Sunday, 27 November 2011

Parish Councils and Councillors

Most people become a parish, district or county councillor, because they wish to do something for their community.  Very few parish councillors are motivated by an overriding desire to further a political career, or a wish to exercise power, or simply because they like the cachet of the title 'councillor'.

Others do 'their bit' for the community by becoming school governors, members of the management committees of voluntary organisations, or volunteering to take on work which will benefit the community: scout leaders, assistants at lunch clubs, youth work.  The list is almost endless.

There are those who take public office and engage in voluntary work. 

All activity for the community is commendable, though it is spoilt by the inevitable self-promoters who like to collect awards, which makes one wonder what their true motivation is.

Most voluntary organisations will snap up a volunteer.  However, a person wishing to be a councillor has to be elected and the electorate will vote in some candidates and reject others.  There is one other important relationship between councillors and the electorate.  Councils have statutory authority to extract money from the pockets of the electorate and then spend it.

So, if I am on the management committee of a charity, most people will have little interest in what I do as I am not taking their money.  However councillors are in the public eye and likely to be the subject of criticism, positive and negative.   A person elected to public office has to expect to be criticised: it goes with the territory.  It really will not do for councillors to say that they are doing their bit for the community, as though that should exclude them from criticism.  If you don't like the heat in the kitchen, leave, after all councillors choose to stand for public office and there are many other ways in which they may serve the community, hidden from the glare of public opinion.

Councillors have to make decisions which are not popular, as the councillors in Penshurst know well  having voted to recommend approval of a planning application for social housing, much to the ire of many of the villagers.

Which brings me to this article:

The proposals seem to be sensible on first impression and I support localism and devolving power downwards.  However, there are problems to be overcome.  Planning committees exercise a quasi-judicial function, which put simply means that applications have to be considered objectively in the context of the planning framework.  In other words, the planning framework, and nothing else, has to be guide councillors to making decisions.  The problem is that parish councillors know many residents personally (or have a prejudiced opinion of a resident), and knowing or having an opinion on an applicant, or a supporter or objector raises the issue of conflict of interest. The risk is that of  'doing a mate a favour'. 

It seems to be rather a strange proposition that people would be encouraged to become a parish councillor if parish councils had greater powers. After all, isn't the mantra: we wish to do something for our community the primary consideration?

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