Cllr John Hart, the Leader of Devon County Council, says libraries can be used to help enterprises and communities flourish
There is a lot talked about localism, but in Devon - the third largest local authority by area in the country - we’re trying to put it into practice.
We are a very diverse county which includes the city of Exeter, numerous market and coastal towns and many small villages encompassing two coastlines and two national parks.
So it makes real sense to do only what needs to be done centrally at County Hall in Exeter with as much as possible being carried out locally.
We are delighted that Ilfracombe, in the north of the county, is one of the two rural towns piloting the national neighbourhood community budget pathfinder programme. This is in its early days so far but we are committed to the transfer of assets, and citizens have already set up a local board to run their community.
Whenever we build new libraries, we now develop them as community hubs. So in Newton Abbot, Cullompton and Totnes we are ensuring there is enough community space to enable people to gather together.
We have got work hubs in these buildings - as well as in other centres around the county - where Devon’s large contingent of home-workers and small enterprises can rent space and secretarial support – by the hour if they wish – to help their businesses to grow.
We also have information and advice to help support people back into work. Indeed, our Free Fridays provide free computer access in all our libraries for jobseekers and people seeking information about welfare changes.
After the appalling winters of the last few years, we have supplied grit, training and equipment for local volunteers to become snow wardens and clear the roads in their communities which – with more miles of road than Belgium – the county council cannot get to.
We have helped local people develop plans to support the elderly and vulnerable in their communities in the event of emergencies like floods or power cuts. This is necessary because, in a largely rural county like ours, it sometimes takes time to get the utilities back on and restore communities to normal.
Localism is all about developing resilience and helping people to help themselves. After four years of budget cuts, and with more to come, it is vital we reinvigorate the spirit of self-help in our communities.
In Devon I have pioneered a way of helping this process practically with our joint Town and Parish Fund.
Each of our 62 county councillors has £10,000 available to support community groups and organisations in their ward through our Locality Fund. We have also allocated £1 for every elector into our Town and Parish Fund, which is shared out to each district council area, and we have encouraged the district councils to top that up with 10p per elector.
It is then for the towns and parishes to bid for this TAP Fund money to develop projects and initiatives locally to help themselves.
Together the TAP Fund and the Locality Fund cost the county £1.2 million. But it is money well spent in bringing communities together to work on schemes of their choice to enhance their localities, often boosting our seed money with extra revenue raised from other sources.
Following examples like these is perhaps another way the Government could drive forward the new localism agenda, by codifying the relationship between national and local government and giving local councils more power to raise taxes and spend the money where they think it will do the most good for their communities.
This piece appears as part of a collection of essays on the future of local government collated by the New Local Government Network.