Sheila Gore : My name is Sheila Gore. I am one of the independent town councillors in Frome, and this year, I am also the Mayor.
Jonathan Oates : Hello Mayor. Mayor is with a ‘y’.
Sheila Gore : ‘y’
Peter Macfadyen : 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.
Jonathan Oates : And, where are we? We’re in a rather splendid, old …
Sheila Gore : 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 …
Jonathan Oates : yes, it’s rather beautiful, and you can probably hear the sounds of …
Sheila Gore : children playing, yes
Peter Macfadyen : It’s a children’s play space.
Sheila Gore : It’s certainly focusing on a space where parents can come with their kids …
Jonathan Oates : Do you want to start talking about the Independents for Frome – a potted history?
Sheila Gore : I think Peter’s worth thinking about it … because he started it first.
Peter Macfadyen : 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.
Jonathan Oates : So, local residents …
Peter Macfadyen : 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
Sheila Gore : 2011
Peter Macfadyen : … 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 …
Jonathan Oates : 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 …
Peter Macfadyen : 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.
Jonathan Oates : So, the complexion was Conservatives, Lib Dems, and 10 ..
Peter Macfadyen : independents
Jonathan Oates : 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?
Sheila Gore : yes.
Peter Macfadyen : 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 …
Sheila Gore : … how we will work …
Peter Macfadyen : … 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”.
Jonathan Oates : yes.
Peter Macfadyen : 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 …
Jonathan Oates : 2014, did that come out?
Peter Macfadyen : 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.
Jonathan Oates : 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”?
Sheila Gore : 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.
Jonathan Oates : … but, as 10 of … how many?
Sheila Gore : 17
Jonathan Oates : 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 …
Sheila Gore : running the council …
Peter Macfadyen : Yes. Which we did.
Jonathan Oates : So, can you give me your pet stories of what went well?
Peter Macfadyen : I think the key thing we did in that period was that we didn’t do austerity, which is a negative obviously.
Jonathan Oates : You found there was room not to do it?
Peter Macfadyen : So, we borrowed and we spent, which sounds rash …
Jonathan Oates : … not to me.
Peter Macfadyen : 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 …
Sheila Gore : it’s the old market hall, basically …
Peter Macfadyen : so it’s like a massive village hall …
Jonathan Oates : was that derelict or something ?
Peter Macfadyen : 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.
Sheila Gore : so, we’re paying less.
Peter Macfadyen : we’re paying 8 or 10 grand less a year than we were.
Jonathan Oates : 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.
Peter Macfadyen : definitely.
Sheila Gore : we get beneficial rates in terms of payback ..
Peter Macfadyen : 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.
Jonathan Oates : So, you’d say there were already visible and you’d say … was the public fairly well aware overall?
Sheila Gore : yes.
Jonathan Oates : so, come 2015 … was that the next election?
Sheila Gore : that was the next election …
Jonathan Oates : you stood more candidates?
Sheila Gore : No. The same number.
Peter Macfadyen : you can’t stand more. 17. In every seat.
Jonathan Oates : but you won …
Sheila Gore : all 17.
Jonathan Oates : all of them.
Peter Macfadyen : 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”
Jonathan Oates : but they fought you?
Peter Macfadyen : in every seat. So, in that sense, there were 46 people standing against us.
Jonathan Oates : and they lost every seat?
Peter Macfadyen : 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.
Jonathan Oates : a full house …
Peter Macfadyen : … 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”.
Jonathan Oates : it’s a terrific story.
Sheila Gore : that will be the same in two years’ time … another election …
Jonathan Oates : 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?
Sheila Gore : 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.
Jonathan Oates : 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?
Sheila Gore : 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 …
Peter Macfadyen : for a whole day …
Sheila Gore : for a whole day choosing from 15 or 16 different projects that were pitching for money.
Jonathan Oates : So, it sounds to me like what you are saying is it really works to the extent that people involve themselves in it.
Sheila Gore : 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.
Peter Macfadyen : 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 …
Jonathan Oates : so this 100 – was that just open to all …
Sheila Gore : … anybody who wanted to turn up ..
Jonathan Oates : they just turn up
Peter Macfadyen : although interestingly, they were above the age of 10, weren’t they?
Sheila Gore : the 10 year old was there.
Peter Macfadyen : 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 …
Sheila Gore : who could vote
Peter Macfadyen : 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 …
Jonathan Oates : cards preceded that family by some distance, I think
Peter Macfadyen : it doesn’t work …
Sheila Gore : you have to be honest that they are going to have the power.