Written by Peter Macfadyen
The Coronavirus has taught us much about what is really valuable, both as individuals and communities. At a local level, the response to the pandemic has enabled some people, who have never done so before, to come forward and shine. Some will have identified and enjoyed finding their capabilities and gained recognition within their communities, while others will want to return to “normality” as quickly as possible.
The State is moving fast to ensure that it gives just enough to satisfy those who have started to recognise their own capacity and the dire limitations of the political system. Eventually, some new bike lanes will emerge, although not enough to dent the power of the car, and some grass will not be cut, so we feel better about insects. But where are the initiatives to build on this burgeoning community engagement?
The pandemic has highlighted how some local organisations can play key roles in their society, while others have failed to respond in ways that are fit for purpose. With Mutual Aid and other groups emerging to provide crucial support throughout the UK, the past few months have clearly illustrated the need for a massive change in the way these local councils operate. Many councils have proven to be totally inadequate during the pandemic. More than ever, at the town level, it is crucial that well-functioning local councils work in genuine partnership with these community groups.
This is the time when these newly engaged and empowered people, who have come to know where they live and what is needed, can step forward. Not just to prop up the creaking structures and systems of local government, but to get elected to fundamentally change them to provide truly participative democracy. What this means is changing the way local councils and the councillors operate. They can and must be constantly looking for how to truly engage and involve the people they live next door to – exactly as has happened in the past few months.
Change has to come from below. Central government has never really been interested in community – it’s too distant and lacking in ego. But if citizens insert themselves into the arcane structures that exist at a community level and rebuild them for this century, not just in one town but in every town, then maybe we can build a viral movement that swamps the oligarchs from below.
In any community there will be groups working together for their common good. People acting as “citizens.” In most countries of the world there will be a group who have been elected or selected to represent views of others: local, parish or community councils of some kind. In my view, these are almost always misunderstood and underused, not least because the systems they operate under are not fit for this century. But they can play a vital role, if they can be untangled from the party politics which has poisoned much of our capacity to tackle the critical issues we face. Their time has come.