On being a Parish Councillor

Andrew Battarbee

Over the Jubilee weekend, the Parish Council (PC) became quite visible in the village. I had a couple of conversations with people about what we do and who we are, and even a conversation with someone who might possibly be interested in becoming a parish councillor (do it!). Since I’ve been a parish councillor now for exactly seven years, here are seven random reflections on how the PC works and what it’s like to be a member, based on my experience since 2015.
1. We’re not really political – and certainly not party political. But we do (in my view) rightly take positions on areas which can be politically controversial. For example, on speed limits we have vigorously pursued a different view to the one taken by the county council. The majority group on the county council tends to oppose 20mph limits even in sensitive areas of villages, and sees little point in parish councils advising on where these might be introduced. We strongly disagree, and consistently say so.
2. That raises an interesting question: do we speak for ourselves as councillors, or is our role to discern and funnel opinion in the village. I think the answer must be a bit of both, but I do tilt a little to the former: if you’ve come through an electoral process, you’re entitled to take a view. I also strongly take the view that disagreement is fine, indeed welcome. If nine people consistently take the same view of an issue, or at least no disagreement is expressed, something is almost certainly going wrong. I do sometimes worry that our default is to seek a consensus which everyone can sort of embrace, rather than choosing between clear alternatives.
3. Much of what we do is frustrating. We have minimal powers, and a fair bit of our time is spent asking other public bodies to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. Inertia, or lack of funding, or in principle opposition means that we often don’t get what we want; which, as I say, is frustrating. We plug on, and sometimes we can achieve things. For example, the local police have become much more alert to speeding and parking issues in recent months.
4. I think we’re all conscious that we aren’t the most representative of groups. Gender balance isn’t great, but what really trip us up is age: the youngest among us has just turned 55. I am sure this is an issue for all parish councils, and of course people without immediate family or work commitments have the ability to do things outside of meetings that younger counterparts may lack. I also think that in recent funding prioritisations, where we have made grants for the playground and the pre-school, we have acknowledged the importance of making the village a good place to be a child. All the same, I would certainly welcome younger faces around the table.
5. Some of our best moments come when people from the village come to talk to us, and put points for us to consider. Did you know you can do that? Get in touch with the clerk, and she can fix up for you to speak at a meeting (technically, although I am not wholly sure why, before the formal proceedings start). If there’s something bugging you about village life, come and talk to us. And of course the meetings are open the public: it’s fine and entirely appropriate to turn up and watch.
6. My main regret since 2015? A few years ago, we convened conversations with one of the mobile operators about plans for a new phone mast in the village. I feel we were too strong in pointing out issues around individual sites, and too weak in articulating that the village really does have a strong need for a better mobile signal. The local environment we cherish is an amalgam of natural features and human intervention, and I believe the objections to a mast were overstated. I fully accept others will disagree on this.
7. What should we do more of? This is easier said than done, because we all have limited time. But I’d be interested to see us do more with PCs in neighbouring villages to address issues that can’t really be addressed just at the level of the individual village: bus services would be a prime example of this.
The next Parish Council elections are in May 2023 – so if the above has stoked your interest, or if you think it’s such nonsense that the PC must need a new broom, why not think about standing?
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