As chairman of a small parish council, I have watched the recording of the Handforth Parish Council meeting with concern.
Perhaps I am fortunate that the ethos of the council on which I serve is to represent the community; party politics are not evident. I know that we all have our own views on subjects, and we all have declared interests, but, in a small rural parish, it has generally not been difficult to identify the best interests of the community.
Where necessary we have held community consultations, and four years ago we won an award from the National Association of Local Councils for the Outstanding Project of the Year. This was for putting a walkway through the centre of the village – not bad for a parish of under 300 electors, and it only took us about eight years to achieve! Getting designated as a Conservation area took 20 years, so persistence is important.
The powers of a parish council are very limited and, for the most part, consultative. But used effectively, they should provide a voice for the community to the local authority – in our case North Somerset, a unitary authority on the western fringes of Bristol and part of the County that Used to Be Avon.
Working jointly with our neighbours we try to address major local issues, like the growth of Bristol Airport and its consequential traffic, noise and pollution. We cannot stop progress – as some seem to expect – but we can try to get our own views heard.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is to get volunteers who are willing to stand for the council. Getting seven councillors out of an electorate of 300 is in fact quite a high level of community involvement. It is unpaid and it can take up a fair amount of time. Not surprisingly, it attracts people who are retired and have the time to spare. This can bring a very useful range of skills and experience to bear; equally it can result in a degree of homogeneity of outlook! Having said that, we moved from live meetings to Zoom without pause and increased the frequency of our meetings in anticipation of issues arising from Covid.
Much of the council’s agenda is mundane – planning, drains and litter. But equally, I know that these are subjects that cause real issues when they go wrong. For those who gain from a new development, there may well be others who lose – and their views need to be represented. If drains are not regularly cleared, an area can flood and, in one area of the parish, a whole community has been cut off with several cars stranded in deep water. Drains on every successive agenda feels like groundhog day – until someone drives into a puddle, that turns out to be deeper than everyone thought, and writes off their car. Then all hell breaks loose. The fact that it has been reported monthly for the last six months (or more) does not help.
Deliberate fly-tipping and casual littering from passing cars causes real community anger as well as creating nuisance. Perversely, I am having to deter people from organising a litter pick, as it would breach the current lockdown rules. You would need lookouts at each end of the pick to protect the pickers on some of our narrower roads and immediately you have too many people gathering! Many people assume that there is an inanimate ‘they’ who will sort these things out.
The reality is that, like all local authorities, our unitary authority has been stripped of funding from central government over the last decade and it has to focus absolutely on those things for which it has legal obligations. Clearing drains, cutting back verges and street sweeping in rural areas are now run on a shoestring. Someone has to nag to draw attention to these areas.
As a councillor you are responsible for public money and there are clear rules on the transparency and propriety with which you have to do business – the same rules apply to procurement in central government, including, for example PPE. The government even has an Anti-Corruption Champion, one of our local MPs, John Penrose, married to Dido Harding. Failure to observe these rules can leave you personally liable and open to charges of misfeasance in public office. It is the clerk’s job to know these rules precisely and to remind councillors if they are in danger of breaking them. From a councillor’s point of view, one of the clerk’s jobs is to keep you out of jail. You are well advised to take the guidance of your clerk very seriously – especially if you are on Zoom and he or she has control of the ‘mute’ button.
Turning back to Handforth PC, some swift googling reached the pages on the Parish Council’s website which indicate that the council has had previous issues. It has received a stiff letter from the Director of Governance and Compliance of Cheshire District Council, following various referrals and complaints. It draws councillors’ attention to the personal liabilities of a councillor, inviting them to “reassure themselves that no element of misfeasance in public office could arise”.
Watching the video, it appears that Jackie Weaver is not the regular parish clerk and that she has been brought in from the Cheshire Association of Local Councils to stand in for the regular clerk. Frankly, it looks as though certain councillors are on their final warning.
If all this bothers you and makes you think that you could do better, one answer is to take an interest in the activities of your local parish council. While meetings are taking place on Zoom, you do not even have to leave your house to observe the discussion. Much of it is mundane, some of it is repetitive and some of it is dull, but it works because some members of your community care enough to try to make things happen. If you don’t like what they are doing, or the way in which they are doing it, come and do better. Volunteer to contribute something of value to your community – like 99 per cent of parish councillors.