The trouble with Parish Councils

This posting follows my reading a very interesting piece by Joanie Willett titled ‘Parish Councils are a vital space for participatory democracy – but they are in crisis’ on LSE web site – here’s a link to the article:-

blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/parish-councils-engagement/

Having continuously been a Parish Councillor since September 1985, firstly on Maghull Town Council (until 2015) and then on Lydiate Parish Council (to date) plus having been a Sefton Borough Councillor with Parish Councils in my wards this is a subject close to my heart. As well as being a member of 2 Parish Councils I’ve had varying degrees of interaction with the other 8 parishes in Sefton Borough – Melling, Aintree Village, Sefton, Thornton, Ince Blundell, Formby (which I had a small hand in setting up), Hightown and Little Altcar.

The interesting thing about this list of 10 Parish Councils within Sefton Borough is that they probably in their own way pretty much represent the wide range of Parish and Town Councils nationally in that Maghull is one of the largest in England, Lydiate, Formby and Aintree Village are medium sized with the other 6 being much smaller to differing degrees. When I talk about size I am particularly referring to the precept (amount of council tax) they charge and the services they are involved in delivering.

My view is that for parish councils (and I do take the trouble to seek out Parish Council noticeboards all over England) to continue to thrive they need to move with the times. Having been set up by Gladstone in 1894 I sometimes wonder whether some are still stuck in that era. Modern communities demand services being delivered to them and who better to deliver some of those services than your very local parish council, should you have one of course. Yes I know some parish councils are reluctant to take on powers and responsibilities but it is in my view the future. Parks, gardens, children’s play areas are an obvious thing they could/should be running in their communities but how about youth facilities, community halls/village halls, public toilets, street cleaning/litter picking etc. etc. Surely such essential community services are better managed and delivered at a very local level aren’t they? Of course there are parish councils across England delivering such services already and more.

But they need regular 4 yearly elections too not just have enough nominations so as not to have to hold an election. The churn of elections is good, it brings in new people, new ideas, helps things move along with the times. Oh and co-options for vacancies caused by resignations etc. need to be put a stop to as I’ve mentioned in a previous posting of not so long ago. Here’s that posting:-

tonyrobertson.mycouncillor.org.uk/2018/09/18/co-options-onto-parish-councils/

Too many parish councils are below the radar with the same usually well meaning people on them for generations. Goodness me I was on Maghull Town Council (a Town Council is exactly the same as a Parish Council other than it has a Mayor rather than a Chairperson) for 30 years and I faced many elections in that time period. But, and I kid you not, there will be some parish councillors who have never faced the electorate because they were co-opted onto their parish council and at each 4 yearly round of elections there will have been just enough nominations (or sadly in some case too few) for there to be no need of an election. This in my view is not healthy democracy.

But don’t let my grumbling about parish councils mislead you, I love them in all their quirky and diverse ways. No two parish councils are alike because whilst they exist under the same legislation they have each grown or ventured in they own ways. Borough, District and County Councils (whomever controls them politically) are creatures that are 95% (at least) the same as each other because they deliver statutory services on behalf of government. Parish Councils don’t deliver statutory services unless of course something has been devolved to them by a big brother Council. They don’t get government grants either. They are truly free to do what they think their community wants and needs and to raise money from the Council tax payers to do that work. Many simply see their role as being the voice of their community and they seek no other role, others do all kinds of things to try to better their communities.

I’m keen on devolution of powers to the lowest level of government commensurate with delivering quality cost effective services so I want to see parish councils saying we can do that in our community, whatever that may be that their particular community requires or thinks can be delivered better by their very local council.

There are great opportunities out there for parish councils to grasp and in many communities that grasping is happening with dynamic parish councils leading the way but in others little is happening other than a monthly grumble meeting about troubles in their community and how the District, Borough or County Council is not solving these troubles. The best solutions are nearly always the ones delivered by the people closest to the challenge/problem and often that will be a parish council. Oh if only more parish councils had the confidence and ambition to really lead their communities they could then seriously call themselves the level of democracy closest and most in touch with their community.

My thanks to Cllr. Bill Honeyman for making me aware of the LSE paper mentioned above.

Sefton Central Area Committee meeting held yesterday

Don’t worry, this is not another rant about the ridiculous size of this enormous Area Committee, it’s a report on a few of the interesting things that happened at the meeting held in Formby.

In reality the agenda was rather dry but the questions from the public were of more interest:-

LIBRARIES – Independent Aintree Village Parish Councillors Peter Gill and Bill Honeyman asked questions about the future of the now closed (by Labour) Aintree & College Road Libraries. The answer Peter Gill got, drafted by an officer of the Sefton Council, was something along the lines of we do not know what we are going to do with the buildings or when. Frankly, the 3 line written answer was insulting to campaigners in Aintree and Crosby who have done all they can to both save their local libraries and run and them with volunteers. Labour had already ensured that neither would happen.

What’s more Bill Honeyman had submitted his question on the 14th April and he still awaits an answer after being told last night that investigations would take place as to why he had not been sent/given a response!

You got impression that the Labour councillors at the meeting found Peter & Bill and their questions about as welcome as snow at Harvest! I told the meeting that they were entitled to a proper answers but I wonder if and when that will happen?

ELECTION OF INDEPENDENT CLLR. MARIA BENNETT – A member of the public from Formby asked whether the main political parties would work with Maria. A bland answer from a Labour member was followed by me saying yes, I and my Lib Dem Group on the Council would work with her, indeed we welcome her election.

GREEN BELT – A member of the public from Maghull asked if the Labour dominated Area Committee would listen to the public of the Borough and oppose the draft Local Plan for Sefton which proposes to build on acres of Green Belt and high grade agricultural land.

This question also seemed to go down like a lead balloon with the Labour members, a representative of whom said in effect said they would not comment as they may be perceived as pre-judging the issue. In other words he got no answer.

A similar question from a Formby resident got a similar response.

At the end of the public questions it seemed to me that the Labour comrades had seen off another attack by impertinent members of the Sefton Borough community with the score being Labour at least 10, residents Nil. As an exercise in local democracy where the public try to hold their elected representatives to account it was far from inspiring.