< The Good Councillors Guide

  1. Councillors
  2. The council
  3. Your community

1    Councillors

If you are a councillor, you are over 18 and a qualifying citizen of the Commonwealth, the European Community or the Republic of Ireland.

You are one of over 80,000 local councillors in England. You will be held accountable by local people for things that happen locally. So why get involved? You almost certainly want to do something positive and, like most councillors, you hope to make a difference by influencing decisions that affect your community.

Did you stand for election? Was there a vote, or were you returned unopposed?
Perhaps you were co-opted. Some councillors represent a political party and others are independent of party affiliations. Whichever route you take to becoming a councillor, once you formally accept the office, it usually makes no difference; you are councillors working together in the council to serve your community. Your task is to bring local issues to the attention of the council, and help it make decisions on behalf of the local community.


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2    The council

Your council is a corporate body, a legal entity separate from that of its members. Its decisions are the responsibility of the whole body. The council has been granted powers by Parliament including the important authority to raise money through taxation (the precept ) and a range of powers to spend public money (more later).

Your council is an elected body in the first tier of local government. Other tiers, known as principal councils or authorities, have many legal duties to deliver services such as education, housing, town and country planning, transport, environmental health and social services. Local councils have the legal power to take action, but they have very few duties and greater freedom to choose what action to take. They can play a vital part in representing the interests of the communities they serve and improving the quality of life and the local environment. Furthermore, they influence other decision makers and can, in many cases, deliver services to meet local needs. In other words, you and your council can make a difference.

What does your council do?

Planning, highways, transport and traffic, community safety, housing, street lighting, allotments, cemeteries, playing fields, community centres, litter, war memorials, seats and shelters, rights of way – these are some of the issues that concern parish government. Central Government is encouraging local councils to deliver more services and play a greater part in their communities. For example, your council could provide or give financial support for:

  • an evening bus taking people to the nearest town
  • affordable housing to rent
  • pond clearing
  • redecorating the community centre
  • a teenagers’ drop-in club
  • a summer festival
  • equipment for a children’s activity group
  • transport to hospital.

Projects like these may be a challenge and need hard work and commitment – but they are achievable. Of course, your council could always decide to do very little; but local residents might then wonder why the local council exists at all.

Diversity is a strength

There are around 9,000 local councils in England and they are growing in number, especially as councils in urban areas are established. Most local councils were set up in 1894 by an Act of Parliament. This created the civil parish, separating it from the church after its long history of delivering local services such as care for the poor, maintenance of roads and collecting taxes. In 2007 the Government brought in legislation to allow local councils in London, not permitted since the 1960s. The first local council in London, Queen’s Park, was approved in 2012 and will come into being in 2014. In the first decade of the 21st century around 200 new councils were created.

A typical local council represents around 2,700 people but some have much larger populations. Shrewsbury Town Council, created in 2009, serves over 72,000 people, which is more than some small counties. These considerable differences are reflected in annual spending which might range from under £1000 to £4 million. It is important that you know how much your council spends each year. In 2010/11 local councils raised £356 million in council tax and spent over £500 million.

The diversity of local councils is their strength. Each can make a unique response to the needs of their community with a sensitivity that is more difficult for principal authorities to achieve.

Pulling together

Diversity often arises because councillors have different backgrounds, enthusiasms and interests. We should celebrate this. Councillors have different skills and attitudes; for example, some work with ideas while others are very practical; some like accounts while others prefer reports. The local council needs a range of skills to work as a team.

Your Chairman has the role of team leader for council meetings (see Part Three) while your Clerk is also a vital team member. The Clerk provides advice and administrative support, and takes action to implement council decisions. The Clerk may have to act as a project manager, personnel director, public relations officer or finance administrator. The Clerk is not a secretary and is not at the beck and call of the Chairman or other councillors; the Clerk is answerable only to the council as a whole. The Clerk is the proper officer of the council in law. Legally councils can delegate decisions to Clerks because they are trusted professional officers whose objectivity allows them to act for the council.

The best councils will have a Clerk and councillors who work as a team to provide a service for the community.


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3    Your community

The job of your council is to represent the interests of the whole community. Understanding the needs of different groups in the community (such as young and elderly people) is an important part of your role as councillor.

Occasionally there will be a conflict of interest requiring sensitive judgement; for example, dog owners, parents of young children and walkers might disagree about use of the village green. Making difficult decisions, in an open and reasoned way, is something that local councils need to do well.

As a councillor, you have a responsibility to be well-informed, especially about diverse local views. You cannot assume that you represent the interests of all your electors without consulting them.

The tried and tested tools noted below are just some ways in which people can express their hopes and wishes for the community. They provide valuable opportunities for local people to identify features of the parish that need improving or are worth protecting. They stimulate discussion; they inform the decision makers and usually lead to action.

  • Surveys and questionnaires give residents, including children, an opportunity to express their views about where they live. The response rate from households can be impressive – usually over 50% – and in smaller communities, with personal delivery and collection, it can reach 90%.
  • Design Statements involve communities in a review of the built and natural environment of their area. The published results can be used by your principal authority to help make planning decisions (see Part Four).
  • A Parish Map can be a creative exercise; for example, it might be a painting, tapestry or model of the parish. People identify local features that matter as they work on the map.
  • Community conferences or workshops provide more opportunities for bringing people together to talk about the future of the parish.
  • Community (Parish or Town) Plans might be led by the local council, drawing in community groups, residents and others, to produce an action plan for improving the local quality of life and the environment. These plans can be based on the findings of a variety of consultation exercises and can form the basis of neighbourhood plans (see Part Four).

In addition to helping your council identify real improvements, the process of using tools like these can strengthen people’s sense of purpose and belonging. The process is as important as the product or the end result.

You should, of course, use the knowledge you have already as a basis for decisions on behalf of your community, but these tools help you to become even better informed and give a stronger mandate for action. The results of community consultation help you to:

  • speak on behalf of your community with greater confidence especially in discussions with principal authorities
  • provide services and facilities, especially where there is no other provider or the local council can secure better value for money
  • support community action and services provided by others; the council can offer buildings, staff expertise and funding to get local projects off the ground
  • work in partnership with community groups, voluntary organisations and other local authorities, including neighbouring local councils, to benefit the community.

For many people, it is the satisfaction of acting on behalf of their local community that encourages them to become councillors. The next challenge is to make sure that the council acts properly in achieving what it sets out to do. It must proceed with due care and attention to the law. Part Two introduces the rules that guide your council – not as glamorous as action, but vital to its success.


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< The Good Councillors Guide

 

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