Independents for Frome: A different kind of local politics
In 2011 a group of independents won a majority of seats on Frome Town Council, securing the rest next election and holding onto them ever since.
Since coming to power they’ve focussed on building a different way of doing politics that’s less combative and more focussed on listening to, and collaborating with, the community.
We sat down for a conversation with Peter Macfadyen, one of the founders of ‘Independents for Frome’, to hear his story.
Stripping out the confrontation
"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. It's actually got a massive overlap with municipalism and the whole philosophies of councils in Spain where the women have a much greater role."
"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.
That meant changing the relationship, so that people understand this, because we are used to ‘power over’. Even at this community level, people get elected as representatives, and then the public sit back, expecting them to do stuff, and get angry when they don't. For me that method of representative democracy doesn’t really work anymore, if it ever did, because people are more empowered, more knowledgeable, have access to more facts. So it makes much more sense to have a relationship in which the councillors are facilitating conversations, are catalysing actions, but then are bringing people in."
..it makes much more sense to have a relationship in which councillors are facilitating conversations, are catalysing actions, but then are bringing people in.
"So, what we were trying to do all the time was to change that relationship. Some of the best things that we did were the simplest, particularly around informality. We moved away very quickly from a row of councillors in suits at the front who you couldn't talk to, to having a room full of people and anyone can talk. It needs a different set of skills to run that rather than having the mayor or the chair bossing the thing with a very set agenda. It means being able to have much more open to conversations, not restricting the public, not insisting that they talk at the beginning and all that kind of thing."
Recognise the skills in the community
"The other main thing we did was to recognise the skills and experience within the town. For example, we didn’t know anything about sport, it wasn’t our thing. But we recognised there was huge knowledge in our community. So we held meetings in the Football Club, the Rugby Club, and the Cricket Club, which are all places with bars, incidentally! We got 60-70 people coming to those meetings, really well facilitated. If there were councillors there, they weren't there at the front, they were there just as members of the community. We asked what are the main issues, and how can we make this into a strategy? And then we went with it – that’s the key. It wasn’t a consultation process where we were saying give us your ideas and we might write a report, and if you’re lucky tell you later on what we’ve done. It was: you create the strategy, we will do it."
Investing in others
"We put much more money, resources, time and support into organisations within the community. It’s not all about the council.
We wanted to do something about poverty in Frome. We could have employed an officer to work on this. Instead we catalysed a new organisation called 'Fair Frome' which then became a charity and took on a life of its own with its own board and mass of volunteers. We did the same thing with ‘Fair Housing for Frome’. So you’re expanding the responsibility out into the town, and building capacity in the town rather than centralising it in the Town Council.
It also means they are less politically vulnerable. If Frome’s council suddenly became politicians who wanted to massively cut budgets it means that those organisations now exist as independent beasts with their own income. The Town Council may have seed funded them but the council's ongoing funding for Fair Frome is probably about 10% of their funding now.
We multiplied the money going out to the community by ten. We saw our role as taking money from the people and then getting it back out to the people, rather than hanging on to it or keeping it in reserves."
Impact and Learning
"The biggest thing that’s changed in Frome and then other places who have adopted this model is a much greater level of genuine engagement by people. So that people stop thinking of the council as something that you go to, to swear at and to complain because you haven't got something; but as a place that you go to in order to work with to make things happen. That's the fundamental difference.
The meetings that I'd been to with the town council, before we were involved, it was clear that the council had the power, and it felt like you were there to lobby, to ask, and then they would decide how to respond. Changing the relationship amongst the councillors, to a more constructive way of working, then affected our other relationships. We were constantly looking for how we could work together and find the areas in common and then that spilled out into other relationships we had.
A good example is the Cheese and Grain, a big venue in Frome Town. Previously those involved with it had a very antagonistic relationship with the Town Council because they always had to come and ask the Town Council for things in a subservient way. We completely changed that relationship round to: how can we get the most money we possibly can out of the lottery, or borrowing money from a trust? How can we as a town benefit? That came from having different meetings with them, because we were having different sorts of meetings with each other. All the meetings were lighter, were less formal.
Somebody from the County Council came to one of our meetings and afterwards said: excuse me, I still don't know quite what the agenda is, who's running this meeting? It was like, where's all the formality? And it's like, well, we all live here. And we're all just sort of having a chat. Yes, it's all being written down and meetings will come out of it, but we're doing this as humans rather than from a different position."
Flatpack Democracy: Learning from Frome
Based on his experiences in Frome 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.
This was just the beginning of our conversation with Peter. If you’d like to hear more about the experiences of Independents for Frome, and what was learnt along the way, you can listen to the full conversation online.
You can also read a summary of the rest of our conversation in the document below.