Bradford on Avon needs a new future

Bradford on Avon is at a watershed. After Thursday’s vote to reject half a million pounds worth of investment in the town centre, nothing can remain the same again. So it’s time for some home truths. (In a separate blog I will set out some of the history of the HCZ, which explains what it set out to do and not do.)

An inability to find consensus on major projects is a curse that has plagued Bradford on Avon for decades. It happened with the building of the library in the 1980s, with the redevelopment of the Kingston Mills site in the 1990s and 2000s, with the pedestrian bridge, and now the Historic Core Zone.

Why are we so useless at effecting change in the town? How can we create an informed and active community that is involved in making the choices that impact their future? We need to find a way so that future initiatives cannot be scuppered by the actions of a handful of dissenters – because everyone will have been engaged in working through the issues and will know the facts, not some aberration from the truth.

In part it’s a reflection of a greater public malaise impacting on communities across the country as fewer people have become engaged in local decision-making and a disconnect has grown between voters and councillors/politicians. National elections are down to c. 60% turnout, local elections far less. In the May 2013 BoA Town Council elections, there were not enough candidates in BoA North to require an election, while in BoA South there were eight candidates for six seats. In both areas, the political parties were struggling to find candidates. At a by-election a year ago, only 25% voted. And of those who do vote, an increasing proportion across the country are elderly. And to make things worse, political parties have become more involved at a town level.

As a country, and as our interest in democracy and how we are governed has waned, so it seems our determination to always find someone to blame when things go wrong has grown. Scapegoats have to be found. We’ve seen that in some of the intemperate language being used on the community website in reaction to the HCZ vote. It was even more in evidence during the bridge fiasco.

We’ve also become a country in which single-issue interests increasingly fill the gap left by the lack of relevance of the elected bodies. There is a fantastic array of small groups in BoA which all in their own way do a great job of helping people, bringing people together and creating a better life. And there is the remarkably successful Climate Friendly Bradford on Avon. But the trouble with single issues is that those involved may not be inclined to fully explore other perspectives, or may be constrained from seeing the whole picture (and a topic such as traffic has a thousand different pictures/perspectives, particularly the cat’s cradle of unintended consequences that must be taken into account).

First, I suggest there needs to be a radical shakeup of the Town Council – the kind of leadership it provides, the way it works. How about a Town Council that goes out of its way to provide increased involvement and openness around decision-making, that uses participatory budgeting (which allows townspeople to identify, discuss, and prioritize public spending projects, and gives them the power to make real decisions about how money is spent)? How about a Town Council that uses extensive and real community-led planning (involving everyone not just the usual suspects) to provide the foundation for imaginative, ambitious projects to improve the lives of everyone in the town?

Consultation should mean actively engaging with 9,500 people, not running a static exhibition and being pleased with a turnout of 500. It should mean engagement from the outset, so that everyone is involved in defining the brief, working out the detail and producing conclusions. Then those responsible for making it happen can do so with the confidence that they have a majority behind them. It also means that everyone has more responsibility for what happens in their community. But if they feel part of what’s being discussed and planned, of course they will be more likely to stay involved. And it doesn’t mean all that work on the shoulders of councillors or Town Council staff. Townspeople will need to be prepared to chip in and help organise community-wide, Town Council-led events. People working together with shared purpose.

This would be a radical departure for what all too often has become a quarrelsome and process-driven organisation. It would be a move towards greater inclusion for 9,500 residents, instead of apathy, or worse, alienation. It would be concerned with empowering younger people – still working or raising families – with the time to take part. It would need to be more informal, to bring together people with the right experience to tackle projects – and then to entrust them with the responsibility to deliver. It would mean an embrace of modern technology. This is not a rant against our current town councillors – most are committed individuals who give an enormous amount of their time and energy and we should be grateful they have stepped up. But we need change. Some present councillors may feel able to embrace a new style of Council. Others will not. Let’s try and keep political parties out of it and let’s try and find new blood willing to stand for a new style of Council.

It makes sense for there to be a balancing civic organisation that works in tandem with the Town Council. The general name for such a body is a civic society, or sometimes a civic trust. This is from the Civic Voice website: “Civic societies provide a focus for voluntary and community action to improve the places where people live, work and relax. They play an essential and voluntary role in helping individuals and communities to understand and take action to improve the quality of their life through the place where they live. Civic societies … are a fundamental source of civic pride. The civic movement is also central to supporting and developing the sense of identity and belonging that comes from positive feelings about the place where people live. The civic movement is also central to supporting and developing the sense of identity and belonging that comes from positive feelings about the place where people live.”

So how about the Preservation Trust turning itself into the Bradford on Avon Civic Trust? A member-led organisation that is intimately involved in doing things across all areas of the civic realm. That’s what I suspect many people think the Preservation Trust is or should be about at the moment. But it patently is not. Look at its website home page list of contents – ahead of conservation or civic works or fundraising – is the marketing page for the holding of weddings and functions in its properties. Yes of course it looks at relevant planning applications and does some small scale good works. But a fresh new Bradford on Avon Civic Trust working alongside the Town Council would attract younger members by being more proactive across ALL parts of civil society, not simply in trying to preserve in aspic – a charge widely levelled at the existing Trust.

As a third pillar, we need a successful and cohesive business community. To date, the Chamber of Commerce has effectively been a group of retailers, of little relevance to the bulk of small businesses in the town. That’s nobody’s fault, just the way things have evolved. So how about the Chamber of Commerce freely representing all businesses in the town, not just retailers? Instead of 50 or so members today, 350+ businesses of all kinds would find common cause through an effective network and forum. Working together to create a stronger economy, everyone in the town would benefit.

Well, the good news is that a proposal for just this kind of radical change (proposed by local web designer and former Chamber Chair Andrew Eberlin) is going to be discussed at a Chamber meeting this Thursday (12th). It’s exactly what we need and has new blood behind the idea. Watch out for news.

So those are three suggestions for how we could effect radical change in the town – not to alienate people who prefer to keep things the way they are, but to get more people involved in decision-making, to make a difference and to create the kind of town we all want to live in. One that has a strong vision of what it wants to be and that provides the opportunity for people to help shape its future.

Now it’s over to you…

Anyways, here is a comprehensive guide on circular saws of all kinds i’ve promised you with the last post!