How can we improve Town and Parish Councils?

I've been a parish councillor for almost four years now and as elections are due have begun to reflect on the experience.

In theory town and parish councils should be as close to the true idea of democracy as our system of government gets. But the reality often seems to disappoint.

Our particular council in Stradbroke doesn't seem to be very different to most others. Certainly there are many councils worse and probably quite a few better.

There is an excellent website called CPALC with has some real horror stories on it and some councils appear to have become entertainment in their own right with one village reporting that their parish council was seen as more exciting than East Enders.

Having being a school governor for somewhat longer it is hard not to draw some comparisons. Now don't get me wrong I am not saying school governance is perfect. This Blog has exposed some examples of really poor governance but I feel generally that the standard of school governance is quite a bit higher than town and parish councils.

But it is easy to find problems with things and this blog is more about exploring how things could be better. But first in order to fix things it is necessary to accept what is wrong so here is a list of what I have noticed:

  • Councillors don't appear to get any training at all to undertake their role. Yes that is right. Nothing at all in many, if not most, cases.
  • Councillors don't get given copies of key documents such as the Standing Orders or any kind of summary of the legal powers of Councils
  • Council Clerks are trained but usually work on their own with little support frequently acting as clerk to several councils
  • Council Chairs don't get trained either on how to chair meetings or what their role should be
  • The above is compounded by long standing councillors who have not always kept up to date with changes to the law etc and pass on bad habits to new councillors and fail to shown any recognition whatsoever that they may need training
  • In general too many councillors serve term after term sometimes for incredibly long periods of time
  • Many councils rarely if ever have contested elections
  • Even if councils do have contested elections there is a tendency to fill casual vacancies by co-option rather than election
  • Whilst many other than larger town councils are not politicised formally with councillors sitting for a particular party they can frequently become factionalised which in some respects might be even worse 
  • Councillors frequently seem to see themselves more as "committee volunteers" rather than public officer holders in local government
  • Accountability is weak with problem councils not really seeming to be accountable in a strong way to anybody. In some cases the only solution is to wait up to four years for elections. District Councils, the Government and the Courts have some supervisory powers but it is haphazard and weak
  • Conflicts of interest can frequently cause difficulty especially in small communities where many people often "wear several hats"
  • Information about councils is haphazard with not all councils even having their own websites
Now clearly this doesn't apply to all councils all of the time but these are some of the themes I have seen in my own experience and reading about the experience of other people.

So how can this be fixed? Here are a few suggestions:
  • Training made compulsory for all new councillors. Equivalent to the "How do I start" training that almost all school governors attend
  • An information pack with the standing orders, contact details and other key information should be made available to all new councillors on or before their first meeting
  • A "councillors guide to the law" should be produced and made available in soft or hard copy to all councillors
  • Training for clerks should be improved and consideration given to national minimum standards
  • A specialist training programme for Council Chairs and Vice-Chairs should be produced
  • A restriction should be introduced in the number of times a councillor can be re-elected without a break, after all the US President can only serve two terms of office!
  • A culture of "continuous professional development" should be encouraged with a lead training councillor appointed for each council. Long standing councillors should be encouraged to lead by example and attend training
  • The number of councillors for an area should be looked at with a view to reducing the numbers to encourage efficiency and more contested elections
  • Councils should be encouraged to fill casual vacancies with elections possibly even reversing the presumption that they be filled by co-option unless a given number of electors request an election
  • Parish councils could be an ideal place to experiment with newer voting systems (electronic voting) etc to encourage more democracy and reduce costs
  • Accountability should be strengthened. Audit should be improved and a supervisory body with some teeth established to deal with genuine complaints. 
  • Local government electors should have the power to recall councillors and/or force a completely new election if there is widespread concern about a local council
  • Rules on conflicts of interests should be made more clear with practical guidance and training made available to councils and clerks
  • All councils should have their own websites with at least a statutory minimum amount of information about the council, eg names of councillors, contact details, agendas, papers, minutes and accounts

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