A Permaculture parish

The election of four BNP councillors in Bradford last week will send the political mainstream within and without that District into a flat spin, even though it will not have changed a thing. The council remains hung, with no party having overall control, and so the poor electors of Bradford will face another year of party political infighting, and with little real coherence as to what local democracy means to people.

Whichever way you cut it, a vote for the BNP is a vote to kick the mainstream parties up the backside. Itís a vote of discontent Ė and itís a wasted vote. Democracy is a precious thing, but it seems so unsatisfactory when no one party fulfils our every need. And we are saddled with this adversarial, party political system that originates at national level and has the presumption to meddle at all levels.

At the same time that Bradford was scattering itís votes across the parties, a small part of the District was voting in an entirely different election. Every vote was a positive vote and it was not based on party political lines. These electors were choosing parish councillors to serve on their new parish council. The people of Wrose (population 6700) had worked for a year to get to this point, setting up a parish council development group, working out the boundary that marked out their strong community identity, and then seeking enough signatures for the petition to central government to set up the parish council (10% of electors in the boundary area are required Ė but see later). Wrose has thus voted for itself: its councillors selected not for their party political allegiance but for their commitment to where they live.

Parish councils probably conjure up a rural image of village hall meetings, discussing arrangements for the village fete, with the vicarís wife volunteering to do the teas. This may still be so, but the modern parish council has rights and duties, and an impressive array of powers that are backed up by the ability to collect a local tax. They have the potential to play a key role as a tier of community governance closest to the people and of a scale and immediacy that makes it accessible to all. And if you thought that parish councils only existed in the bucolic farmlands of the shires, then wakeup to the fact that Wrose is an urban community, with meetings of the parish council - which are open to the public - taking place in the local community centre, the natural focus of many urban neighbourhoods.

This strong sense of community identity and desire for human scale community governance in the people of Wrose is paralleled in history by the moving together of like-minded people, to live amongst folk that share their opinions and views. Over the decades, the mill town of Hebden Bridge in the Calder Valley became the favoured home for commuting college staff preferring a small town existence to city life in either Leeds or Manchester. Their relaxed attitudes and lifestyle paved the way for Hebden Bridge to become a magnet for those who want to move in and explore alternative technologies and lifestyles.

We know of modern-day low impact communities, making their case by sharing in communal housing and productive occupation of land. Their enduring presence is tenuous, maybe lacking a legal basis, but from America comes a lesson for this in the example of the shrewd judgement of a group of libertarians. They set up a project to identify and bring to fruition a haven for their sense of freedom and small government. By an internet campaign, they are organising a mass influx of like minded people into a place that is small enough to shift the balance of local politics. Organisers believe that if 20,000 like-minded people moved into the small state of New Hampshire, then that would be sufficient to hold the balance of power.

Does this make you see the potential of parish councils in a new light? Perhaps it will help if I tell you that the minimum population needed to set up a parish council is only 250 electors. Thus for the purposes of the petition, you could draw a boundary line around the number of households that would get you those 250 electors, maybe no more than 150 households. You should also know that it is the custom of parish councils to produce a Village Design Statement, which contains a vision of how the community sees its current built environment and public realm, and how it would see development occurring in the future. It is a Permaculture design concept for a community in all but name and its is given greater value when the Village Design Statement is adopted by local planning authorities as supplementary planning guidance for the parish area.

Parish councils also undertake parish planning with their community, using many of the participatory approaches that would be familiar to Permaculture. These plans combine both visionary statements and action plans, often including housing and transport needs surveys, and provide an agreed framework or business plan for the parish council for the next 5-20 years. In line with the increasing position given to parish councils, this parish plan will be incorporated into the community strategy of the principal authority (i.e. the main level of local government) and will therefore receive the recognition and support of the wider area.

Many of us look to our understanding of Permaculture for solutions to working out an enduring and sustainable way of life. We do look at community, and our design and participatory approach has made a significant difference in many neighbourhood situations. A challenge for us would be to take that one step further. Can we as Permaculturists take on the responsibility of community governance, allowing us to gain recognition and acceptance for our communities being able to design and evolve themselves? Is it time to think of a Permaculture parish?

Mark Fisher, 16th June 2004

www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk