A flash mob? Soaring election turnout? Guerrilla tactics? Welcome to local democracy, Frome style. It has important lessons for other councils.
Frome in Somerset is one of those west country market towns whose attractiveness to the passing visitor masks significant disparities in wealth and opportunity. In January 2011 five locals, frustrated with the town council, set up Independents for Frome. They put a letter in a local newspaper announcing a meeting in a pub and were stunned when 86 people turned up.
Their leader is Mel Usher, former chief executive of South Somerset district council and the first executive director of the Improvement and Development Agency (which was an autonomous arm of the Local Government Association) from 1998 until 2002.
Usher has always been known for ideas. If councils had adopted his vision for a national e-purchasing consortium, England's councils could now be several billion pounds better off. So Independents for Frome (IfF) characteristically decided to rebel against the prevailing local government orthodoxy and promised to do "more with more" through "intelligent risk-taking".
The IfF campaigned on a platform of national party politics having "no place on our town council". A flash mob in the supermarket with locals singing "you can get it if you really want" made the local BBC TV news.
In the May 2011 election IfF took control of the town council with 10 of the 17 seats. The turnout was 75% higher than four years earlier. Just over a year later a new Sunday market is attracting thousands, and is being used to market the town, good food and healthy eating. A local play group has led a project to build a new playground and cycle track.
The town council helped secure the £50,000 lottery funding, find local architects to do the work for free and make it all happen, but the playgroup ran the consultations and made the decisions. Further changes are beginning to be made to open spaces across the town, at the behest of residents.
The council is opening up as never before and devoting its energies to getting things done rather than talking. All the committees have been scrapped, to be replaced with just two – internal and external.
Somerset county council has not escaped the attentions of IfF. When it replaced flagstones in a conservation area with tarmac, town councillors found a local firm willing to donate the right stones, then dug up the tarmac themselves – sustained by free coffee and sandwiches from local cafes – and laid the stones. The county changed its policy.
In the months following their election the group made clear that 'Independents for Frome' was more than a word play. The town council has been pressing the local district, Mendip, for more autonomy over its affairs.
One argument was over control of money from the government's new homes bonus scheme, which the town council claims could be as high as £2.5m. The town also made an unsuccessful bid (when a tendering process was already advanced) to take over street cleaning. Relations between district and town are now improving as each begins to understand more about the other's priorities and pressures.
So what are the lessons for localism of Independents for Frome? The most obvious is that many more people will vote and get involved in local politics if they believe they can make a difference. The second is that all tiers of local government have to change their mindset if they are to make the verbiage of localism a reality.
Localism requires upper tier councils to seek ways to avoid parcelling up work in big, long-term contracts that only a handful of large outsourcing firms can win. This seems all but impossible when councils are desperate for economies of scale, but could local solutions sometimes be cheaper and better?
Localism should mean empowering parish councils – they only cover around a third of the population, but they need to become professional and effective enough to justify more responsibilities – and help community groups do the same.
But the absence of a parish is not an excuse to avoid exploring the potential of devolution. The power of general competence in the Localism Act provides great opportunities for "intelligent risk-taking" to shift power to local people. Fear of failure in straitened times must not be allowed to crush new ways of thinking and acting.