In this first in a new series of guest posts, academic James Derounian argues that parish councillors and clerks need training in order to make the most of localism:
When parish and town (local) councils were invented way back in 1894, who could have predicted that in 2012 (118 years later!) they would still exist, and have moved towards the centre of Government policy making?
The Localism Act 2011 presents local councils with a promise, but also an underlying threat: do things for your local communities – or else!
But have you noticed that in life, all the BIG things come without training or education – how do you learn to manage money, deal with puberty, relationships, bereavement?
We make it up as we go along, for better or worse. And so it is that local councillors and clerks are not, in the main, schooled in any sense for the role they take on. According to the 2009 Governance Toolkit for Parish & Town Councils, “parish councillors have a dual role:
– they represent the views and concerns of the residents of the parish to the parish council itself and, through it, to the district, county or unitary authority;
– they report back to residents on issues affecting the parish”.
So where and how do councillors learn about representing local views, establishing community concerns, and effectively linking with principal authorities? At the moment it’s totally hit and miss: you may have a member who is a journalist or gifted at communication; or perhaps they work in local government and know how the system works. On the other hand – if you’ve become a volunteer parish councillor – the likelihood is that you will not have all/some of the skills required. It would take a combination of diplomat/social worker/finance manager/accountant/community-development worker/personnel officer etc to cover the field.
So it seems incredible that in this age of new community rights, Big Society and localism, local councillors and clerks can apparently bumble along as before. Not to mention the fact that many (larger) councils are multi-million pound businesses – with councillors as board members.
For these reasons I would like to see compulsory induction training for all new local councillors. Once they are elected/co-opted they should be required to complete a distance learning course (with brief residential elements) similar to the Community Engagement & Governance courses delivered by the University of Gloucestershire for the past 20 plus years.
This would enable new councillors to study from work, their front room etc. And it would bring them up to date with things like the new planning regime, neighbourhood planning and the National Planning Policy Framework. It would also explain their responsibilities, both as councillors and as part of a council.
Other topics could include staff management, how to involve the community in decision-making, group work, correct procedures. In this way a degree of consistency would be introduced across England’s 9,000 local councils; and residents and constituents could have greater confidence that public money was being well used.
This age of (alleged) localism calls for greater professionalism if local councils are to shrug off the pejorative mantle of ‘parish pump politics’ and ‘that TV programme’.
This will not happen by magic or passive osmosis. It will take a conscious effort on the part of central and local governments, to train to ensure that they are fit for purpose in the 21st century. Hail continuous professional development!
James Derounian BSc (Hons) MPhil MRTPI FHEA FILCM is a Principal Lecturer at the University of Gloucestershire