‘The Casual Vacancy’

“Parish councils, we all know, are hotbeds of intrigue, corruption and passion. Those who sit on them, a colourful mixture of oddballs, bullies and idiots.”

Daily Telegraph February 2015

Interestingly enough the quote above was a reference to a BBC television adaptation of JK Rowling’s fictional ‘The Casual Vacancy’, not about any real council or councillors – really!

What is interesting, is that over the years you occasionally hear there have been altercation at a nearby parish council; councillors are not talking to each other; arguing amongst themselves or keeping secrets from residents and each other. So when it happens close to home it makes you wonder ‘why’. What makes some of these ordinary citizen’s change, because change they do.

Since ‘Something to Say!’ began, there have been a number of correspondence either as comments on the site or direct emails from nearby parishes, from the Midlands, Surrey in the South East and from the West Country. Each saying they empathise with what has been going on here in Melbourn, for they are suffering much the same issues and attitudes.

After the newspaper article mentioned above was published in the Telegraph there was a barrage of comments about the TV series and how closely people could identify with their own local council.

“I spent several years on a parish council, looking to try and make a difference. Some people view them as their own fiefdom, but basically they are very boring. Trying to achieve anything in local Government is like walking in sand with a deep sea divers suit on.”

“I spent 4 years on our PC and gave up in disgust. The Chairman and the favoured friends (all co-opted) have the decisions made before the meetings take place. When it comes to the Precept meeting all paperwork is taken back off the community attendees on the grounds that it is confidential.”

“Some villagers blame us. I’ve had an anonymous abusive phone call and hostile messages on my Facebook page. And I’ve lost friends over other issues the parish council has been involved in. At times it can feel like a pretty thankless task.”

Daily Telegraph February 2015

The accounts above appear very familiar with how many residents saw Melbourn parish council being run. A fiefdom is quite an appropriate and common term used, given that the group that tried to hide an important public document from residents were led by one person. Their reasons for following this person is for them and their conscience. Maybe they were spun such elaborate tales that they felt compelled to believe whatever they were told. One councillor insisted that “everything in the document was a lie and there was proof”. Maybe the councillor forgot, that the person involved in the alleged bullying row had already admitted to some of the points outlined in the document.

Given the events that have taken place in Melbourn recently, some of the comments do indeed ring true. But to be fair, not all councillors can be tarred with the same brush, as one person recently suggested. It is unfair to characterise all those who have given up their free time to serve on a parish council as coming from the same mould. Over many years Melbourn has seen some major changes within the village and this has come about by the hard work and dedication from those who are unpaid volunteers and give up their free time to serve on the council.

 

Time for a change!

The situation in Melbourn has shown the parish council is incapable of policing itself. Yes, there are organisations to help when problems arise, but as we have seen they are advisory and cannot compel a council to do the right thing.

As for South Camb’s District Council and it’s ‘monitoring officer’ you’re lucky if they even bother to respond to any communication. This is not just about the situation in Melbourn, a number of people from other parishes have said the same thing.

Melbourn council needs a good shake-up, both in the way the council is run and how it communicates with the residents of Melbourn. Many agree – former councillors and residents alike, the Code of conduct that guides the council needs an ‘open’ review so residents and councillors are clear in what is expected.

Not a lot to ask – is it?

 

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3 comments

  • A colourful example… which the Guardian paints as “Insults and expletives turn parish council Zoom meeting into internet sensation. Swearing, hysterics and a heroically stoic clerk transform Handforth meeting into absurdist drama…”
    https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/feb/05/handforth-insults-and-expletives-turn-parish-council-meeting-into-internet-sensation
    …I would say this unelected busy-body is abusing her powers, and the way for 6 residents to deal with this is convene their own meeting ~ without her ~ and get rid of her. By refusing to apply Standing Orders, she sealed her own fate. If she is paid, then Abuse of Office or Fraud Act 2006 may apply ~ since Standing Orders would then form Law to be used.

    • Given the ranting of the Handforth Chair that the Clerk to the Council is not the Proper Officer of the Council shows he knows little of how a council works, it is normal practice for a clerk to become the proper officer. 

      Although it would not be unusual for a councillor to take over the roll of Clerk, it would be unpaid – but the fact that the chair had elected himself as Clerk was illegal – the clerk cannot take the chair at a meeting.

      It was good to see a Monitoring Officer step in to oversee a contentious bullying chair and councillors, a situation that is seen up and down the country.  

      The Monitoring Officer has three main roles: To report on matters he/she believes are, or are likely to be, illegal or amount to maladministration; To be responsible for matters relating to the conduct of Councillors and officers; and to be responsible for the operation of their Constitution.

  • Behind the scenes of both well run & poorly run parish councils, social networks rule rather than broad democratic principled coterie. Many councillors lack the confidence to openly debate & even fewer to argue against a groundswell of opinion or the implied power of the Chairman or the Imbued control the clerks to parish councils weald. Many parish councils regularly unlawfully convene meetings & disregard lawful process because of so few effective challenges (Judicial involvement) to such practice occur,so no practical deterrent.

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