From its inception, SCT had always intended that one of its early projects should seek to meet the particular challenge of a rural environment. The sparsity and diversity of most rural communities make it particularly difficult for them to develop a shared agenda and even harder to secure an audience for it among the decision takers in public and other services. The fact that most of those services are based in and often focused on urban areas exacerbates the problem, particularly for those living in the countryside whose pressing needs (for housing, social services, healthcare, child care etc) and lack of influence are obscured by the relative affluence and, sometimes, articulacy of their neighbours.
In partnership with the New Economics Foundation (nef) and supported by a grant from Regional Action West Midlands’ Every Voice Counts programme, SCT has had an opportunity to adapt its model to address the needs of the communities of six rural parishes in north Herefordshire.
The parishes of Buckton & Coxall, Brampton Bryan, Adforton, Walford, Letton & Newton and Lingen & Willey, all in the County Council Ward of Mortimer, share a single Council, the Border Parish Group which, as a Quality Parish Council, provides the ideal point of entry for the Speakers’ Corner project. It covers an area of approximately six miles east-west and seven miles north-south, with a population of some 500 people living in the three small villages of Adforton, Brampton Bryan and Lingen and the countryside between them.
The project focused on the six parishes but it is hoped that lessons learned there can be applied to other rural communities up and down the country.
Following a constructive meeting with John Miles, the Chair of the Council, its Clerk Richard Ambrose and the Herefordshire County Councillor for Mortimer Ward, Cllr Olwyn Barnett in the spring of 2009 and a follow-up towards the end of the year, SCT and nef attended a meeting of the Parish Council in December to discuss their plans for a programme designed to encourage and enable local people to increase their participation and influence in local policy making and service delivery. But the first priority was to find out what matters most to the local community.
The Lingen Meetings
The project’s first public meeting was to have taken place on 7 January 2010 but fell victim to the heavy snow which cut off much of Herefordshire. It finally took place at Lingen Village Hall on 15 January, bringing together local residents from Lingen and Adforton and villages between, two parish Councillorsand the SCT/nef team. Over tea and biscuits, the meeting discussed the needs of the local community, what had been achieved over the last few years and what some of the key challenges are today.
A fortnight later on 1 February the group, with some new faces, met again to identify the issue which they felt the local community would want to adopt. Two issues were considered the top priorities. One, the lack of broadband access, had already been adopted by a working group but the other, persistent flooding on major roads in and around Walford, had been a problem both for local residents and shopkeepers and other businesses in Leintwardine for some time. Volunteers came forward and it was agreed that a public ‘flooding summit’ be organised at which the key bodies such as the Parish and County Councils, the Environment Agency, the landowners the Harley Estate, environmental groups and local businesses and residents could discuss the problem and seek to work together towards a solution.
In the end, the summit did not take place because the Border Group Parish Council stepped in to adopt the issue itself and organised its own meeting with the County Council, Environment Agency and landowners.
The Community Forum Guide
However, it had become clear in the course of the Lingen meetings that relations between the Parish Council and the community were not as close or positive as either Councillors or residents would like. Residents claimed that they were kept informed of Council busieness and had little opportunity either to influence or to hold their Councillors to account. For thie part, Councillors felt that their voluntary work was neither adequately understood nor appreciated.
Based on their experience in the Border Group area and elsewhere, SCT/nef developed a model which they felt would offer local communities a vehicle through which to come together to discuss issued of local importance, whether opportunities, needs or problems, either on a regular basis or as they arose. The Community Forum and the consensus it reached on particular issues could also provide an effective means not only of involving a cross section of the community and the knowledge, ideas and energies it represented but also of influencing local decision makers in a broadly representative and constructive way.
You can access the Community Forum Guide here.