In May, I was elected onto my local parish council in Wiltshire. Rather unusually for a parish council in this area, this was through a contested election; parish councillors are often elected unopposed.
I came onto the council with it facing significant challenges – it was at less than half strength, and our Parish Clerk was due to leave at the end of the week that the new council took office. I plunged in at the deep end, taking on the role of Responsible Financial Officer (as I could find my way around a spreadsheet), whilst we recruited a new Clerk and sought to co-opt interested residents onto the council.
So why become a parish councillor? It’s a good question. Our council has very limited powers, one part-time employee and few assets. (Our assets comprise a 19th Century well house, a set of goal posts, some bins, a bus shelter, four notice-boards and a couple of benches.)
After almost 8 months in the role, my thoughts on the role are:
- In rural areas, parish councils are the level of democracy closest to the electorate. In my ward, I represent just 161 electors. I know most of them, see and talk to many on a regular basis, and can be easily contacted.
- Parish councillors can be the eyes and ears on the ground for the local authority. Over the past few months, I have raised issues of fly tipping, blocked gullies and footpath repairs, and helped the highways team with winter preparations.
- Parish councils can represent their communities to other organisations, particularly the local authority. They are regularly consulted over issues such as bus services, and are a statutory consultee on planning applications. The support of our Parish Council for a local solar farm development may prove to be crucial to getting it off the ground.
- Parish councils are able to raise money through the “precept”. They may also benefit from significant additional income from the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL). During the pandemic, our council has helped local schools with grants for laptops, and set up a fund to help local community groups re-start after Covid.
- Local authorities have become so stretched that they struggle to be anything other than reactive. Parish councils can provide the impetus (and funding) to get things done. For example, we have employed a consultant to conduct a feasibility study on road safety issues in the parish and develop improvement schemes that we can then promote to the highway authority.
Ultimately, being a parish councillor is an opportunity to both serve your local community, and to show how our Labour values can be implemented at a local level. Parish councils can be stale, reactive bodies, or they can be dynamic campaigning organisations that can make a real difference to their local area. By getting involved, you can help set which of these paths they go down.
[John Barnes is Secretary of North Wiltshire CLP and a local parish councillor]