Upskilling for localism

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

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2 comments

  1. The idea of some sort of compulsory training for new members is an idea that’s worth further consideration. Of course, a ‘good’ parish council will be ensuring that its new members undertake training anyway. But there are still too many councils and senior councillors who appear to think that formal training is of little value to a councillor or the parish council.

    The Quality Parishes Scheme offered some hope in respect of the upskilling of councillors, but as this limps on with 75% of local councils having no intention of seeking accreditation, perhaps it’s time to look at a new approach to ensure that those of us who are elected to the parish council are equipped with the skills and knowledge in order to effectively carry out the role.

    I suspect parish councils will complain about the cost of any new initiative (because they always do!) but this shouldn’t be prohibitive when large numbers are partaking.

    Perhaps a compulsory training programme is hoping for too much though: the ‘policing’ of it would be impossible (what happens if councillors don’t attend the training?); and there’ll be the predictable outcry against nationally imposed ‘red-tape’ (and it does run a little counter to DCLG’s localism mantra too!). Perhaps the answer is for NALC or the county associations to produce clearer guidance as to the training they would expect councillors to undertake and then monitor/publicise the take up.

  2. James, thanks for your article but the sector won’t move forward if we keep going round and round the same old arguments. Your guest post hits on the two things that wind me up the most – calling elected councillors “volunteers” and saying that training should be compulsory.

    How on earth does one “become a volunteer parish councillor”? I was under the impression that for ordinary elections individuals were nominated as candidates for election and then subjected to the rigours of the ballot box? Just because someone takes an action of their own free will (such as standing for election) doesn’t mean they are “volunteering”. Isn’t there a most excellent guest post somewhere else on this blogsite on this very subject?

    James, you must be aware that your view that induction training for new councillors should be compulsory is at odds with the National Training Strategy for Parish & Town Councils 2010 – 2015 and the expressed policy of the National Association of Local Councils. The NTS specifically states “We agree that training should be very strongly encouraged” because it recognises that “learning” can never be made compulsory. Attendance, yes, even certified attendance, but not learning. I thought that you or someone from the University of Gloucestershire was on the NTS Stakeholder Group? Don’t get me wrong, ideally all councillors should receive induction training and I strive on a daily basis to encourage that to happen, but it should never be made compulsory.

    It is better for councils to have a Training Statement of Intent that states that “it is expected that newly elected councillors will receive induction training during their first year of office”. Such a statement leads to the development of a culture where training is an expected element of councillorship. I do think it is just about acceptable to make specific training a “condition” of appointment to a committee, eg planning training if a councillor wants to be on the planning committee.

    Justin, I’m all for freedom of speech and presenting a balanced argument, but giving airtime to a view that is overtly against the NTS is a bit edgy isn’t it?!

    Danny Moody, Chief Executive, Northamptonshire county association

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