Local democracy at the sharp end: diary from a Parish Council

Ian Briggs

It starts in the autumn of 2013. The Secretary of State knocks back the latest submission of the Core Strategy from the District Council – more homes needed please. Suddenly, the Parish Council becomes inundated with requests for meetings from developers – the story here being that this rural village has the postcode where houses change hands on the market the fastest for miles around, and for the highest possible price.

By November 2013, eight potential housing developments are highlighted and the community becomes ‘punch drunk’ with consultations for housing developments. Plans are submitted to the District Council but mysteriously they do not appear on the website.

Early January 2014, the Parish Council calls a community meeting to discuss development, the fact that HS2 Ltd are now proposing permanent road closures, and the Environmenet Agency is looking at proposals for an advanced form of ‘fracking’ – underground coal gasification for the area.

It is hardly surprising that those local residents present at the meeting are up in arms and demanding answers. Council Council member is present at meeting but rather quiet and makes sharp exit at the close. No District Ward councillor present and no apologies sent.

The following morning, the members of the Parish Council are given sight of resignation letter from District Councillor.

Week two, January 2014. District Council meets to agree new proposed core strategy. Shock – areas within the Parish Council highlighted to absorb thousands of houses – sets out case that it is at the periphery of the District so should be little trouble – wonder why ward councillor resigns?

Still no sign on the District Council website of plans submitted by developers in December 2013. Then, find they have put them on the website but believe they relate to a totally different parish – oops!

Letter sent to the Leader of the District Council requesting urgent meeting – no acknowledgment, no reply after ten working days. Leader of Council is in London for extended period according to Council staff. Wonder what on earth he is up to and who he is talking to?

All of the above is a trust story. But the important issue here is that this is set against a backdrop of ‘localism’ – if the intention is to give greater powers to local communities then we need to look closely at the decision-making mechanisms that we have to work with. There are questions arising as to how we are failing to integrate decision-making across different levels of local democracy.

A fundamental  tenant of any democracy is being clear and open as to where decisions are made. If all this sounds as though it is an attack on the District Council in question, it is not meant to be so – the Council is in the same position as most others. It has made deep and significant cuts to its operations and is now faced with making decisions that are expensive in terms of time and associated managerial costs.

In amongst all of this are the public. They are open to persuasion from a local media that is keen to jump upon any news story that could sound as though the Council is failing, and given that event well educated and sensible members of the public are poorly informed of the mechanisms of local democratic decision-making, it is no wonder that they turn to the most available and accessible form of local representation – the Parish Council.

Next diary entries to start soon…..

briggs

Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV, and sits on a rural Parish Council in Warwickshire. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.

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