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Nesta Democracy Pioneers

Democracy Pioneers is an award for innovations that are experimenting with ways to re-energise civic participation and everyday democracy in the UK. This series shares the experience and work of 19 Pioneers and what they hope to see change for their impact to go mainstream.

Be Buckfastleigh evolved from a variety of local community projects with the aim of transforming community participation and power in ‘forgotten’ rural towns through strategic and local collaboration, engagement and delivery.

Like many small, rural communities, Buckfastleigh had faced a series of issues prior to 2015, the solutions to which failed to involve local residents or address their concerns and priorities. In 2012, there were floods in town and it was felt that the response from the District and Town Councils did not reflect or value the experiences and advice of local residents.

Many rural communities have seen decades of cuts to local services and facilities and, in conjunction with cuts to transport, many people have been left without access to basic services, disconnected from decisions that affect their lives. Small towns are often overlooked by initiatives seeking to aggregate services in larger towns, where there are greater numbers in need, where community/delivery organisations exist and where economies of scale make investment more feasible.

On the back of these changes, poorly designed responses and the proposal to close the local lido, a small group of Buckfastleigh residents decided to stand for election and take action to start rebuilding and fighting for our community. We wanted to address inequalities through the development and delivery of community based activities, economic strategy and civic participation in Buckfastleigh and through Be Buckfastleigh, grow a movement of replication in other similar towns.

Buckfastleigh town planning meeting

The broken promise of local politics

Rural communities and town councils are in traditionally “safe” political seats where people see their vote as wasted and the connections between how you vote and what happens at higher levels is negligible. At Be Buckfastleigh we want to engage and reconnect local communities, targeting those who are most often overlooked, to work together across organisations and towns, to address their needs.

There doesn’t seem to have been an actual Town Council election in Buckfastleigh for more than 30 years, with council seats left vacant and much of the work done behind closed doors. In 2015, nine local residents, including myself, formed the Buckfastleigh Independent Group and at the election, took nine of the twelve Town Council seats. We not only formed the biggest independent grouping, but we took on the roles of chair of each committee and meeting, and set about transforming how the council worked, opening it up to community involvement and being ambitious in what we could deliver.

I became the Mayor of Buckfastleigh in 2015 and have worked to raise funding and create new structures that include local people and build on their experience and needs. There is the potential for this model to spread to other towns across the country and lead to a rethink of how the system of Councils is set up, in a way which makes it more representative and more reflective of people's lives and experiences.

Things like local transport solutions, youth work, money advice and early years interventions need strong and safe governance, whether the service is for 200, 2,000 or 20,000 people. It makes sense to work together at a local level to restore these for our communities. Town Councils should be in the lead and steering these activities across a region. Unfortunately, there is a lack of coordination and little help with forming the structures that would be needed to make this happen.

The value of reinvigorating town councils

It is clear that pressure on local communities is going to increase as we bear the impact and fall out of COVID-19. More than ever, communities have shown that they know best how to support the most vulnerable in their society and can reach into places that higher level authorities can simply no longer reach. There are so many similarities across clusters of small towns and a real opportunity to collaborate to recreate the services that our towns need, running at a scale which is sustainable and is capable of accessing the funding and support it needs to function safely.

Town Councils are uniquely placed to lead in small towns and villages and if they could become a more attractive and relevant organisation, could transform the lives of many people in their community. Town councils could achieve this if they were more ambitious, and built a real sense of purpose. Why do they exist? What could they be doing if they worked differently? To build this purpose, councils need to attract a more diverse range of people to put themselves forward as parish or town councillors, and transform how the councils work in order to attract those people.

I would like to see town councils better reflecting their constituencies, with plenty of young parents, young adults, working people and those who have retired, elected as town councillors. I would like them to encourage people to speak up about their lives and what would make things better for them, and then to see the council take action to make it happen. Councils should be able to present realistic options to their community about how things can be delivered and not just assume that nobody will want to contribute more to improve outcomes for their people. Be Buckfastleigh aims to create a narrative that integrates local economic strategy with social justice and civic participation and addresses the disconnect in how people feel they can advocate for their priorities.

To scale this work, Be Buckfastleigh is developing a network of local community leaders, decision makers, local government and social enterprises who are addressing inequalities and supporting systemic change in small rural towns. This is the foundation for neighbouring communities to work in active partnership to deliver their communities priorities, providing advice, resources and expertise to bring those projects to life and creating better more fulfilled lives. I would like higher level authorities, government organisations and funders to recognise that it is people in the community that know what matters the most, and give them access to the decisions and resources they need.


Pam Barrett

Pam is Chief Executive of Be Buckfastleigh and Deputy Mayor of Buckfastleigh Town Council.