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.

Co-Options onto Parish Councils

My heart always sinks when I see a Parish Council using its power of co-opting a person onto its Council. The power is used to fill a vacancy amongst the Parish Councillors caused by death, illness, disqualification, resignation etc. of an incumbent councillor. It’s never a good sign to see co-option taking place, in my view, because it means that local democracy is not working well and no one wants stand for election to fill the vacancy via a by-election.

My personal view is that this power should be withdrawn as it should have no place in a modern democracy.

Don’t get me wrong I’ve been on a Parish Council when co-options have taken place and yes I have gone along with them in the past. But the last time one came up on Lydiate Parish Council I voted against the co-option, not because I had a problem with the person concerned, how could I – knew nothing of them, but because I have grown to realise that co-option is not something I can continue to support. If someone is willing to be co-opted then they should also be willing to stand in a by-election where all the electorate of the Parish or ward of the Parish gets the opportunity to vote them in or not so long as more than one candidate stands for the vacancy of course.

I know co-option is favoured by many associated with Parish Councils because it saves on by-election costs but just think on that a minute because it’s side stepping democracy is it not?

And what made me think of this matter again now? Seeing a public notice for a Parish Councillor vacancy on Aughton Parish Council and along side it an agenda for a Parish Council meeting which had an item on it associated with making a co-option. I’m not trying to single out Aughton Parish Council by the way (it may well be one of the best Parish Councils in England for all I know) as co-option is common-place across many Parish Councils in England but I am saying that the practice should be brought to an end.

Sefton Borough – Do Labour really want to merge it with Knowsley and Liverpool Councils?

Sefton Council Logo

www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/joe-anderson-open-liverpool-merging-14756310

The Liverpool Echo has the story on its web site – see link above

In times when it looked just about possible that the Borough of Sefton could be split up I recall that Bootle Labour Party were seemingly of the view that merging Bootle in with Liverpool City Council was akin to them all being captured by the enemy. They certainly seemed to view the prospect with more than a little spluttering into their coffee so to speak.

Now it seems that some Labour folk are saying Knowsley Borough may not be viable in the future (I seem to recall that was a phrase used to describe West Lancs Borough not that long ago) and Joe Anderson suggesting that merging Liverpool with either or both Knowsley/Sefton is worth considering.

The church of St. Helen in Sefton Village, This village gave the name to Sefton Borough.

Sefton certainly is a muddle of communities with few common interests and there can be little doubt that it was somehow cobbled together by the Local Government Boundary Commission in 1974 to suit some purpose but no one is quite sure what that purpose was. Unloved would be a good way to describe Sefton Borough. I have blogged about this before and here’s a link to that previous posting dated March 2015:-

tonyrobertson.mycouncillor.org.uk/2015/03/28/borough-of-sefton-what-a-mixture-of-diverse-communities-that-have-little-common-with-each-other/

Of course Labour-run Sefton has now got rid of its Area Committees (mentioned in the March 2015 posting) as they have acted to centralise power in Bootle Town Hall once again.

Sefton Borough artwork recognising the year the Borough was created.

So having rehearsed that history, how on earth would merging Sefton with either or both Knowsley Borough and/or Liverpool City help empower Sefton’s diverse communities – Answer it wouldn’t, indeed it would most probably place the decision making power base even further away in Liverpool.

The other question is why do some Labour folks in Knowsley and Liverpool want to merge their councils areas with Sefton Borough. Is it just a bigger is better approach to local government?

The talk of mergers is probably little more than that but of course we Liberals need to be on our guard as we are very much opposed to the big is beautiful approach to local government because we are decentralisers by nature and instinct. Creating a huge Merseyside Council taking in Knowsley, Liverpool and Sefton would achieve what? A Liberal view is that it would be more remote, less in touch with the needs of individual communities and pretty much impossible for residents to hold to account. In reality we need smaller councils with far less highly paid officials running them.

With thanks to Roy Connell for the lead to this posting

A Parish Council Leader with a Personal Assistant?

Well this is a odd one but I am told, by a seemingly reliable source, that the Leader of a Parish Council here on Merseyside went to a resident’s meeting recently and introduced an accompanying person as their ‘Personal Assistant’.

I have never heard of such a position within a parish council before and it is worrying indeed if the precept payers of the parish concerned are being expected to fork out to fund the post.

I wonder if the particular parish council is willing to out themselves and offer an explanation?

Maghull Nostalgia – 100 Years of Maghull Council 1994

Part one of a new nostalgia series of occasional postings

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Click on the photo to enlarge it

Set up as one of the original Parish Councils under Gladstone’s 1894 Act of Parliament, Maghull (now a Town Council as it decided to have a Mayor as opposed to a Chairperson in the early 1970’s) celebrated its centenary in 1994. This decorative flower bed was in the Rose garden at KGV Park.

Civil Parishes were set up to separate the power of the Church from the running of very local affairs.

Local government needs to be checked up on but no one does (much) these days

The Guardian’s David Walker says Eric Pickles has made a wrong decision in abolishing the Audit Commission, which is set to close on March 31. He argues that public finance, even at a parish council level, is necessarily and unavoidably complicated and that invigilating how money is spent demands expertise. “The communities department may not survive the election but Whitehall will still struggle to find a way of checking whether council services and finances are about to fall over,” he states.

The Guardian Online covered this story

Being a liberal I am always of the view that regulation can stifle innovation so it needs to be used only when really required. Tories and Labour seem to love regulating just about everything we do!

But on this one I am with the Guardian because especially at parish council level there is in effect little or no regulation what so ever these days. Unless money is not properly accounted for or goes missing a parish council can do pretty much as it wants with no one able to stop it. It can ignore its own rules and regulations if it wishes and no one will give a fig. Yes there are auditors of sorts but they are being paid by the councils who hire them. Are they really going to say things to a parish council that it may not want to hear?

The running of a parish council is now dependent on those elected to it to follow the rules, if they don’t there is nothing that can be done unless, as I say money, has gone missing.