You probably haven’t heard of Queen’s Park in Westminster but it has a unique claim to fame: it is the only neighbourhood in London that governs its own affairs. In 2014, after three years of bitter political battles, local people wrestled a modicum of control from the borough, Westminster City Council by establishing Queen’s Park Community Council. It oversees local issues in the same way parish and town councils have done in rural areas for hundreds of years. It is a rare example of how to level up neglected places and revive local democracy.
At the last council elections in 2018, 12 community councillors were elected to represent the local ward population of around 12,750 residents. This means that residents benefit from a local councillor for around every thousand residents, compared to one for every four thousand in the wider borough. But it is not just the proximity of the council that counts; it is what Queen’s Park Community Council does on behalf of the local area.
Take, for example, the local neighbourhood plan developed by the council, which sets out ambitious proposals to improve local recreation and play spaces across the ward, protect historic buildings and green spaces, and maintain existing levels of social housing stock to prevent people being priced out of the area. Last month, it was approved in a local referendum by an overwhelming 91 per cent of voters that turned out; it will now be delivered by a community council, truly accountable to the local community.
Compare this to the rest of London. In Shoreditch, for example, two ward councillors represent nearly 15,000 residents between them. Local functions like the management of green spaces, protection of heritage assets and the provision of community sports facilities are managed miles away in Blackwall.
In 2018, when residents decided they wanted their own council like Queen’s Park, the borough frustrated the process. Despite strong community support, Tower Hamlets undertook a prolonged bureaucratic consultation process before refusing the application, largely thanks to opposition from outside the proposed area. The community’s ability to take back control was simply denied.
These two examples demonstrate why the levelling up agenda cannot ignore the need for neighbourhood governance. By gaining control in Queen’s Park, local people have been able to improve their place, strengthen their community and try out innovative ideas that can be spread elsewhere. They were denied the chance in Tower Hamlets so local people are still living with the same anti-social behaviour, licensing issues and planning problems.
The challenge is how to make Queen’s Park the rule and Spitalfields the exception. Only 37 per cent of people in England are represented by a parish or town council, with a handful of councils in cities like London and Liverpool. The best way to spread local democracy would be radically simple: ask people if they want to take control and back them if they do.
Alongside the next council elections next year, ministers could introduce an automatic ballot on establishing a local council in every area that doesn’t have one, and remove the ability for local authorities to overrule their decision if they do. At the same time, they could give town and parish councils the ability to draw down certain responsibilities – such as management of local parks – from the local authority to the neighbourhood if they think they could do a better job.
We often think of “levelling up” as a process done by Whitehall to places most in need of help. In truth, the best way to level up is to give places the tools and institutions to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.