Tales from a Small Parish: welcome to Dibley?…

For those of you who live in urban conurbations, your concept of a Parish Council is possibly associated with the TV series “The Vicar of Dibley”. Funny really, because the Vicar usually works with a Parochial Church Council, a very different animal indeed. But 30% of England’s population is covered by Parish Councils which, for the most part, operate under the radar of political activists…

I moved out of London more than a decade ago but hadn’t been here for very long before a vacancy arose on the Parish Council and, well, you know how it is. A muttered thought that somebody ought to come forward becomes “well, if you feel so strongly…”. I knew precious little about Parish Councils but, given Ros’s background and knowledge, and with her support, how hard could it be? That was my first mistake…

So, what does a Parish Council do, and why am I a Parish Councillor?

Created as a result of the Local Government Act 1894, the third tier of local government is a very varied beast. It encompasses everything from cathedral cities such as Hereford to (not even) hamlets like Badley and Darmsden, here in the Gipping Valley, with populations of less than 50. The Councils can meet as often as every fortnight with a plethora of sub-committees or hold just one Annual Meeting. They can have seven figure budgets or three figure ones.

Our responsibilities vary according to size and inclination, but Wikipedia gives a pretty good idea of the range of activity across the tier. It would be fair to say that Creeting St Peter, my Parish, is very much at the bottom end of the activity scale. With a population of approximately 275, five Parish Councillors and a precept of £5,285, we’re not planning to build a swimming pool or launch a market any time soon. But we can have an influence on village life, and we’re easily found, so there’s value in doing the job well.

Why me? I did think that somebody ought to fill the vacancy, and it might as well be someone who has views on finance and governance (that would be me, by the way). That was June 2009 and, well, I’m still here. I get the chance to contribute my particular skillset to helping make the village even a little bit better than it might be. It’s not party political, which is a relief sometimes, although it can be political. And, as an introduction to village life, it’s hard to beat. It also probably doesn’t take over your life, although I guess it could if you let it. But a meeting every two months, a predictable agenda and a very small budget tend to mitigate against being busy. And you don’t tend to take yourself too seriously…

It’s my intention to write the occasional piece about life as a Parish Councillor in a small village in rural England, about the types of issues that arise, the challenges of ultra-localism and some of the adventures I’ve had along the way. And, if you’ve got any questions, the comments section awaits. So, welcome to the slow lane of local government. The scenery’s the same, it’s just that you get more time to enjoy it…

* Mark Valladares is the Chair of Creeting St Peter Parish Council, and a member of the Liberal Democrat Voice editorial team.

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  • Michael Berridge 19th Oct '20 - 3:53pm

    My short term as a Parish Councillor for Harbledown and Rough Common, just outside Canterbury, coincided with the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak. So there were fierce disputes on what constituted a country walk and whether the recreation ground of Duke’s Meadow (with its fine view of the Cathedral) qualified. I had walked that way and a fellow Councillor threatened to report me to the police. That is the most exciting thing that happened to me during my two years on the Council. After that we moved into the city and in 2003 I was elected to the District Council… but that’s another story.

  • Tony Greaves 19th Oct '20 - 5:43pm

    It’s true that most Parish Councils operate in a non-party political way (by a long way). But I guess that up to half the people living in Parishes have Parish Councils (often probably calling themselves Town Councils, something that just needs a simple resolution) that are elected wholly or partly on party political lines. As more and more aeras have large unitary Councils, Town Councils are a crucial forum for Liberal Democrat activity.

  • John Marriott 19th Oct '20 - 7:20pm

    There are, as I have said before, three kinds of Parish Council, the Proactive, the Reactive and the Inactive. Very few require elections as there are rarely enough candidates to trigger one. Co option is often the norm.

    With more unitary councils there is a golden opportunity to beef up such councils by offering them, and I emphasise offering them, enhanced powers. If necessary, offer allowances, which might attract a more diverse and effective field of persons wishing to serve. Too often Parish councils can degenerate into back biting and general inertia. I remember when I first joined my local town council In the late1980s that we spent most of one meeting arguing where in the Council Chamber to hang the cuckoo clock our twin town in Germany had kindly given us.

    Thanks to the input of the first three Lib Dems elected in 1987, which rose to twelve out of twenty members by 1999, arguing about cuckoo clocks and points of order had been displaced by Campaigning for affordable housing through a much praised Housing Needs Survey, establishing more play equipment provision on our increased open spaces, providing new Council offices, CCTV, a Community Hub, which houses a volunteer library and much, much more. All this was achieved by a judicious application of the Parish Precept and the awarding In 2008 of Quality Council status.

    Today the Town Council brings a more professional touch to services with an approved Neighbourhood Plan that dovetails with the Local Plan. The pity is that the Lib Dem representation has now dwindled as those of us, who did our bit over more than thirty years, have departed and have not been replaced.

  • David Garlick 20th Oct '20 - 9:59pm

    “Parish Councils operate in a non political way”
    I must be living in a parallel universe here in Northampton.
    Tory fiefdoms where even independents struggle.

  • I would love to see all of England parished – the lack of truly local representation in cities, especially unitaries, drives disengagement and disillusionment with politics.

  • David Rogers 21st Oct '20 - 2:36pm

    As always, Tony Greaves (in his comment above) hits the nail on the head! I was elected to Newhaven (population 11-12,000) Town Council from 1989-2011, and for the 20 years from the whole council election in 1991 it was 100% Liberal Democrat. When the Tories complained about this, naturally I invited them to join me in campaigning for proportional representation, an offer that was never taken up. Tony’s point about being a “crucial forum for Liberal Democrat activity” resonates with me in two ways: firstly, we were able to bring about a far more open and and inclusive way of running the council – and to implement Lib Dem policies involving the community insofar as the limited powers and resources allowed; and secondly, the pool of town councillors we developed enabled many of them to ‘progress’, if they so wished and were able to fulfil the approval criteria, to selection as district council candidates. Furthermore, following my retirement as Newhaven’s county councillor in 2013, both my immediate successor in that role from 2013-7, and her successor, the current East Sussex CC member, were also town councillors.

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