Episode #62 The Town that shaped its world: Pam Barrett on FlatPack/DIY Democracy and taking charge of politics
National politics is in a state of chaos. But local governance can be a place of enlivening, inspiring, radical change. Pam Barrett speaks of her work to change the nature of her local town council – what she achieved – and how we can do the same.
Pam worked at the heart of the Westminster government’s civil service. Then she moved to picturesque Buckfastleigh, a mill town on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon, and began to see how badly the town was served by the town and regional councils. She started a group to preserve the town’s only swimming pool. That grew, and the pool was saved, and she moved on, in time, to stand as an independent for the town council. A group of others stood with her, and they gained 9 seats on a 12 seat council. Which meant they could do things, make things happen… discover the freedom that local democracy gives if it truly serves the local people.
With the newly independent group on the local council, the concept of ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ took on new meaning. They moved the council to a bigger room and made the proceedings far more transparent. They asked local people what they wanted to do – and then worked out how much it would cost.. .23p per household per week to really keep the swimming pool open, other bits for other things, amounting to an extra 97p per household per week. And then they let local people decide if they wanted that…
and, like almost all participatory budgeting, when people have a chance to really see what their money goes towards – they did want it, and they were happy to pay. So that four years later, when the council came up for re-election, 10 independent councillors stood and 10 were elected.
Pam’s story is one of agency, and local empowerment and it can play out pretty much anywhere in the world where democracy is still alive. Listen in and be inspired – then go out and see what you can do in your local area.
Manda: My guest this week is one of those people who gets things done. Pam Barrett has worked as a civil servant in the heart of the UK Westminster government. But then she moved to Devon and became involved in local politics almost by default, as you will hear first as an activist and then as what I think can best be described as an activist councillor on the local town council. And we live in a world where the limbic hijack of national politics has pretty much taken over. It’s going to be really, really hard to gain traction at a national level to do things that go against the moneyed establishment in ways that create a flourishing future for people and the planet. There’s too much big money involved in winding people up to make sure that doesn’t happen. We just have to look at the national and the international news to see that playing out in real time. But at the local level, anywhere in the world, we can still make a difference. And that’s the level where communities are built and where change happens.
And with the local elections coming up in the U.K., I really wanted to talk to Pam about her work, about what she made happen, how she did it and how we can emulate her. And then here in the U.K., there was a kind of social media sensation when Zoom minutes of Handforth Parish Council were released. And with the best will in the world, there is some dysfunction there, so we have moved the scheduling of this a little. We’ve put Richard Murphy to next week. So when I say in the podcast, we spoke to Richard Murphy last week, actually, we did. But you won’t hear it until next week so that we could bring Pam forward, not just because it gives people more time to put themselves forward as candidates in the local elections, once you’ve heard about what can be achieved, and how to do it. But also because the whole process of local democracy is really in the news just now. And we wanted to pick up on that. For those of you who are not in the U.K., I have put a link in the show notes because I suspect that dysfunctional local politics is probably not ours alone, and that the scope for change at a local level is planet wide. So people of the podcast, please do welcome Pam Barrett.
Manda: So, Pam Barrett, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast on what is a snowy morning for us, and not snowy for you. I imagine quite a lot of kids are going to be quite sad that they’re not going to be sledding down the streets of Buckfastleigh. How is it?
Pam: Yeah, well, it’s lovely and sunny and cold, but the kids will be disappointed, I think.
Manda: As we record it’s February, so you never know, we might get more snow. And possibly best not to be snowed in, as some of my American friends have been. I hope you guys in the States are all peaceful now. So, Pam, you are the person, probably one of the few in the UK who is really actually changing the nature of the democratic process, and what democracy can do on the ground in Devon. So I really want to explore that in depth in this podcast. But before we get there, can we have a little bit of a history of who Pam is and how you got to be the person who is making change happen?
Pam: Yes. Where would you like to start? You want to go back to childhood? Or…
Manda: Wherever feels relevant to what you’re doing just now, actually.
Pam: Well, I think, you know, a little bit of childhood is probably a sensible place to start. So I am one of six children. I’m the youngest of a family of six and was born in Leeds to mum and dad. Dad was an Irish labourer, and my mum was a cleaner and mum. So very much working class background on a big housing estate in Leeds. And I think that has shaped me a lot. You know, we had two very active parents who… obviously, we weren’t rich. We we always managed to get by, but we were shown, and interested in things. So we were outside, if I think of my childhood, I was outside most of the time. We were on bikes, we were fixing bikes, we were shown nature. We were learning things. And I think that was quite a marked difference to lots of people in our environment. And I think, knowing how lucky we were to have that sort of start and what difference it made to my family’s life, all our siblings are in public sector and, you know, a lot more comfortable than when we grew up. And I think that has been part of the stuff that shaped me. And from there, University of Liverpool and then the period working for the Citizens Advice Bureau before my first proper job as a civil servant.
And I ended up moving down to London in about 1992, I think, and became the private secretary to the Permanent Secretary of Customs and Excise at that time. So very much sort of in the sort of Whitehall remit. And I’ve worked my way through the civil service for 30 years, really a lot of policy, organisational HR change, but tending to be sort of towards the coordinating centre of a department. So I’ve had a lot of experience, which I’ve only really realised how much it’s permeated into my skill set over the past six or seven years. But comms and planning and strategy and organisational development, those sorts of things I’ve picked up over the time. So I was in London until 13 years ago, moved down to Devon with my husband and found myself in Buckfastleigh, living a very different life to the one that had been used to in London. And that’s, I think, where I’ve had some time to bed into the community that I’m in, and began to see possibilities of how things might work better, or make things better for people who live here.
Manda: So for people around the world who have never been to Buckfastleigh, firstly, I am lucky that I have because I lived nearby when I was at Schumacher. But can you describe a little bit about the nature of the place, so that we can get a sense of the place you were embedding into?
Pam: Yes. So we are a little town on the edge of Dartmoor, the southern edge of Dartmoor, which is a high rural upland with moors and forests and woodlands, a really beautiful part of the world. The town itself is sort of mediaeval at core, and then sort of industrialising through the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries and very much focussed on the woollen industry. So it’s a historic woollen town, which means that we have factories and industry, or we did have factories and industry at the heart of the community, and lots of housing providing accommodation for workers. And over time, it’s been thriving. There’s three and a half thousand people here at the moment. And the biggest change, I would think in the past decade is the closing of those factories where the sheep skins and fleeces and wool was made. And that’s led to a loss of income and employment. And at the same time, a lot of the cuts that have been made under the age of austerity have left us without services in town anymore and also cut off our transport to our nearest link. So you end up with a very pretty town, a very sort of traditional town and a lot of ways in a beautiful setting, but with a reasonably large amount of deprivation, sat aside some quite high affluence. And the disparity between the two is quite marked really. And that inability to access services and facilities is getting worse. And I think that’s what’s driven me to try and fix.
Manda: Brilliant. Thank you. So stepping back a little bit before we look at how you were involved in the local democracy in Buckfastleigh, I’m just curious to know, all of your siblings ended up in civil service of some sort. Did you enter Customs and Excise on that level, really high up level of the civil service, believing that you could change it? Or believing that it was already an inherently good thing and that you could be part of a grander system that was doing useful stuff?
Pam: Well, in retrospect, it would be nice to say the latter, I think actually was born out of necessity at the time. I’d been unemployed for a couple of years and found myself, there was an opening up in Liverpool to join the civil service. I was allocated to a government department. I always expected it to be, you know, a year or two while I found another job. I mean, at the time, I was also working for the Citizens Advice Bureau, and that was really formative for me as well. Being unemployed, I was struggling with my own finances, and dealing with things like housing and water bills. And I sort of knew that this wasn’t going to be my life forever. It’s really difficult when you’re dealing with your own stuff. And I found volunteering for the CAB, I was able to already sort of start making a difference. I remember going with clients who’d come into the CAB to go over to the Social Security office at the time where people had been left without funding, and being able to advocate for them in a way which I couldn’t do for myself. Getting a lot of satisfaction and a lot of sort of moral outrage at what was happening to people. And so I was very young when I was doing that, you know, I’d have been nineteen, twenty, probably, and that was really formative.
But at the same time I was working for the Civil Service, I had a really interesting trip out. Friends of mine, good friends of mine, had arranged some cottages up in the Lake District. And I remember they’d all agreed to pick us up and take us up to the Lake District. And a whole fleet of red brand new BMWs turned up outside the house to to take us up. And in each one of the cars was a very young Kellogg’s executive. And I remember, they were lovely people, absolutely lovely. But I remember they were about my age. They were all marketing executives for Kellogg’s. And they talked, you know, we went away for the weekend. They were talking a lot about, you know, their account with Honey Nut Loops, or whatever they were doing. And I think I’d just been working on a on a budget proposal, which was about, you know, I don’t know, 600 million pounds worth of public funding coming in. And it was a really conscious moment of me of I could never imagine fulfilling my life, managing a Honey Nut Loop account, no matter if it came with a shiny red BMW. So, they’re the bits in life that you just think, no, I’m pleased to be in the public sector. So it was a very it was even though I found myself in it by accident, staying in it was a very precise decision.
Manda: Right. Thank you. Really interesting. So 13 years ago, you come down to Buckfastleigh, and we’ve got this beautiful little town nestling on the edge of Dartmoor, which for people not familiar with the UK, it’s in the South West toe of England. And the sea is always kind of not quite just out of reach in all directions, really. The only other county left is Cornwall, which is even further down in the South West. And Devon has become a place where people from London buy their second homes, or retire to when they’ve got huge amounts of money and want to go to somewhere nice in the country. And so Buckfastleigh, I’m sure like other places in Devon ends up with that real disparity between the people who have more money than they know what to do with, and the people who have lived there for generations, whose factories have closed and and now who are really suffering. So having seen that, and coming from the background that you described, can you tell us a little bit about how you began to move into the local democratic system?
Pam: Yeah, I think our first forays into it was around in 2012 when we had a flooding event in our town. So the bottom end of our town, we’d had a huge summer of enormous rain, relentless rain. The house is surrounded by rivers which were used in the woollen industry for cleaning fleeces. And this particular year, the rivers were overwhelmed and a part of town at the bottom end of town flooded, which included my house and my neighbours’ houses. It was very traumatic, very upsetting, did a lot of damage. And I think what we as a community, the people at the bottom end of town, our neighbours wanted to work with the Town Council to put a flood plan in place and try and address the issues. And it was really clear that the Town Council didn’t see any value in speaking to those people who had been affected by flooding. We had a real battle on our hands, first of all, to get any help. So we ended up having to help ourselves, because there was precious little help from the town. Once we’d recovered from the immediate effect of the flooding, we’d done to clear up, what was most frustrating was trying to get a seat at the table where decisions would be made about what flood plan we would have in place, and flood plans were drawn up without our involvement. Our comments were not taken on board. And it just seemed to me absolutely crazy that anybody would choose to work like that. You know, never mind whether it was, you know, the right or proper thing to do. Actually, the plan that they were drawing up was wrong, because it failed to include the people who were there on the ground when it happened. So it was that resistance there to engage with us, which basically set me off on a ‘actually, well, I’ll do it myself’. So I set up a flood group which then managed to get work done, and improvements made, and a communication channel in place. But it was very much working, not only not just been ignored, but being worked against. And it was that arrogance of the system. And I think the arrogance of the system at all levels that really irritated me and sort of started the journey, I think.
Manda: And started the journey in terms of you demonstrating that you were competent and proactive and you cared about local people, which I’m assuming your local governance is similar to the local governance here. And you’re right, that level of detachment of the governing group from the actual things that are happening on the ground seems to be almost universal in the places where it hasn’t been explicitly addressed, not just in Britain but all around the world. So I’m guessing you became very popular with your neighbours, and also, because it always seems to me that there are the people who talk about stuff, and there are people who get stuff done. And sometimes you can drag the people who talk about stuff into the group of the people who get stuff done. But generally speaking, in any community, the same people turn up time after time to be getting stuff done. And you had established as one of those. So how was the step to becoming an elected member of the council, was that straightforward?
Pam: Yeah, there was an intermediate situation, I think, pertinent to what you’re saying. So that was 2012. In 2013, our next tier of council decided that, declared that they were going to close our 120 year old outdoor swimming pool. The town was outraged, and by this time I’d begun to get quite irritated with the lack of .. so you were seeing bus services cut. The youth funding had been cut. I’d moved to Buckfastleigh deliberately because I thought it was lovely. And then to see what was happening to it was just really sad. So for me, it wasn’t a case of moving into a place and trying to change it. It was just it was just been salami sliced, and a death by a thousand cuts. And people were so cross about the swimming pool. But like you said, nobody… everyone was cross, nobody was doing anything about it. And I just thought it was too much to sit and watch that go. So I became very active, involved in the campaign to save the pool. Very long story.
Very shortly I ended up taking over as Chair of the charity of the pool. We raised £350,000 pounds worth of capital grant and we run it to this day. We rebuilt and managed the park and the pool, and we run that really successfully now. So that was between 2014, and we started managing the pool in 2015, and it was 2015 we took over, in April 2015, and the elections were in May 2015 for the Town and Parish Council. So actually in that time, from January, February 2015 when we knew, we realised there was an election coming up, thought we could probably do better. We contemplated. So there was a few different groups, people involved in the library, people involved with a difficult planning application, which was a really horrific incinerator bottom ash dump, which was planned for our town. Buckfastleigh was really very much the underdog. If the services could be cut from it or, you know, any burden that we’ve been based was stuck on Buckfastleigh, because we’re out on a limb, and it’s not as posh as the towns and villages around us. So I think there was always an expectation that nobody would put up a fight. Having a few of us, you know, done the flooding, done this planning application, done the swimming pool, it was like, well, should we bother standing for the town council? Because we’re obviously quite competent at doing stuff outside the system. But we thought it would give us some legitimacy. We also thought it might shake things up a little bit and be a bit fun. And so we decided to get a group together and to force the first election at our Town Council level for as far back as records show, so there is no record of an actual election before 2015.
Manda: What happened instead for people who are not familiar with the UK system? How could there not be?
Pam: So every four years in theory there is an election. So that’s the length of term of an office and there are 12 seats on our town council. And what happens is if 12 people or fewer put themselves up for election, then they’re all automatically made councillors. Yeah, which makes sense. And the situation is the town councils have become so detached and irrelevant to the community that quite often, you know, councils are running with five or six or seven people with vacancies because nobody puts themselves forward. So there had never been an election. You know, this was the first time. So in 2015 we found ourselves with, over this time of me being a little bit of an agitator, the town council had packed its council so that they didn’t have any vacancies, but I think possibly worried that I might try and take one. But I had no intention of wasting my time as one person out of twelve on a town council. But actually we were in a position then to put nine people up for the twelve seats and we took them all. We took all nine.
Manda: So two questions, the we, is this the we from the swimming pool group, or also from the flood group, or just a group of activists? And then what did you run under? So, separate question. Let’s find out who is we? first.
Pam: Well, I can’t actually remember how it started. I’d created some Facebook groups after the flood, which was relatively early in 2012, to sort of improve communication. So I’d created the town Facebook groups, mostly to help speed up communication but of course it became very valuable for sort of, you know, sharing what was happening. I can’t remember how we started, but about 12 or 15 of us met up for breakfast one morning in, let’s say, February 2015. And we definitely didn’t know each other. We might have been aware of each other a little bit, a little bit more than others. And out of that, we had a discussion and nine of the fifteen people there agreed to stand for election. So we formed a group. We decided to call ourselves the Buckfastleigh Independent Group, which gave us a lovely acronym of BIG. And we set about having big ideas, and asking the big question, and even having big breakfasts and all that sort of stuff.
So it’s quite close to the campaign by that time. So we formed a group. It’s interesting to note it has no constitution. It’s just a loose affiliation of people who choose to call themselves the Buckfastleigh Independence Group. And shortly after we formed ourselves, and I think it was literally a matter of days, I found Peter McFadyen and Flatpack Democracy somehow or another. We spoke to Peter. So for people who don’t know, Flatpack Democracy is a book written by Peter McFadyen from Frome, and it sort of documents how you can go about taking over town and parish councils. It was written probably, I would think 2013, 2014 and Frome had taken over its town council, the Independents from Frome in the previous cycle, so four years before that. So 2011 or so I think. And it was really handy for us as a shortcut. I went and bought 10 copies of the book, gave them out to everybody, and it was a really handy shortcut of how to manage your campaign. And Peter and the Independents from Frome were able to just really just provide us with some general encouragement and support. And it was really reassuring to know that what we were thinking was along the right lines.
Manda: Did you at any point consider standing for, say, the Green Party or Labour or any of the actual political parties? Or what was the conscious decision to remain independent even before you knew about the kind of independent model that Flatpack puts forward?
Pam: There’s a bit of a longer story here, really. Flatpack Democracy is very much based on Independent politics. Because Frome is a lot bigger than Buckfastleigh. There were parties, you know, refusing to cooperate with each other. I’ve always said our form of flatpack democracy in small towns is slightly different, because party politics isn’t really an issue down here. Not at this level. It is at higher levels, and there it’s just as bad. It’s an irrelevance here. And it was more about the lack of ambition of councils and the processes that they chose to work with. And so, you know, the failure to communicate with the community, the failure to address what was happening. If we go back to the swimming pool example, the Town Council meeting met with the District Council, the next tier up. And there seemed to just be an acceptance that this was a thing that was happening. So while the higher tier authority was saying this is too expensive, we can’t fit, it’s not fixable, nobody uses the pool anyway. That’s why we’re going to close it. The lack of interest from those in the town council, you know, nobody was asking, well, you know, well, how much does it cost to run? What is the problem with it? How many people do use it? And, you know, it was that lack of ambition that drove us rather than the party politics. So have been other points. So at the same time, in 2015, there were district council elections, and I did stand for district council.
Manda: You’re allowed to stand for both simultaneously?
Manda: What happens if you get into both?
Pam: Well, you end up in both. There’s plenty of know, in a lot of cases, a lot of town councils, particularly those within the party system, will be town, district and county and then also sitting on other authorities as well. So once you move out the town council system, it can become quite lucrative. Town or parishes don’t pay anything, so it’s all volunteer. And as you move up, district and county, they can be quite decent allowances. And if you end up sitting on local authority boards like Dartmoor National Park or the Police and Crime Commissioners or school boards and stuff, the amount of allowances you can get knock up to… if you’re a senior person in the county, you know, 50 grand’s worth of allowances. So it’s not to be sniffed at. So the career politicians are very much in that. But it is that lack of in small town councils like Buckfastleigh, it’s not party politics. It’s a lack of ambition and direction. And that’s really where Peter and I’s approach sort of slightly, I’m not going to say different, but complementary, I think, taking cognisance of what’s actually happening on the ground in some of these communities.
Manda: Ok, so for people listening, you’re not familiar with Flatpack, I will put a link in the show notes. And essentially part of the problem in Frome rather than Buckfastleigh was that Frome Town Council had reached stasis, because whatever one party did, the other party automatically wouldn’t do. And so nothing ever got done. Whereas what Pam is describing is a town council that doesn’t get anything done anyway, which is just so distressing. But can I ask, just because in the UK, the May elections are coming back up again. And for people who are interested in doing this, I’m curious about the actual logistics, remembering the fact that I stood as a paper candidate again in a seat that had never been contested, four years ago. I’m going to stand as a paper candidate again this time, probably not even a paper candidate, because it seems that we’re being told that because of Covid, we’re not allowed to even go and put leaflets through people’s doors. So, but leaving that aside, I found the actual logistics of the paperwork that I had to fill in really daunting. I’m not a paperwork person. When something comes through the door and says, basically, this is a criminal act. If you get it wrong, I found it, if somebody hadn’t been there to do it for me, I wouldn’t have gone near it. So without a bigger party structure there to help you guys, how did you, you were just used to fielding ghastly-looking at official papers because of your past history?
Pam: It might be. I’m atrocious at following instructions as well. I mean, I think this is where the power of a gang is. A gang of you working together, I think is really important. So you have a good mix of skills. Actually at town and parish council level, it’s not actually that complicated. The paperwork that’s been developed is relatively simple. You put yourself forward, you get a certain number of people to sign to say that they support you. I can’t remember exactly. Then you get your paperwork into the system. There is a timetable. It is important you get it right. But I think, you know, either within your own group or the support from, now, we’ve grown this group of Flatpack Democracy, we’ve got a bunch of mentors, we’ve all been through it. There’s people who are better, some people who are better at the paperwork than others. So the help and support is there for anyone who wants it. That bit is not overly complicated.
Manda: And being an independent candidate now is being part of a movement, rather than just being a person or group of people who’ve decided to stand independently. It’s almost becoming a coherent sense of community in itself. Am I right?
Pam: It can be. There are a lot of people who call themselves independent candidates, who are not necessarily signed up party members. But what we’re talking about here with Flatpack Democracy is a different thing. A lot of time you’ll find independent councillors who are often on the fringes of mainstream party politics. They have a political agenda. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. And often I liken it, and with Pete, we’ve had lots of discussions about what they say is what this movement is. I call it the indie movement, a bit more like, my husband is, gonna call him an old indie pop rocker. Hw won’t like being called old! But in the in the indie bands in the 80s, early to mid 80s, so he had bands then and it was indie music. It was very much post-punk, and it was all coming out of doing it yourself. So, you know, setting up your own label, doing your own tours, managing your own tours and actually having that freedom to do stuff. So I very much call it indie rather than independent. So it is about a DIY punk ethos, about not just trying to fit into the current system, but about changing the current system. And that is fundamental to me, in terms of what we’re doing. It’s not a case of ousting the old guard, however good or poor they are and filling their seats. It’s about transformation of the system, because the system is rotten, and it needs tackling.
Manda: And did you campaign with that as part of the basis of your campaign? The system is rotten. We want to be different, and this is how we’ll be different?
Pam: Yeah, I mean, we we we campaigned locally on the basis of there’s loads of things that needs doing in our town, and we want to do them and we want to involve you in working out what that is. So in Flatpack Democracy Peter sets out really clearly about developing a way of working so you don’t stand with a manifesto. You don’t stand to say even I’m going to save the swimming pool or, you know, we’re going to improve the leisure services or whatever. You’re standing on a mechanism which is we’re going to change the system, so that it talks to the community about what’s needed, and then finds a way to make that happen. And really, all of us will work for the betterment of the community. We don’t necessarily know the answers to everything, but we will talk and find out. So that, I think, is fundamental. And a lot of little places like Buckfastleigh, and I would say, you know, for many communities that are between a thousand and, you know, 10000 people, you don’t need to be that formulaic about it. People don’t engage with wave elections at all sorts of levels, and actually coming at it afresh of, isn’t there some stuff that needs doing? How about we talk about what it is and then do it? You know, what’s not to like?
Manda: Good sell. Transformational. Did you end up going door to door talking to people? Did you find that people really understood what you were saying and engaged with it?
Pam: Yeah, I mean, we, I can’t remember the numbers. We did a bit of door-To-door, obviously, you know, pre-Covid, what a refreshing time to have to do. But we did a lot of online communications. We did leaflets and brochures. I think it was the first time there’d been any canvassing in our town for a long time. And we obviously, by that time, there were a number of us who had quite high profiles in town because of the successes we’d had over the previous years. And then for other people who were maybe much lower profile or relatively new to town, but were keen to be involved because we were all labelled Buckfastleigh Independent Group on the election paper, it meant people could say, oh, I know Neil, I know Pam, you know, these other people are standing with them.
Manda: They must be OK.
Pam: Yeah. So what we were finding was when we went to the election count where you could watch the papers coming in, there was all the 12 existing town councillors were on the ballot and the nine of us, because of the way it’s laid out on the counting table, you could see either people were voting for every single one of the old guard, or they were voting for every single one of us. And you could just see there was this split. And actually, we had a really high turnout. One of the old guard, actually a lovely man.. and that’s the thing, I think at the time it might have been a bit angsty, but in retrospect, it was people trying to do their best, but the system was rotten. And that’s not true in all cases. But in some cases it was you know, these are good people who joined in to try and do something, but just found themselves slotting into a system which was just suffocating, with no inspiration, no direction, no ambition.
Manda: And not your experience of working within systems, I think. I’m guessing whatyou and possibly the others brought to it was because, it doesn’t have to be like this. And here is a vision of how it could be different.
Pam: I think so. I’m very… as I’ve said earlier, I’m not very good at following rules and instructions. You know, give me a remote control or a new computer, I just press buttons until something happens. I have no idea. And I think I was quite shocked, you know, coming out of Whitehall and the civil service, which, you know, isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But I’ve been working at the centre of Whitehall, with lots of consultation, impact assessments, looking at how any changes in policy might affect different segments of the society. You know, they feel – felt to me, so this is, you know, sort of in the 1990s up to early 2000s, that there was a real attempt to try and involve you as a voice to reflect what was happening, and to try and alleviate some of the deprivation that was embedded in society. And I think moving out to a rural place, and looking at the state of local government, and actually having a job which was much less pressured than my previous job, I just thought, this is wrong. There is no attempt to assess the impact of the cuts to youth services on communities which are more deprived than others.
And you’d see that really starkly, I think, into something like 2014. County Council had done a review of youth services, a little town next door to us, which we have a very friendly rivalry with, Ashburton. So it’s a much more affluent community than Buckfastleigh. So Buckfastleigh is effectively a mill town. Ashburton was always the market town. So for centuries there is a difference. There’s a difference in size of houses, grandeur of houses, housing stock. We were still building council houses here in the twenties and thirties and forties to provide labour force to the factories. So there’s been a massive gentrification and we’re only a few, less than three miles away from each other. But there’s no transport in between, not as much as there used to be. And it’s expensive. But actually there was a review of youth services done, and I’m not exaggerating. There were some, there was like 21 activities looked at. So we we often have our data set presented together, Buckfastleigh and Ashburton. There were something like 21 activities that they’d identified that youth could do in Buckfastleigh. Nineteen of those were in Ashburton, which may as well be on the moon because you can’t get there after six o’clock cos there’s no buses. And the two that were in Buckfastleigh, one was a private climbing wall which was fantastic, but was private. The other thing was a Crown Green Bowling Club, which is… and so there is a report by Devon County Council that says there are 21 things for kids to do in Buckfastleigh. All of them are in Ashburton, there’s two here, and on that basis they cut our youth funding by 100 percent. So they took all our funding away. So there was no youth service provision. And actually, you’re looking at a poor community next to a much more affluent community and all the services are in the more affluent community. And that’s another one of those, it’s like, well, who’s doing the impact assessments on these decisions? And I’ve been asking that now for what, God knows, how long, ten years? I think the answer is nobody does an impact assessment on them. And that is quite shocking to me coming out of government. Policy decisions, creative ways.
I mean, I have no doubt that councils have found it really difficult. You know, County Council has seen a 40 percent reduction in its revenue from central government over the past decade. It can’t really focus on very much more other than its statutory obligations. But actually, I think the way they’ve, what they’ve done in all circumstances is to remove services from communities and centralise them in places which have a bigger population, but effectively leave everybody outside of those areas in rural communities unable to access even basic services. And that’s the bit that I think is wrong, because we now, as a poor community, have no public sector realm in Buckfastleigh at all, which means we don’t have our police have been removed, that we don’t have it. So actually, even the referral agencies that would be relied upon to get services for children who might be in difficulty or danger are not there anymore. So the service itself is now centralised in a town which is 10 miles away from us, which is more affluent than us. We can’t access those services. But actually the argument is that actually people can still be referred into them, but we don’t have the referral services on the ground. So it’s taken that discussion about, actually if you’re not getting any referrals from Buckfastleigh, which is one of the most deprived areas of the of the District Council, then that should be setting alarm bells for you that there’s something wrong with the system. And I think what worries me is that it doesn’t appear to be setting off alarm bells. The fact that Buckfastleigh doesn’t show up on lots of indices, it seems that there isn’t an issue here, where it only takes a few seconds of thought to realise that there’s a system breakdown here. And it’s that system breakdown that we’re trying to fix.
Manda: But you have to care about it. So I’m really curious, and this is taking us on a bit of a side step. And we’ll come back to the main thread in a moment. But from the sound of things, you were working in Whitehall in central government in the UK during the last Labour administration. Devon, as far as I can tell, is run by the Tories. Austerity is an ideological… in the last podcast, we talked to Richard Murphy about economics, about where money comes from, about the fact that ideology affects our economy, and that austerity is an ideological choice. And it’s an ideological choice made by people who actually don’t care about the things that you’re talking about. And I’m wondering, are there still impact assessments being made in Whitehall in the way that there were in the Labour years? Because I remember reading something on a blog about the fact that the Blair years, Blair was a ghastly, predatory neoliberal, but at least the people in charge didn’t hate the poor. And then the Tories come in and you’ve got essentially the same economic policy, but you’ve got people in charge who genuinely don’t care about the indices that you’re talking about. Am I being wildly unfair? Or is it to that extent that the people on the right don’t have any interest in what’s happening to people under a certain income bracket?
Pam: So I think that’s really interesting. You know, I am still a serving civil servant. I’m currently on a career break after an accident, and you know I may be going back. There’s certainly been a dramatic shift. And I think that.. when I was working at the Treasury, there was.. an aim was to reduce childhood poverty. So that was undoubtedly an aim. There were impact assessments done on what it would do to childhood poverty. I’m not at the centre of Whitehall anymore, so I don’t know what’s going on. But I could see the shift when I was, towards people who, whether they care or not, I don’t know, but they’re coming from a place where they just simply don’t have knowledge and experience of what it’s like to be living in these circumstances. And that’s where, you know, you look at your own personal background and understand how difficult some of those things can be. And I think that’s why it’s really important to get more voices in decision making, because if you don’t understand the impact of waiting five or six weeks for your first very little universal credit payment, because you can’t imagine that somebody doesn’t have five or six weeks worth of money saved to live off, that’s how you end up with policies that do that. I mean, if you’ve not been near people who, you know, don’t have access to laptops at home because you haven’t got broadband, or you’ve got one mobile phone, you couldn’t envisage that it might be really difficult to learn from home over Zoom. And I think those barriers, if you’re working with a very privileged bunch of ministers in a party, I don’t see how they could understand what it’s like for people who are completely outside their realm of experience. And I think that’s the problem. And where I think a lot of the time it must be really frustrating for a lot of civil servants, is to be, to to hopefully have some of that awareness, finding ways of making sure that that’s reflected in policies that are put through, I think. Whether they don’t care, or whether they don’t understand, you know, it comes out the same way there is a shocking lack of connection to people’s real life experience.
Manda: Yeah. So what we have is you guys standing: Buckfastleigh Independent Group. You stood nine people in a 12 person council. What happened?
Pam: So on all nine of us were elected, three people from the old administration. And that is where Flatpack Democracy the book, and Peter’s guidance really came in, because what we understood then was that we didn’t want to just slot into the existing structures and systems. So we took.. the way it works is the new council elects a mayor and chair and deputy mayor and chairs of the committees. So we did that, and we found ourselves as new councillors. I was deputy chair, but I ended up chairing the meetings because, again, I had the skill set to be able to chair them. It was quite difficult, actually, for several months. I think there was a lot of antagonism to what had happened. I think a lot of people’s noses were very much put out of joint. So it got a little bit nasty at times. I’d say actually the most difficult thing was dealing with the amount of change we wanted to bring in, in terms of our meeting structures and what happened. Our staff at the time found it incredibly difficult.
So we had a clerk and an assistant clerk and, you know, bless them, they’d pretty much been left alone unmanaged. This is so common across town and parish councils, Clerks find it really difficult when a new group of people come in who actually want to do stuff, and the management system for clerks and support they get is really low. So if you’re used to every few years councillors coming and going and nothing much happening, you found a coping mechanism. And a lot of the time you’re looking at clerks meeting the legal minimum, you know, serving the committees and the meetings. And actually they’re on a treadmill, they’ve have often been there for quite a long time. But they don’t get much support from their councillors. No one really knows who’s managing them. They’re not really achieving anything of any great shakes. And they’ve just found some sort of coping mechanism. And obviously, we came in with a sort of right, we’re going to do some stuff, that’s quite threatening. And you end up speaking to lots of councils who have found themselves in this position. The clerks tend to go one of two ways, quite often. One is the absolute you know, this is really stressful. I’m going to put up a fight and actually try and thwart what you’re trying to do, or find it really stressful and then try and adapt. We were really lucky. I mean, I’m sure she won’t mind me saying, our clerk was really sceptical about us. So we’ve been painted as like, you know, the evil do-gooders coming in. And she was, found it really difficult. But we we knew really clearly that we we had to provide some management support to her. So after a few months of difficulty, we were able to find out what her job was, see that actually she just wasn’t supported. She didn’t have a proper desk. They were sharing laptops. They didn’t have decent chairs or phones. So it was like, well, you know, we’re kitting it out. And I think over 12 months we came to a position where there was an acceptance that we were trying to do good things for the community. And now I’m really happy to say that our town clerk is really on board and is really supportive of the changes that have been made.
Manda: So this is the same town clerk.
Pam: It doesn’t always end up like that. And I think it’s one of the issues with the system is that town clerks need to have a manager and that manager needs to manage, as any professional manager would do, in terms of support, and encouraging, and setting out clear boundaries and direction and objectives, and valuing their staff for their skills and experience. And I think that’s something that doesn’t happen. So we’ve put a lot of energy into doing that. So that was the most difficult piece of work. And I think we hit the ground running on being able to have a conversation with the community about what was needed, that we spent about 18 months or so changing a lot of the governance rules. So a lot of what happens in town councils is there is a set of rules called the standing orders. And to my mind they’re often the quite bureaucratic, well, ‘quite bureaucratic’? They’re really bureaucratic, obscure, written in a way which is very difficult to understand. And in a lot of councils they are weaponized by either… you’ll have seen it on the recent Handforth Parish Council, that’s hit the news. I mean, that is classic, where there is a set of standing orders which are then weaponized and used against people trying to do stuff. And a lot of the time, what you find when you’re trying to do stuff differently is it’s ‘Oh you can’t do that, you can’t do that. You can’t do that, the standing orders don’t allow us.
Manda: It’s against the rules that we made.
Pam: And that’s the thing. That’s what people don’t understand, is you can write your own standing orders. So there are some bits of law which you have to follow, but they tend to be, you know, perfectly reasonable bits of law. So there are bits in there that go back to the legislation, which is around the required number of days you have to give for issuing an agenda, taking decisions about things that are on the agenda, publishing your accounts, those sorts of things. So there’s a bit of law in that. The rest of the stuff, frankly, is a bunch of bullshit. There’s stuff in there that will be written about public participation at a meeting, and that members of the public who come to the meetings can talk for two minutes at the start of the meeting. And, well, there’s nothing in law that says you have to do that.
So we were really keen. We took our.. we don’t have a grand Town Hall by any stretch of the imagination. But there was a room in there called The Chamber, which was big enough for 12 people and a couple of people perched at the back on chairs, and with backs to everybody, and big glowering portraits of like, you know, big dead benefactors all over the place. We took ours out of that and put it down into a much bigger meeting room, just like you would in a professional meeting, a horseshoe shaped table with chairs, where people could participate. We allowed people to participate in the meetings with a decent Chair, which means if you’re a decent Chair, you’re able to manage participation. So writing your own standing orders in a way which are understandable and work and actually contain the law but nothing else is really important. Because otherwise you end up with councils arguing over Section Three Two point b about whether it’s ultra vires or not to extend a decision on. And it’s like, really? Who cares? Really, really, seriously, don’t have those things in your standing orders then you know, people with that mindset can’t use them to shut down a discussion.
Manda: My understanding of the Flatpack Democracy model is that you also bring in a facilitator to help facilitate the meetings. Did you need that or with your experience as a Chair, were you able not to have that?
Pam: We didn’t have a facilitator. I did do it, but obviously, I’ve chaired lots of meetings, and done a lot of training on meetings. Not that I’m particularly brilliant. But again, it was better than what was there. But I think one of the problems in a lot of small places is actually funding. You know, we don’t have money. We’re doing this for free. The Town Council budget when we took over was £64,000 a year, which in total, which meant by the time you’d paid for the clerk and the assistant clerk and all the bills of the Town Hall, there was, you know, a small nothing left. So what was happening is they would give out £250 pound grants to organisations that knew that the grant system existed, which most people didn’t, and that was it.
If your purpose in life is to save money and not do stuff, then the best way of doing that would be to abolish the Council because then you’d save £64,000 that’s not doing anything. It’s the most inefficient way of giving out, you know, two thousand pounds worth of grants that I’ve ever seen. So it’s like we very much came with a view of, if there are things that the community wants to do, then something needs to happen. So the ability to pay for a facilitator was not there. But, you know, you’ll often find that those skill sets exist somewhere in the town. You know, you can be creative how you did it. We ended up not doing that, although we did do some quite creative meetings later on. And we have subsequently brought in people to facilitate meetings, some much more like workshops for decision making than than meetings. Actually, you know, that’s pre Covid. And I can’t remember that far back these days.
Manda: We can do it on Zoom, as we discovered from the Parish Council that went viral. I’ll put a link to that in the show notes too. Before we move on to what people can do, I just want to look a little bit more at how did you begin the dialogue with a local community that isn’t used to a Town Council asking their opinion? Just in a purely logistical sense, I’m curious to know, were you using Facebook? Did you hold referenda? Did you bring together a People’s Assembly? What did you do to garner the information that you needed about what people wanted?
Pam: Both formal and informal structures there. Informally as a council, we started holding consultations. So we ran a whole series of consultations, which would range from meetings in big rooms around tables, and we, you know, we’re only a little place, you know, I think the biggest one, we might have had 80 people there. And we started theming conversations. So we ran workshops which were right, what are the main issues that were coming up? And then we’d do work to theme them. And then we’d hold more workshops and narrow it down. And we got to a point where there were, I always think of it as five clusters like that to help me remember, like on the face of dice. So there was a whole bunch of people talking about things to do, things for kids to do, children’s services, also things for older people to do as well. So things for kids to do, and sort of how do you fill that gap? Because we’d lost the services. There were things around growing and food and planting and nature and wildlife. So that was everything from Britain in Bloom all the way through to Transition Town and do your own compost, and stuff. So there was a big group on that. There was a bunch of people around food, sort of nutrition, and support, and welfare sorts of issues. There was actually a children’s services and older people services were two separate sections. And then there was stuff around support to community groups that actually we had a lot of community groups who were struggling for funding, for constitution, for organisational structure, for knowledge and skills. And as we pulled out of ether through these conversations, these sort of broad themes, we then narrowed it down and we came up with again, over the course of a year, I’m going to say six, but I think it might be eight projects that we sort of were able to cost up and deliver.
So we did traditional sort of group facilitation, lots of Post-it notes going up, moving around different themed areas. And we ended up with these boards which basically said: we’d like things for our kids to do in the summer holidays because there’s nothing for them to do. We would like some new floodlights at the football pitch, and actually that would make us a night landing pad for the air ambulance. We would like to have money advice services in town. So Citizens Advice Bureau, we would like someone. The outdoor environment is being neglected, so we could have a town ranger who could do some of the outdoor caretaking type roles. We’d like some training and skills and better grants for community groups, we would like to continue to support the community’s use of the Town Hall and the swimming pool, because they’re things that we value, and the last one, number eight, was about solar panels on the Town Hall. And actually we costed those up and we did a really good breakdown of the budget. So we said, right, we’ve got £64,000 a year. The town council can become a service provider if that’s what you want, so we could become a service provider.
The three ways things can happen in a community is you all volunteer your time and do it for free, or we pay somebody to come in and do it, or the Town Council does it. And actually, if you want stuff to happen, then it usually requires money. So, you know, we’ve costed all of these things up. The press is in the room. We were able to say, and again, I’m making these figures up as broadly indicative, I think it was like for 3p per week per household, we could bring the Citizens Advice Bureau back to town. For 11p per week per household, we could create a free activity programme for young people. And for 21p per week per household, we could make sure that the swimming pool stays open. And we did that across the whole piece and it came to 97p per week per household would fund all of those projects. So what was interesting is we were able to say that at the moment, you pay on average £1 per week per household. So if we make this decision, the press who are in the room will have on the front pages of the newspapers that were increasing your council tax by 97%. And this is true, we are, if that’s what you want, but it will be from £1 per week per house, per month per household to £1.97 per week per household. And what we need to know is, do you want all, or none, of some of these services? Because if you say you want that one and that one, we can work out… and actually, for the people who were in the room, which again was, you know, 60, 70, 80 people. So it’s universally not the whole town, but it’s the people. And we were running these in quite a friendly way. So we did get quite a wide spectrum of people there. So just, we’ve been talking about this long enough, just get on and sort it out, would you?
So then we increased our council tax by 97 percent. Only the party politicians tried to make anything of it. So the party politicians were, oh, look, this is shocking. And actually in town, nobody’s really made any fuss about it. And it’s just become accepted that we have these things. They work, they run, been transformational and we have these things. And it’s good. And we have a process in place now, which means that people understand. And for me, that was a deliberate part of the process. I wanted to do two things. I wanted things to start getting fixed in town, because if you’re going to wait for any of the other government levels to come in and do anything, it just wasn’t going to happen. So we were not going to.. we didn’t have anything, or we fixed it ourselves. But also I wanted to reconnect people back to two things. One is to the vote. In Buckfastleigh it matters how you vote. If you want stuff to happen, then you need to vote for people who are going to make it happen. If you would rather have that 97p in your pocket a week, then it’s really important you vote the other way. But it matters how you vote here, because there is a distinction between the party politicians, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems who actually would go on a ‘You shouldn’t be paying a 97% increase in your tax and they’re evil and bad. And, you know, and if that’s what you want, then you need to be voting for them. But you won’t have the services.
Manda: You can’t you can’t have both.
Pam: You can’t have both. And reconnecting people to taxation and their vote was really important to me. And at a town level, if you say to somebody, if I get 21p per household per week, it creates enough money for you to have an outdoor swimming pool, that is really important. Because at central government level, that’s a really difficult thing to do.
Manda: That was 2015, you were all elected. So there’s been another round of elections four years later, 2019. Did you then sweep the board, all twelve?
Pam: We got 10 candidates that time, and all ten.
Manda: Ok, and I’m curious to know about the two kind of party politicians, are they beginning to warm to what’s happening and to see that it’s good, or are they still locked in Tax is Bad, we’re better doing nothing?
Pam: Yeah, well, one of them’s party and one of them is not. But yes, they either vote against, or actually more often than what they do is they absent themselves from the vote. So they’re either not there so they don’t have to be shown to vote against it, or they abstain at the vote so that they don’t support it. You know, sticking your head above and saying actually we could do something, not only do you open yourself up for pressures and, you know, public scrutiny, but you also, it’s you know, it’s quite hard work. We don’t have staff at our level.
Manda: And you’re all volunteers.
Pam: All volunteers. Yeah. So, you know, we’ve got our clerk and we’ve got an assistant. But actually, what’s different between us in a place like Frome, for example, I don’t know how many staff rooms got, but certainly like it does or more at the sort of level we’re talking about here. Actually, it’s a lot of work because where we’re doing that, which is again, is why prioritising your activities, having a team and having a broad skill set is really important.
Manda: How can people access, is there a Be Buckfastleigh website?
Pam: Yeah, Be Buckfastleigh. Yeah, we’re on bebuckfastleigh.co.uk.
Manda: Brilliant. I’ll put that in the show notes too.
Pam: And we’re also on Twitter and Instagram, and Facebook too.
Manda: Brilliant. And we need to stop. I can’t believe an hour has gone, but just as as we’re heading towards a close, we have elections coming up this May for some town, county and district councils. How can people take the inspiration of what you’ve done, and run with it, not just in the UK, but there must be within democratic processes around the world. I’m remembering the only other place I know that participatory budgeting has really gone well and and everywhere it has done, the local people always vote to pay more tax if they know where it’s going. You know, this is the nature of local participatory budgeting. But if people are inspired, how can they do this themselves? What’s the route?
Pam: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I think the first thing to do is to go to Flatpack Democracy and take a look at that. We’ve got a good volunteer team behind that. And that’s the other thing. Lots of people can’t believe we do this for free. I’ve had lots of question, where does the money come from? It’s like what money? In the party system, there is a complete lack of cred- they cannot comprehend that we do this for free. Anyway, we do. So go to Flatpack Democracy. You can sign up there, and I would say get a copy of the book. I’m not on commission and it tells you what you can do. And I think there’s two things. One is to understand why, if you’re in a community and you think this could be better, there’s stuff that needs doing, then if you don’t stand up and do it, then who is going to do it? You know, go and talk to other people, find yourself a group of people who feel the same, and then, let us help you. We have mentors around the UK, so we’re working now with dozens and dozens and dozens of parish and town councils, and we have people who can talk you through what to do, how to approach it, and just to provide you that support and encouragement to go on. I think once you’ve got to the election and you’ve campaigned, if you can get a majority on those councils, then there is another level of support we can give about what to do once you find yourself in control of a council.
So, you know, we’re all really friendly. There’s a huge amount of experience and a passion for transforming local politics. Town and parish councils, in my opinion, are absolute secret weapons for communities against austerity and cuts and for creating stronger communities. But more importantly than that, I think is that they’re really unlegislated, which means that every other level of government tends to be capped about what it can do. Town and parish councils are not. So actually, with just a little bit of process, town and parish councils can do anything that is legal, which means that they’re uniquely placed in the government system to do all sorts of things. And the only thing that caps what you can do is your level of ambition, and your capacity to deliver. And there’s ways of growing that. So actually, if you think of something in your community, you don’t have much sway over planning. You don’t have much sway over highways and schools and hospitals. Practically everything else is pretty much up for grabs.
Manda: Wow. That is a fantastic place to stop. Town and parish councils, local democracy as the secret weapon for creating stronger communities, and getting people to engage with the political process in a way that matters, and realising the votes actually count. That’s fantastic, Pam, thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast.
Pam: You’re very welcome. Thank you.
Manda: So that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to Pam for showing us what can be done if we care enough to be involved. As ever, when we stopped recording, the conversation continued. This always happens. I always wish I’d kept us recording, but we have to stop at some point. But this week, Pam made the point that I really want to share with you, that if there isn’t an election looming in your part of the world, you can still get involved. Pam said you can Flatpack your local council by publishing all of their decisions, by questioning how they reached the decisions that they made, by saying what could have been done differently, what you would have done differently, so that when there are elections, you’re in a place to act. Because bringing people to a place where they understand that democracy isn’t about two parties shouting at each other like five year olds across an unbridgeable divide. That instead, we can be emotionally literate, and bring compassion and care and decency and integrity, and the best of our social skills, our modern social technologies to the process of governance, which is just a bunch of people that we choose from amongst ourselves to make the best things happen for our communities, however big they are: the local ones at parish level up to the national and international ones. So if we can get people engaged in local politics, then I think we can step past the desperate limbic hijack of our national politics.
And then at all levels, we can change the narrative of who we are, what we’re doing, where are we going and why. Which is the urgency of our time. So that is it for this week.
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