The clerk’s tale

With the appalling behaviour of some Handforth Parish Councillors having gone viral, parish councillors and clerks all over the country must be cringing with embarrassment. The councillors in question should be ashamed. They have brought into question the whole principle of democratic representation at grassroots level, and all parish councils are now in danger of being tarred with the same brush.

Many people will find the video amusing, but many others will be shocked. Personally, having been the clerk to two parish councils myself in the past, I am dismayed that many people who have never had any contact with a small council will judge them all by this woeful example.

I was once the clerk to a very small rural parish council with only five members, and to a very much larger one with 15 members who represented a community of over 6000 people.

The councillors in the smaller of the two parishes were, without exception, public-spirited, conscientious people who genuinely had the good of their community at heart and took their responsibilities very seriously. Unfortunately, the council was so small that although it was well-run and, I think, properly representative, its powers and influence were very limited: one of the most oft-repeated grumbles was that its opinions on, for example, development applications (always the most contentious of topics) were ignored by the planning authority. This was not understood by parishioners, who often – and very unfairly ‒ blamed the parish council for ‘not standing up for the village’. It’s probably still the case everywhere.

The larger council was a different kettle of fish.

When I was interviewed for the post of clerk, I was asked what I thought about national politics affecting local politics. I made clear my opinion that there should be no overlap. Inexplicably, given how party-loyal the interviewing panel was, I still got the job! It was only once I was in post that I realised that the council was a microcosm of ‘mainstream’ national politics.

There was the Tory cadre, which outweighed the others (both numerically and in “status”, some members also serving as district or county councillors), and whose members didn’t all like each other very much. However, come elections, they miraculously came together for the good of the Conservatives. How familiar does that sound?  Then there were a few more independently-minded members who, unfettered by national party loyalties, tried valiantly to swim against the tide if there was something important to discuss and decide: it rarely made much difference.

However, in its defence, even the larger council was properly constituted, properly run, and – bearing in mind that it was a rural area which returned Tories in nine elections out of ten – probably fairly represented the views and interests of the majority of parishioners.

This was around the time when local government at all levels was undergoing a period of reassessment: there had been notorious cases (none locally!) of members using councils pretty much for their own ends. As a result, there were many fundamental changes brought in to try to stamp this out and to make the conduct and activities of all councils more consistent, more democratic and more transparent. Councils’ Standing Orders (rules), became the norm; members were (and still are) expected to attend training sessions and to observe a nationally-agreed Code of Conduct, and to declare ‘interests’ both when they are elected (or co-opted), and before meetings where personal circumstances might influence how they vote. The ‘Declaration of Interests’ often gave rise to some amusement to begin with, and some ‘wits’ made the most of confessing to being keen home-brewers and the like; but most councillors conceded that declaring anything beforehand which might affect their decisions was actually a way of protecting themselves against accusations of bias or – heaven forfend! – corruption.

It is up to the clerk of the council to ensure that all the processes of the council are legal, sound and open to scrutiny. It’s not always easy, as a clerk, to ‘encourage’ forceful members to stick to the proper procedures; and, unfortunately, in some councils there are some very forceful members who appear to want to continue to run things their way: Handforth seems to be one of them!

It is also a sad state of affairs that many councils, especially in rural areas, don’t have many younger people on them, or women, or representatives of the BAME community; or if they do, those members tend not to last very long. Councillors are entitled to allowances, or at least reimbursement of expenses in most cases (many don’t claim), but if you are, say, a young mother with a full-time job, it must be almost impossible to serve as a councillor, especially on councils where daytime meetings are held. It’s a great shame because diversity is badly needed; otherwise councils end up being stuffed with – well, let’s just say I have heard the word “dinosaurs” being used. It may be a caricature, but councillors are very often white, reactionary, conservative – large ‘C’ and small – ‘getting on’, and with a taste for getting their own way. It’s a turn-off and the majority of parishioners just aren’t interested.

I would love to think the government would consider using the Handforth example to encourage more, and better, representation of our society. But I’m not holding my breath. Perhaps Jackie Weaver has the authority?