Make a difference, be a parish councillor

Back in May there was barely a mention in the media of the historic elections to London’s first ever parish council in Queen’s Park, Westminster. To be expected really given their obsession with what would happen to UKIP and the Liberal Democrats in the European elections and how many London’s borough councils would turn red.

But the same might happen again next year, when the vast majority of parish council elections are potentially held on the same day as the General Election.While there is always stiff competition to get into Parliament, this isn’t always the case for the first tier of Government. And this concerns me. A lot.

Just over two years ago my colleague Danny Moody from the Northamptonshire Association of Local Councils wrote a guest post on their efforts to promote local democracy in the county and some important points about holding public office at a very local level. Well he’s been at it again, this time with a brilliant piece for his county eUpdate (their newsletter) on May’s parish elections in one part of the county, and why contested elections are important. I couldn’t agree more with what Danny has to say, so he’s kindly agreed to let me publish his article, here it is:

DAVENTRY ELECTIONS – LESSON LEARNT?

Every district in Northamptonshire apart from the district of Daventry holds parish council elections on the normal national cycle, i.e. 2007, 2011, 2015 etc.  Daventry district elects in thirds; in other words one third of the parishes have elections each year, with one year off.  In 2014 there were 17 first-tier councils with elections, including Daventry Town Council whose councillors had their term of office cut to three years because of a drafting mistake by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) when making an Order to bring into effect some minor boundary changes.

Sadly, and it is sad, out of the 17 councils just 3 had a contested election:  Daventry Town Council and two parish councils where there was one more candidate than places.  6 councils were left with 3 or more vacancies to fill following the election, and one of those was left with 7 vacancies.

The malaise affected smaller councils as well as larger ones, although clearly the smaller the parish the harder it is to find enough people willing to stand.  A post-mortem is required, and required urgently, if the same pattern is to be avoided across the county in May 2015.

So why is it important that parish councils have contested elections?

Firstly, the fact that councillors are democratically elected it is one of the three things that makes the sector special.  The other two are the fact that parish councils are statutory bodies and that they have the power to raise money through the precept.  These three legs of the stool differentiate parish councils from other community organisations such as clubs and societies, and if you kick away one leg of the stool the whole thing falls over.  Parish councils must cherish and protect their elected status and do all they can to ensure elections are strongly contested.

Secondly, we are being watched.  Watched by principal (district, borough, county) councils, and watched by government.  Principal councils, to whom elections are part of the fabric, might look at the parish sector and say “that’s the lot that are supposed to be elected but actually most of them are co-opted by their mates.  We’re the only ones with a true democratic mandate”.  Wouldn’t it be better if they were saying “Parish councils do such brilliant things and are so important to their communities that people are queuing up to get on them”!  Government is looking at the sector and, for the moment, is willing to give parish councils unlimited legislative powers (the General Power of Competence) and unlimited tax-raising powers (having chosen not to extend “capping” to the first tier).  That is a powerful mix; one that no other tier of local government enjoys.  Government relies on the ballot box to protect communities against the abuse of these powers, so take that away and with it will go the freedom.

The third reason is the effect that contested elections have on councillors.  Someone elected to public office after a contested election knows that they were chosen by the people to represent them.  It instils humility and a sense of public service to know that the electorate, faced with a choice, chose you for the job.  The contrasting position when there is no contest, particularly where the council is left with one or more vacancies following the election, is that those persons elected feel a boldness and arrogance that comes from doing a job that no one else wanted to do… “Don’t criticise me – where were you at election time – I didn’t see you putting yourself forward to be in this position”.  Clearly this is a sweeping generalisation and there are plenty of exceptions that prove the rule.

The fourth and final reason is that, like it or not, there are some very odd people in the councillorship.  Councillors who seem hell-bent on furthering their own agenda whatever the cost, who are more intent on infighting and causing trouble than in serving the people and doing good in the community.  The ballot box is supposed to be a protection against such people so if there is no contested election then don’t be surprised if some “undesirables” get through the net!  Of course there is no guarantee that the electorate will choose wisely every time, but it lessens the opportunity for local government to be infiltrated by nutters and extremists.

Winston Churchill described democracy as “the worst form of government, apart from all the others that have been tried” and parish councils must take on board how important their democratic mandate is to their effectiveness and very existence.

But whose job is it to promote candidacy for parish council elections?

Those running the elections don’t seem particularly interested… the Electoral Commission doesn’t seem to really mind whether or not a parish council election is contested or not, and some local election officers seem to see contested elections as just more work and a greater strain on their already-stretched resources.  Councillors want to avoid being turkeys-campaigning-for-Christmas, and parish clerks are in the awkward position of a) not wanting to encourage competition against their current members and b) trying to maintain an objective, professional distance from the election process.  The National Association of Local Councils (NALC) is too distant to have much effect and even a County Association can’t have all that much impact on the ground.

So the parish council as a corporate body must take responsibility.  Councillors should be expected to put their own re-election chances to one side for the greater good of having a contest, and if the council properly instructs its clerk to promote candidacy at a forthcoming election it removes the awkwardness of their unilateral action.  All councils should be putting a minimum of ¼ of the election expense aside each year, so that the cost of a contested election is not a significant factor.

Every parish council with elections in May 2015 should have an agenda item at a council meeting before the end of 2014 “To decide what this council is going to do to ensure that there is a contested election in May 2015”.  From 1 January 2015 the council should organise a local flurry of noticeboard posters, web site and social media posts, newsletter articles, open days, attendance at meetings of groups and organisations and personal approaches (avoiding cronyism of course).  There are potential candidates out there – you just have to reach out to them.

Yes, it’s a lot of effort, and the returns may leave you wondering if the juice was worth the squeeze, but your council needs to prove its democratic credentials like never before and, whilst there will be plenty of help available, no one else is going to do it for you.

Amen to that and quite a call to arms, along with some practical ideas to boot.

Next year’s parish elections provide a golden opportunity to encourage a new generation to step forward and make a difference in their area; and for parishes to improve their democratic mandate. Neither of these objectives will be easy to achieve. My Northamptonshire colleagues are up for having a go, as are others already working up projects and stuff to do in the run up to May.

But what about NALC?

Well it’s already on our radar and our National Council – our principal governing body – is considering this precise issue at their second meeting of the year later today.

And I’m confident they’ll be up for it too, because strengthening local democracy is too important for them not to.

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