered and to bid to take over running them, something that sounds attractive, but may in practice be problematic. The recent experience of community campaigners in Fenton springs to mind, it is easy to involve people in a emotive issue like protecting to former magistrates court from demolition; and rather harder to get them to engage with something like the referendum over setting up a community council necessary to making the autonomy that would give it a long term future a reality.

In his jeans and open necked shirt waving a laser pointer at images on a projector Andy Perkin has the look and teaching style of a lecturer at a good red brick university. The case he makes is a persuasive one, embracing these powers and taking an active interest in planning issues would give communities the say over decisions over the decisions that impact on their lives so many people claim to want.

Unfortunately these good intentions tend to founder on some awkward realities, the first of which is all too evident in the room tonight. For a community event the turnout is impressive, though still small given the population of the village, there is also a noticeably older demographic in the room, most people present are over sixty and there is nobody there under forty, where will the next generation of community activists come from?

This is an issue that will become ever more important in the years to come. As the election winds down it is clear that no individual party will win a majority and that whatever coalition is assembled after the event will have to work within tight financial constraints.

If they want to protect not just the services they depend on but the buildings and way of life that make them places worth living in then communities are going to develop a new way of thinking. They are going to have to stop seeming themselves as a collection of individuals mostly pursuing their own objectives in near isolation and start recognising what shared values make them into a coherent entity.

They are going to have to start thinking a lot more like the villagers who decided that Penkhull needed a school of its own more than a century ago and the ones who work to keep it functioning as a community venue today.

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