Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Frome: a public value lens

By Tobias Phibbs, Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Frome, Somerset

Public value, one of the guiding principles of the Commission’s work, can seem an obscure or technocratic term. Its life as a concept began in academic departments and international civil services. But it has meaning and power beyond Whitehall.

The public value framework encourages mapping economic and social assets, bringing them together to deliver a broader set of objectives than the traditional measures of productivity or growth. This can mean government departments breaking down siloes and working together to meet shared goals. But it can also mean local communities coming together and pooling skills and assets to meet needs and bring community cohesion to their shared home.

The independent-spirited West Country town of Frome in Somerset has done just this. In 2011 local residents created Independents for Frome, a non-party political grouping to stand in local elections. Later that year they won a majority on the town council, and by 2015 they had every seat on the council — four years on, they still do.

At the heart of their approach is what former Mayor Peter Macfadyen calls flatpack democracy, an attempt to rejuvenate town and parish councils, breaking the sclerosis and divisiveness of party politics and involving the whole community in decision-making. They have, for example, invested in a local credit union and created a ‘share shop’ in which people are free to borrow all manner of tools, toys and anything else that local people donate.

The work of Compassionate Frome exemplifies the best of the Frome experience. Supported by the town council, local GP Helen Kingston set up the initiative in keeping with the ethos of flatpack democracy. It is ostensibly a health initiative but its impact goes far beyond just healthcare; it has created a real-life social network that builds on the assets of local people and replenishes community life.

Like asset-based community development, its starting point is not local needs but local assets and social resources. To this end, Compassionate Frome asked residents what social resources they had to offer — whether fixing computers or spending time with isolated people. From this they created a service directory8 with an active network of ‘Community Connectors’ to provide help and manage the directory. They now have 400 groups providing forms of mutual aid from help with DIY to mental health support networks, serving the town and its rural hinterland.

This form of social capital may seem like a nice but expendable extra befitting a bohemian West Country town but in fact it has delivered a significant and quantifiable benefit to public health and finances. Since the experiment launched, emergency admissions to the local hospital have dropped by 17% with an associated 21% drop in costs, whereas across the whole of Somerset admissions have risen by 27%, with a 21% increase in costs.

Public value is about corralling the assets of people and place to achieve public goods. Frome has done this, breathing new life into small town democracy, and showing that neither productivity nor growth adequately capture what the goal of public policy should be. Frome is a town of nearly 30,000 people — a far larger settlement than most of the places the Commission has engaged with. This scale confers certain advantages, most obviously the relative ease with which people can gather together in a place. Nonetheless, there is much that people and councils in rural areas could learn from the Frome experiment.

Peter Macfadyen adds that “in May 2019, having adopted the Frome model, Independents won control in five small towns in rural Devon. With a similar total population to Frome’s, they are now looking to work together in a range of areas”. Flatpack2 is also on the way, which will record what has happened in Frome, and other small towns using the same model, since 2011. It will be available in late summer of this year.