On 28th January 2016 the House of Lords debated a motion from Lord Shipley “that this House takes note of local democracy in the United Kingdom.” The Bishop of Durham, Rt Revd Paul Butler, spoke in the debate about the local authorities in the Durham diocese and partnership work with voluntary and civil society organisations.
The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, on his excellent maiden speech and I look forward to listening to other maiden speeches later. What right does a bishop have to say anything about local democracy? Let me give some quick history. I was a curate in Wandsworth in the 1980s when the borough became either a cause celebre or something else, depending on how you thought about it. I then moved to the London Borough of Newham and experienced a democratically elected autocracy that avoided dictatorship because of the extremely fine leadership of Stephen Timms, who now, of course, serves as an MP in the other place. I then moved to the London Borough of Waltham Forest and worked both as team rector and as area dean on issues of social cohesion, through creating an interfaith project and through working on children’s and young people’s issues and on housing and homelessness.
When I became a bishop I went down to Southampton and worked with the City of Southampton and with Hampshire County Council and experienced the joys of trying to help differently led authorities talk to each other. I then became the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham and experienced the joys of working both with the City of Nottingham and the county of Nottingham, and I am delighted to say I shared a part in helping them to take on a living wage. There, I experienced the delights of discovering that, even if authorities are led by the same party, they do not always talk to each other.
Now I am in Durham, in the north-east, and I work with seven local authorities, plus the many town and parish councils. I was at the induction of a new vicar the other night and was delighted that the town mayor was there to represent the local community and that two parish councillors were there because of the history of the local church working with the parish council on local matters. All this experience has taught me the huge value of local democracy and why it matters at every level. I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, about the importance of town and parish councils in this whole process.
I want to talk a little about Durham County Council, not because I am favouring it over any of the others I work with but because of its work on area action partnerships. A little over six years ago, Durham County Council, working with local partners including the church, set about establishing local area action partnerships to give local communities across the county a much greater say in how their areas were run and to enable local community action. The partnerships act as a local complement to the local authority.
Over the years, 14 area action partnerships have become a vital and valued feature of local community governance in the county, fully supported by the local authority. The council actually devolved £27.6 million to the area and neighbourhood budgets that are administered by the area action partnerships. They have used that money to support more than 3,200 projects, engaging people in local community action, ranging from job creation and environmental projects to activities for the young and the elderly to help for those affected by poverty and welfare reform. These partnerships bring together local communities, voluntary organisations, the business community and local elected officials from the county and town and parish councils. No one group dominates, and several partnerships have independent chairs.
The approach developed in Durham has attracted international attention for the way it has engaged and empowered local people. It has particularly developed pioneering work on participatory budgeting, which has given local communities a direct say in how public money from the council, the police and crime commissioner, the NHS and others is spent in their areas. In doing so, they have stimulated and promoted local community action as local groups and organisations have come forward with proposals and projects, which are then put to a public vote to decide which are funded. These local area action partnerships are a fine example, I believe.
In conclusion, I commend my own town council in Bishop Auckland for the way in which it is engaging with the extraordinary regeneration that is taking place around Auckland Castle and with the development of a new art museum. The town council has played a critical role in this alongside the county council, and it is to be commended highly for its work.
My experience says that local democracy matters enormously. It works best not only when it liaises upwards to national and regional government but when it engages very well with the local voluntary organisations and civic society because then the local people own it.