Tales from a Small Parish – when things go wrong…

If somebody had told me a week ago that a Parish Council sub-committee meeting would go viral, and that the senior official of a County Association of Local Councils would become a celebrity, I would have offered a quizzical glance before returning to my planning application problems. It’s a funny old world…

There’s no doubt that the events at Handforth demonstrated that, regardless of which tier of government you’re in, the scope for egos to rampage across the scenery is always there. It can be a Chair who has gone power-crazed, a Clerk who believes that councillors are merely a legal necessity to be ignored or overridden, or someone who has joined the Council with a particular bee in their bonnet and who just won’t let go.

And even in Councils where there isn’t any apparent party politics, you can have factions that, without firm and fair leadership, can end up tearing a council apart. In such cases, the Clerk tends to end up faring worst, caught in the crossfire for simply trying to do their job. That appears to have been the underlying problem in Handforth.

Don’t get me wrong, such problems are not widespread, and many Parish Councils potter along from year to year, doing as much or as little as is their wish, undisturbed by anything as sordid as an election. Indeed, here in Suffolk, outside of the towns, an election is often a warning sign that something, or someone, is wrong.

And sometimes, a Parish Council is assailed from outside. Walberswick, on the coast just south of Southwold, was the target of more than one hundred Freedom of Information requests from a small group of local residents which led to the collapse of the Council. It took more than six years, and District Council intervention, to remedy matters, and Walberswick is now stable and effective again.

In small communities, if a Parish Council goes sour, there’s no real escape except resignation, and even then you still have to live there…

* Mark Valladares is the Chair of Creeting St Peter Parish Council and Suffolk’s delegate to the National Assembly of the National Association of Local Councils. It’s fair to say that he’s as surprised by that as anyone…

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  • John Marriott 8th Feb '21 - 12:39pm

    At the risk of repeating myself again, there are, from my experience as a Town Councillor for 24 years, three types of Parish Council, the Proactive, the Reactive and the Inactive. It looks like the Handforth PC would probably fit in the second category. There are clearly not enough proactive councils and many have to fend off petty-fogging groups, who often coat personal self interest in a veneer of social conscience. Examples tend to emerge in planning, where PCs usually occupy a consultative rather than regulatory rôle. Residents, whose properties overlook a field or open space, which is the subject of a planning application, citing a negative effect a new estate would have on the values of their properties.

    Then there were the residents, who objected to our Council placing a bus shelter and bus stop outside their properties, claiming danger for “young children” alighting on a “busy main road”. We even had a quite ferocious campaign from residents, whose properties backed on to a park on which our Town Council planned to build a Skateboard Park. It went ahead despite claims at a heated public meeting that it would bring “drug addiction and prostitution” to the area. That was over twenty years ago and it was for many years the only skate park in the Lincoln area. It proved to be an examplar for the area. Sometimes, you have to have the courage of your convictions.

  • John Marriott 8th Feb '21 - 2:21pm

    Oh, I forgot to add that I’m still waiting to read the reports of drugs and prostitution. And also, the leading objectors to the Skate Park at the time proposed that the council issue youngsters with vouchers redeemable “at the Lincoln Skate Park”. That facility is still to be built!

  • Thank you for covering this Mark. It bears out my own modest experience at parish council level: People often assume parish councils are a bed of roses with people talking pleasantly and relaxedly about hanging baskets and pooper scoopers. But the role of a parish councillor can often be more stressful than that of Local Authority councillor simply because there is not the staff back-up and procedural framework and support which exists for a councillor in the Local Authority. For example, if you have periods without a clerk, then basically councillors have to take minutes and write and put up agendas on noticeboards etc etc. And that is before considering the “nest of vipers” element to which you refer.

  • I was a member of a totally dysfunctional parish council 20 years ago. We had lots of reports to the District Council for disrespect, but nothing was ever done, even though I myself went to give evidence. In the end I resigned because there was no point in staying. Glad to say our current PC works really well.

  • Very good piece. Mark, as one would expect, clearly has his finger on the pulse of PCs. A little worried by his comment that “elections…… are a warning sign that something is wrong”. I would suggest that the lack of elections suggests lack of local interest, lack of community engagement and the possibility of the PC becoming an old boys/girls club.
    And why do we still allow co-option in a democracy ?

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