Flatpack Democracy: Reclaiming Local Politics


Peter Macfadyen was part of a group of independents who took control of Frome Town Council in 2011. In his words: “We were a bunch of people who'd never done it before, we got into power and we questioned all the rules, took most of them to pieces, and did things very differently.”

Based on his experiences Peter wrote a book, and started a movement, called Flatpack Democracy – helping others to follow the same path and refashion the relationship between community levels of council and communities themselves.

Now, with a bumper crop of elections in 2021, Peter is launching Flatpack 2021 in the hope that the positive community response to Covid leads to lasting change.

What was different about Independents for Frome?

"We were independent of political parties, really we were a set of individuals. The thing that we did differently was to set out a way of working and ethos. We said, this is how we, as a group of individuals, will work together. The key element of which is: we won't be confrontational. We can disagree with each other, but we won't turn that into Westminster-style conflict. We won't have an opposition that's always saying no. We'll particularly emphasise listening.

There is ‘power over’ and ‘power with’ and we were trying to do ‘power with’: a constructive relationship in which we can use the power that the council has to raise money and to bring in staff to work with the community."

You can find out more by reading our case study about Independents for Frome

What is Flatpack Democracy and Flatpack 2021?

"Over the last four or five years, I and a small group of other people have mentored others in this same sort of process in different councils.

There are around 20 councils in Britain, that are run completely in a similar sort of model, where a new group of councillors have taken a much more participatory way of doing things. =

Because of Covid, all the 2020 council elections were cancelled and they'll move to 2021. So there's going to be a lot more elections next year. We realised this was a real opportunity to try and push this model. And so we’ve started something called Flatpack 2021.

Flatpack 2021 is really about linking together people who've done this well. It's about mentoring people who want to do something similar, and want to really up the game in their councils, increase the ambition, and build on a lot of what's come out of Covid in a positive way.

The response to Covid has led to so many positive things like mutual aid groups and other groups, and much more community engagement. If there's not a council that can pick up and run with some of those ideas, that can be a real stumbling block as we move ahead to what’s next. All those people who've been out and walked and enjoyed the countryside and done stuff. If there's a council that can push for better bicycle routes, that can take on some ambitious ideas, that can look for funds, that can do those things then they'll happen, if there isn't they won't.

So we're running this campaign to offer people the opportunity to tap into some of the ideas we've had over the last few years and benefit from the experience of people who've been there and done it."

Why is this support so important?

"The main thing that we can offer is stories of this working.

It’s really difficult to get into this whole world of councils, especially for new councillors, there's a whole set of language, rules, tradition. At the first meeting the Clerk gives you the standard agenda, which is terrible, it's just an enormously long agenda. It's full of language, which you'd have to be quite courageous to go: ‘I don't know what an outside body is’. Most of us don't have the guts to do that.

I came across this phrase the other day: tradition is peer pressure from the dead. I’d like that tattooed on my back. A lot of this stuff is just done because it’s the way it’s always been done. So these mentors are there to give people the courage to take on the system."

Tradition is peer pressure from the dead. I’d like that tattooed on my back.

"The value of the story of Frome, and now Bideford, Portishead, Haswell County and others, is that ‘ordinary people’, members of the community who don’t have a history of politics, can step up, speak out and get things done in really interesting, exciting ways. I think that's what the mentoring process is really about.

We've had launch meetings around the country where we've got people to just talk about their experience and all the people that I can think of start with: ‘I never thought I'd do this!’ One guy went along to film a meeting, had no intention of getting involved, I don’t know at what point he put his hand up and found himself a candidate and getting elected, but that’s what happened!

To give an example of how you can do things differently: we had a 10 year waiting list for allotments. Everybody always moaned about it. So we got in and said let’s just find a field. So we bought a field and that was the 10 year waiting list gone. You can do that. You can borrow money, you can raise taxes, you can buy a bit of land. If it hadn’t worked we could have just sold the land again, we’d have lost a couple of thousand quid, but it would have been worth a try. That’s what’s needed. Why did no-one else do that? Because they were too busy doing twinning and tea parties?

That’s what we can give, a bit of confidence. Tales of daring do. There is a bit of piracy about this I think. There needs to be because this whole thing can be so lethargic and stuck in ancient history."

Further Information

If you are interested in Flatpack Democracy and Flatpack 2021 you can find out more at:

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