IN CONVERSATION : PETER AND SHEILA IN THE RYE BAKERY, FROME

 

060 SW Frome Rye Bakery Group

A group of locals makes use of the ample space afforded by the Rye Bakery, Frome.

 

AUDIO Coming soon

Sheila Gore and Peter Macfadyen tell me about Independents for Frome, Frome, and the scope for action at the local level.


TRANSCRIPT

SG : My name is Sheila Gore. I am one of the independent town councillors in Frome, and this year, I am also the Mayor.

JO : Hello Mayor. Mayor is with a ‘y’.

SG : ‘y’

PM : It is. Cool. So, I’m Peter Macfadyen, and I’m another of the independent councillors, and I was … I’ve been involved since the beginning which was 2011, and I’m an ex-Mayor. I’m also an ex-Leader for a brief year of the council. We have leadership of the council, yes.

JO : And, where are we? We’re in a rather splendid, old …

SG : old church. We’re in an old church that has been renovated basically and converted into a community centre with a fantastic café. It has maintained a lot of the original features so …

JO : yes, it’s rather beautiful, and you can probably hear the sounds of …

SG : children playing, yes

PM : It’s a children’s play space.

SG : It’s certainly focusing on a space where parents can come with their kids …

JO : Do you want to start talking about the Independents for Frome – a potted history?

SG : I think Peter’s worth thinking about it … because he started it first.

PM : So, I’ll give you a one minute history of it. At the beginning of 2011, a group of people got together who were essentially dissatisfied with what the existing town council was doing. Dissatisfied, but also – that was mostly around feeling that there was potential to do a lot more. It wasn’t that the council was particularly corrupt or evil or anything else. There was huge potential to do more.

JO : So, local residents …

PM : Yes, a small group of local residents, who didn’t particularly know each other. We all came from different angles. Mine was a green angle. Other people came from different angles. And we decided to stand in the next election, which was May 2011

SG : 2011

PM : … but really just to stir things up. It wasn’t really the intention to do more than that, but then the thing snowballed really into an initial public meeting, which we thought 30 people might come to, and 80 turned up. And then that … the end of that there were already enough candidates for every seat. And in 60% of local councils in Britain, there aren’t even elections. So, the vast majority, well, the majority of councils, there aren’t enough people to stand, at all, never mind some seats. There were many seats in Frome …

JO : I can confirm this actually as my mother and father received a letter telling them that the councillors had all been appointed uncontested in Shropshire …

PM : And that’s the usual situation. So, even by existing, we stirred things up. Ten of us were elected in that first election so we found ourselves running the council, and also there was political opposition but they were divided between the Tories and the Lib Dems and they hated each other more than us so they continued to vote against each other.

JO : So, the complexion was Conservatives, Lib Dems, and 10 ..

PM : independents

JO : IfF. Weren’t you … the electoral law is a little bit funny isn’t it about whether you have to be a party to stand?

SG : yes.

PM : No, we could have stood as separate people, if you like. We chose to stand as a minor political party which is something you can very easily do and it doesn’t cost much. And the reason for doing that is that we then had an identity because on the election, on the ballot paper, we wanted to be able to say Independents for Frome, not independent, because otherwise we would have been up against, potentially up against, a bunch of other independents. We would have had a confusion – you know, “is Peter Independents for Frome?”. What we said is that we would operate in a very different way. That group said … we didn’t put forward a manifesto of what we would do. What we did, we said “this is how we will behave …

SG : … how we will work …

PM : … to get there as a group. And then with the town, we’ll have the participation and the engagement. So, essentially, we’ll run a participatory democracy rather than representative”.

JO : yes.

PM : So that is what we were offering. Actually it was quite an easy sell in some ways because the last lot were so … they didn’t do much … and people in Frome were up for a change. So that’s the history of us getting into power, and I was persuaded to write the process of that, and then the next few years … Flatpack Democracy which was the book that …

JO : 2014, did that come out?

PM : No, earlier than that. 2013 probably. So, it’s really only the story of how to take power, and it does cover a few years later.

JO : Do you feel your … we’ll come to your emergence on the scene … do you feel already by about 2013, 14, or 15, I suppose, one could say “well, this is what is now different”?

SG : oh yes. In the town, you could see that there were changes being made, and I think the first group – I don’t know whether you agree Peter – the first group chose projects that were very visible, and they .. there was .. there were things that everybody wanted to change and so they made it happen basically.

JO : … but, as 10 of … how many?

SG : 17

JO : 10 of 17, so you were the majority in the  … the first time round … not bad going … so you were effectively able to decide what to do …

SG : running the council …

PM : Yes. Which we did.

JO : So, can you give me your pet stories of what went well?

PM : I think the key thing we did in that period was that we didn’t do austerity, which is a negative obviously.

JO : You found there was room not to do it?

PM : So, we borrowed and we spent, which sounds rash …

JO : … not to me.

PM : what could have happened … well there were a number of things in Frome which needed a kick in order to make them happen. I think key … you asked for a couple of examples …  the main one would be the Cheese and Grain in town which is a building in the middle of town …

SG : it’s the old market hall, basically …

PM : so it’s like a massive village hall …

JO : was that derelict or something ?

PM : it was pretty derelict in many ways. We as a town council paid a subsidy of about 35 grand a year, every year, to run it. They came to us and said “can we borrow the money … can we do this place up and turn it into a viable business?” So, what we did was borrow half a million quid, massively revamped it. It now runs as an independent, profit making business. We don’t pay the subsidy, and the interest we pay on the loan is about £27,000, I think – a year.

SG : so, we’re paying less.

PM : we’re paying 8 or 10 grand less a year than we were.

JO : so, it’s very interesting. Without going into too much detail, the Keynesian or post-Keynesian argument is that at the macro level, it always makes sense, not always, but most of the time it makes sense to borrow to spend. You’re actually saying at the local authority level, the same remains true.

PM : definitely.

SG : we get beneficial rates in terms of payback ..

PM : incredibly low rates, over a long period of time. So, by the time, long after I’m dead and gone probably, the final tranches of that will be paid off, there’ll be even less within the total budget … The other one I’d cite into that pile would be allotments. There was a ten year waiting list for allotments. People had said “what can we do about this?” forever. We just bought a field and created 100 allotments which got rid of that waiting list instantly. I think what we were doing was just doing stuff. Mel Usher who is very much a leading light within this whole thing often says “we won’t kill anyone. At this level, we’re not making decisions which are life and death. If it’s wrong, they’re not huge amounts of money actually”. So, it’s worth … it’s really important to take risks and to do stuff. So, Sheila’s right. We did do quite a lot of stuff.

JO : So, you’d say there were already visible and you’d say … was the public fairly well aware overall?

SG : yes.

JO : so, come 2015 … was that the next election?

SG : that was the next election …

JO : you stood more candidates?

SG : No. The same number.

PM : you can’t stand more. 17. In every seat.

JO : but you won …

SG : all 17.

JO : all of them.

PM : and I thought politicians wouldn’t stand against us … we all live here … it’s a small town … I thought they’d be going “hey look! this bunch have done a good job, let’s let them get on with it”

JO : but they fought you?

PM : in every seat. So, in that sense, there were 46 people standing against us.

JO : and they lost every seat?

PM : yes, which is good theatre. Sheila was the last … so, all the counts happening … it is good theatre … physically you’re piling up bits of paper, and having got to 16, and Sheila’s was the last …. and we were all obviously thinking “it would be so nice to have all 17” and actually Sheila won easily.

JO : a full house …

PM :  … which was harder to do because the first time we were effectively offering, just saying “change”. The second time .. you know .. there’s an opportunity for people to say “we don’t like your change”.

JO : it’s a terrific story.

SG: that will be the same in two years’ time … another election …

JO: so, to bring this little segment, or whatever they are called in the trade, to a close, what would you like to say about IfF, where it is going now, any limitations you have butted up against?

SG : I don’t know whether there are any limitations but carrying something on, rather than starting something, is always a different game. It’s a trickier thing. So, being at the beginning, being a rebel to start, is exciting, different, a bit of a laugh. And, I think, the second time round, it’s a little bit … well, you’ve got a whole new tranche of people who want to come in and do something and it’s slightly different. The rebels who started are not necessarily the people who want to carry on. So, you’ve got different people involved. And it is trickier to keep something going. There aren’t the quick wins in the town … things get a little bit more complicated, a little more tricky to get agreement on … it’s just a trickier thing to carry something on.

JO : I picked you … I’ve known about Flatpack probably through Peter Andrews in the first place. It’s obviously of interest to me. I tried to do something, not exactly the same, with a similar motivation in Bath, a project called Democratic Accountability Bath, so I was very interested to learn about it …. where was I going with that? It occurred to me to include you as one of the groups – I’m only in theory going to look at one group per region  – each illustrating a different sort of structural power which people have where they are in the system. And I thought well you have used … would you say it’s sort of our electoral power  … there’s an electoral system there but you’ve chosen to use it in a certain way that’s not the same as, for example, joining a party, and just doing what you are told. What do you think it says about how much power there is in the system?

SG : well there’s certainly power at a local level through the democratic process, where people participate, where they get involved. Last year, we ran … the council has money that it wants to give to charities … the Mayor .. last year’s Mayor, Tony, was very keen to bring in the concept of participative budgeting, so that it gets people really seeing “we’ve got …”  … we could have just chosen how we used it because we each have pet charity, given it a chunk of money, and off we go. Before that .. we had a separate group of people that chose the charities, so it was a bit independent … not entirely the councillors that did it … but last year, we did this quite formal participative budgeting process, and one of them, there was about 100 people in the football club …

PM: for a whole day …

SG : for a whole day choosing from 15 or 16 different projects that were pitching for money.

JO : So, it sounds to me like what you are saying is it really works to the extent that people involve themselves in it.

SG : well that’s certainly that project .. it had an aim to not only give money to local charities but also to engage people in a complex democratic process. You know, you had to decide … that group or that group … and that’s quite complex.

PM : Lots of people .. you start going “I love that one! I love that one! I love that one!” And then you’re kind of going “oh shit! I’ve used the whole £30,000!” … for me the process was what was important … with 100 people being deeply engaged and helping to make those decisions and therefore hopefully beginning to recognise that when we make decisions around other things that they kind of think .. they’ve got in the back of their minds that maybe it’s not quite as simple as I think .. because when you look from the outside, you go “why are they doing that?” and you get on Facebook and you moan about it …

JO : so this 100 – was that just open to all …

SG : … anybody who wanted to turn up ..

JO : they just turn up

PM : although interestingly, they were above the age of 10, weren’t they?

SG : the 10 year old was there.

PM : yeah I know, but we decided – because we could – that actually 10 year olds could also vote .. or 11 year olds … but we also had another process which was another event which was a decision around what we do with [  ] Park … a thousand people voted on that and we decided to extend the …

SG : who could vote

PM : the age going downwards … we asked the town clerk, you know, so … “actually, can 16 year olds vote in this?”  “yeah, because technically, it’s only advisory, so why not?” “well, what about, you know, 12 year olds?”…. “hang on, we’ve got to stop somewhere” …  but it was kind of why not? … it was the children using the park, so why don’t we have their decision in there? Although, having said that it was advisory, in both those cases, we made those decisions binding, so, in other words, we said to the people, “whatever you decide, we will do, even if we don’t like it”, which we felt was really important, so that if they had made the “wrong decision”, or the decision we didn’t like, then if we just trump it …. sorry to use that term …

JO : cards preceded that family by some distance, I think

PM : it doesn’t work …

SG : you have to be honest that they are going to have the power.

JO: Do you feel there is an existential threat to the human species, or is that over the top … or …. Do you feel like we are in an emergency?

SG: Yes … in an [ ] .. in a one word answer … yes.

JO: In … what’s top of mind for you?

SG: I think climate change is the biggest problem and I think that we’ve known it for a long time and getting people to … getting people to make a change and actually see a bigger picture is really hard …. people don’t want to do that … you know …. they don’t like to face up to something huge … I mean Peter and I are both involved in … in running workshops about climate change … something like ten years ago, was it? It’s a long time ago … and ..

JO: yes … that was here in … Frome

SG: in Frome

PM: basically and around … and then we’re both key in something called Sustainable Frome …

JO: yes

PM: which I started a decade ago … which actually .. you know … met last night …. and some of these things … I had a talk around an organisation called CHAIR … which is about trying to .. trying to get Article 25 of the UN … focus attention around Article 25 of the UN Declaration of .. Human Rights

SG: Human Rights ….

PM: yes

JO: which is …

PM: a sort of rather all-encompassing one that basically says … I don’t know quite why it isn’t number one but it’s sort of like everyone has the right to shelter and so on and so on … and what they were linking it to was the basic wage … a universal basic wage …

SG: basic wage …

PM: but anyway …

SG: it was a really interesting [ ]

PM: that’s a slight digression but it …

JO: that was at the meeting last night …. talking about universal income

PM: So, as Sheila says, we have been talking about these things for a long time really … so, yes, to me, what you said absolutely makes sense … I think we have been in that situation …

JO: you feel it is …

PM: yes

JO: ok …

SG: and I think the tricky bit is to get people to ..like you were saying at the beginning … get people to actually realise their power and know that action is possible and to live with hope.. you know …. that actually something … it’s not over … “nothing’s going to change … I’ll just … you know … go on holiday on an aeroplane” … all that sort of stuff … so you have to get people to … I think personally through action … and that’s why I became a councillor …. actually doing stuff …. gets you to realise that you can actually do stuff … and then [ ]

JO: what .. is it a bit … I mean … it’s a bit putting one on the spot … I don’t know what I would answer but … what percentage of people do you think are, intellectually speaking, familiar with what needs to happen and are at least somewhat prepared to do something …. do you think it’s quite a small percentage of people …..

SG: I think there are lots of people who think it’s happening … I don’t think there’s very many people who know how to interact with that sort of thing

PM: I think you have two questions in there … really …actually … I mean there’s a percentage of people who know … who have a good sense of what might be going on …. that’s a different … so I would say that’s … I don’t know as a percentage … 5% … it’s pretty small … I would say … 5% .. 10% … but are prepared to do something … or as Sheila says … able … well not able … know what it is that they can usefully do … that’s definitely way lower … [ ]

JO: ok … so your starting point for the aware of the situation is already pretty low

SG: quite low …

PM: yes

JO: it’s a small minority … and then you are talking about a subset of that

SG: being really low …

PM: personally, I would say … but I think what we’ve done … and what we are trying to do as a council is to do global and local …. and actually, we’ve been really successful in that …. in many ways …. so Frome .. before our time in the council … became a Fairtrade Town … it was one of the first Fairtrade Towns …

JO: yes

PM: we now … we have a carbon target as a council … to be carbon zero by 2046 … which is in 30 years time … which, again, as far as I know, is unique as a parish town council … but what we are saying is that actually … you know .. we may only be a small town council … all we have to do is allotments and have one meeting a year … but actually it doesn’t stop us from …

SG: thinking big ….

PM: thinking about these things … doing research on these things … and then getting those out and about …

JO: that reminds me of what you were saying earlier about flooding in a very local context …

PM: yes …

JO: what were you saying … about 60% of ..

PM: I need to check that figure but it was something like 60% of houses in Frome being potentially liable to flooding … although a lot of Frome is on a hill … so you think … that feels completely counter-intuitive … but that’s flash flooding …

SG: [ ] it’s about runoff …

PM: that’s happening … more runoff … partly because of greater concretised .. you know … greater … we’ve had a lot of infill in Frome … of housing … and what would have been or what were gardens are now houses and concrete and [ ]

JO: so it has taken away the sponginess of the landscape …

PM: exactly …. and a recognition of that … for me … by raising those things … and we’re trying to put them into language that people will work with … so … something like the carbon targets …. that’s … we’ve … we’re selling all that … or we’re working all that around clean and healthy …

JO: yes

PM: so the approach is “do you want to live in a place that is clean and healthy?”

SG: “clean and healthy”

PM: which, to be honest, is hard to argue with …

JO: sounds like a no brainer …

PM: yes, exactly …. but if you say to people …

JO: but, do you know, 10,000 people in Bath live in a zone, by the council’s own data, which is dangerous for human health … 10,000 …

SG: dangerous [ ] .. well we have a similar situation that could start to happen in the centre of town … and we’re doing something about it and .. you know … some people are really happy with what we are doing and some people really don’t like it … and ..you know … there’s a sort of change happening and it’s often gradual …. and people, like I said earlier on … it’s tricky to get people to change …

JO: I am conscious of the time … so …

PM: ok

SG: yes … move on …

PM: but these things … yes, but I think in terms of what we’re doing differently that other ones .. I am just going to mention briefly … we, again, as a parish town council … have an ethical policy ….

JO: yes …..

PM: you know … which, again … when we introduced that … the researching of that involved going to the district and the county which are above us and they kind of went “an ethical policy?”

JO: “what’s that?”

PM: “well I don’t think we’ve got one of those” … and it’s kind of like … why not? You know … and so, having that in people’s minds … that actually we don’t want to be buying things from .. you know … sources which involve slavery … we don’t want to be using companies who are exploiting their workers …. it kind of all .. for me it is building up a picture which involves people at a really grassroots level … that’s the way you’ve got to get it into people …. that it’s their own … they don’t want to be paid nothing … if you are a local builder … you know … you like the town council because … you know … they’re saying… “ok … we’ll employ you because … and we will pay you properly”

SG: “you’re a local builder”

PM: yes … so we have a policy to use local people ….

JO: yes ….

PM: so that means it gets them thinking about … I don’t know … immigration or something … in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise … great

JO: ok … that’s great …. I mean .. I think … certainly from the point of view of the podcast … that’s probably great .. already … yes? If you would like to … and you are interested … stay in touch and if I may, I’ll try and elicit some responses from you about how this map needs to change …

PM: sure …

JO: for example … one thing I find really interesting is land and land use … and when you look at this … you know … this is a good example … it’s mostly white … well, what is that? As I know already from … from being British … but from my journey … even if I just took the last two days’ journeys .. it’s farmland … it’s almost all field systems … as far as you can see in every direction …. unless it’s the moor … or unless it’s a piece of forestry … or a town … you know … otherwise … it’s just field systems … usually with livestock or ..

PM: well not much that you can see. ….

SG: no livestock … [ ]

PM: no livestock … it’s all in a shed ….

JO: but, for sure, depopulated …

PM: yes

JO: no …. there are no people in the landscape ….

PM: no

JO: and that’s what … for most people alive, I suspect, now … they regard that as normal … but apparently there’s an organisation which I hope to go and speak to the founder of called the Campaign for Real Farming … which you might know

PM: yes

JO: there are a number of institutions around that … but the proposition there is that as many as a third of British households need to be involved in agriculture if the agroecology model is implemented … and, of course, that means repopulating all these white spaces ….

PM: yes

JO: somehow ….

PM: I’m going to send you a link to a film …

SG: what’s Chris’ blog … is it Peasant Farmer or whatever it is …

PM: yes … I think it is …. so there’s a guy called … I’ll send you both of these … there’s a guy called Chris Smaje who lives just outside Frome … who works closely with Colin Tudge … who is the guy you are talking about ….

JO: yes, that’s right …

PM: and Chris writes a very well known or very well looked at blog around all of these sorts of issues and so they run a box scheme of organic veg … just outside Frome

JO: are they the guys that are getting a really hard time from the authorities? ‘Cause they wanted to live on their ….

PM: yes … they did

SG: well … they did … they did but they’ve won that one …

JO: hurray!

SG: they live on it ….

JO: yes … I read about that ….

PM: and there’s also …

JO: thanks for that …

PM: the person who filmed us from 38 Degrees … he’s made some really interesting films … that guy is extraordinary … Tom ….

SG: [ ] wow …

PM: I looked at his blog or his website and ….

SG: what’s his surname?

PM: I can’t remember .. but I’ll send you the link ….

SG: yes

PM: there’s a group in Spain who he has just filmed … who he suggested I looked at … who are what you are talking about, essentially … so they were a valley or an area of Spain that’s been massively deindustrialised … huge unemployment … but then what’s coming back .. there’s lots of young people … going back onto the land … and getting land cheaply …. I haven’t watched more … I started to watch it last night … it looked really good … [ ] yes … I’ll send you that link ….

JO: [ ] I think these things are very tangible to people because most people can understand a map … … and if you just rank by land use .. what the top land uses are … by … you know .. by acres … I am sure agriculture must come number one, yes?

PM: yes

SG: pretty high … I think the thing that we’ve been talking about here now actually … is the idea …. it’s powerful … is that you show people that that is possible … you know … that’s what you and Mel have been particularly good at … saying “yes you can have ten year olds voting about our budget policy” or … you know … if you package something as clean and healthy .. .it’s going to reach a lot more people … than just … this is a green policy … you know … which people say … [ ]

PM: “bloody hippies”

SG: and you pitch … and you say “look .. this is because actually we want people to be able to not have kids that are going to suffer from bronchitis and ..”

JO: so actually it’s about painting a positive picture for people …

SG: yes but it’s also what’s possible … and you know …. you don’t need to think that you don’t have any control or power … which it seems to me is what you are trying to say as well … if you think about it in a more creative way … you can switch it so you can say “yes I can do that” and we’re very lucky to live in a place like Frome where there are lots of people who will put their hand up and say “I want to do something” and they do … I mean there are lots of organisations and things happening …

JO: well let’s hope others follow your lead …

SG: well they do … and actually part of what the town council has done is connect people up … [ ]

PM: Sheila’s right … this isn’t all about … it’s definitely not all about Independents for Frome … in the sense that we fell into very fertile ground …

SG: absolutely …

PM: and Frome is fertile in the sense that it has always had an independent streak and been a bit Bolshie … [ ] partly because geographically … going back to your map … we’re stuck up at the top of the district and the county … so we are ignored by all of them … we never got any money and politically this has been independent … sorry … not independent … it’s been LibDem in a sea of Tories … so, as far as the rest of the county is concerned … it’s like Sodom …. so there’s always been that kind of … so we fell into that [ ] and then, as Sheila said, there are masses of creative, interesting [ ] people … and then recently … a whole new demography through the new Steiner school … . a free Steiner school here … which, whatever one thinks of Steiner education is bringing in … there must be 400 people and rising … so there’s going to be 600 pupils in the end … but that’s brought a whole new chunk of people who [ ] think slightly differently ….

SG: [ ]

PM: It’s easy to do a lot of what we want to do ….

SG: I mean … but … you know … what was shocking was when Peter set up Sustainable Frome…you know … we just met in a small room above a pub … and we thought .. a few people … and we just wanted to talk to people about …

PM: half a dozen people

SG: sustainable things … so we didn’t feel bonkers in a country that wasn’t even considering it really … and … you know … we got loads of people …

PM: we couldn’t fit …

SG: to begin with .. our meetings … you know …we got 100 people … and that thing has been going for 10 years … every Thursday … every month … it hasn’t stopped …

PM: there were 30 or 40 people last night …

SG: I mean it’s extraordinary …

PM: including a lot of new ones … including about 8 people and one woman who arrived in Frome yesterday ….. you know … so her first evening was coming to Sustainable Frome …

SG: it’s extraordinary … and you know … I think it’s massively impressive …

JO: yes …

SG: and part of its success, I think, is that it’s not bureaucratic … it’s not saying .. “you got to to have a Chairman, and a Secretary, and a minutes … and a way of operating .. and no you can’t speak for [ ]” … you know … all that sort of stuff is out the window

JO: much more informal …

SG: much more …

PM: the same is true of Independents for Frome … we have no leader … as IfF … we do as a council … we have a Convenor … so somebody whose job it is to make the meetings happen ….

JO: yes

PM: we have no leadership

JO: so it’s a very different sort of system, yes ?

SG: it’s a very … it’s a system that’s accessible to people …. who don’t … you know .. know the rules … and that was one of the problems with the previous council …. that … you were stopped … you weren’t allowed to speak, in fact … at some meetings … it stopped you talking … I’ll never forget the meeting … it was unbelievable …

PM: [ ]

SG: exactly … it was finger pointing and “excuse me … you don’t know what it’s like” … [ ]

JO: well … that’s brilliant ….

PM: do keep in touch ….

JO: your practice shows …. practice makes perfect, yes?


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