In this post we have a specially written article from Mark Stewart a local resident who follows the workings of our local area council very closely. He wants to see more communication from the council…
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Slowly, slowly, local government is being forced into being more open, and into being more accountable to its electors – in fact, to be brief, more democratic.
And, even the smallest bits of local government have to start changing to new rules. Our very own area council, Draycott Parish Council, is one of the smallest in the Moorlands, but it too has to carry out new responsibilities.
Two things are needed for the new rules to work: the full-hearted support of the councillors themselves, and (because most of this new work is admin-based) long hours of work from the clerk of the council.
Hiding from the electors
It seems crazy to say this out loud, but obstructiveness has for too long been the name of the game at one time in area councils…
Less than five years ago, a resident was not allowed to see a copy of the record of any meeting of Draycott Council unless they were prepared to travel, to then see a paper document only; and even then they could only make notes while reading it, and not photograph the original! It seems Victorian, but that’s how it was.
This crazy system was even supported by some councillors at the time!
No wonder the government got fed up with this obstructiveness from parish councillors (Draycott was not unusual), and so it introduced the Localism Bill in 2011. Even more importantly, it brought in the Local Government Transparency Code in 2015, which compels parish councils, by law, to publish openly a number of documents which, till this time, they were able to keep under wraps.
The ‘Information Commissioners Office’ also expects a model parish council to publish even more bits of information – including lists of contracts awarded, reports presented, its ‘disclosure log’ etc.
The matters that must be published openly now include: draft minutes of meetings, full agendas, details of every item of significant spending, internal audits, an Annual Governance Statement – and more.
How is the local body covering Draycott & Cresswell & Totmonslow – Draycott-in-the-Moors Parish Council – doing?
Most of this new work falls to the clerk of the council, Kate Bradshaw. It’s a fact however that, since 2014, the new regulations mean the burden of work on clerks has increased massively.
As you’d expect, the council’s system is creaking.
Kate is paid to do council work twenty hours a month. Once upon a time, in the past, the clerk did everything – from writing letters on behalf of councillors (even trivial ones) and putting up posters to meeting highways officials and presenting the annual accounts. But, as anyone will tell you who has been to recent parish council meetings, the clerk can’t do it all any more – and so councillors are even having to write the drafts of the letters they suggest the council should be sending…
That sounds amusing but in fact it’s worrying. It remains to be seen how the current system at Draycott Council can continue to work efficiently.
What is heartening though is that, despite the issues, a couple of extra reforms have been introduced to show some support for the transparency idea. We have to thank Kate, the clerk, for these….
# It used to be incredibly difficult for a resident to get an item on to the meeting agenda. However, four months ago, a new process was introduced: simply write to the clerk with your suggestion for an agenda item, and if it is deemed relevant to parish business, it goes on the agenda!
# The council website may be pretty basic and have hardly anything on it but what’s legally required – but at least Kate makes sure it’s functioning.
# The draft minutes of any council meeting now often appear (on the website) within a week of that council meeting. Compare that to five years ago when one was not allowed to see the minutes often until five weeks after a meeting!
# To push out ‘immediate’ news, Kate maintains the council’s own Facebook page too.
Transparency is about openness – and you can’t have openness unless you are communicating.
A change of attitude
What we really now need is for the current crop of councillors to come up to speed and support the clerk with her transparency reforms, and also to support the general idea of communication.
For the fact is that communication from them is, by any standards, lacking. There has not been an annual newsletter for three years now; not one of the current crop of councillors is a member of the village Facebook group (which has 150 members!); and indeed some of the councillors don’t even have email addresses. No posts from any of them appear on the council website. Unless it’s election time, one never sees anything through the letterbox from them.
Or will the government have to introduce even more laws to force councillors to be more open with their electors?
How another area council views its responsibilities under the Transparency Code: Mid Wharfedale and The Code
Information Commissioners Office: What Parish Councils Should be publishing (opens as a Word document)
See also: The Smaller Authorities (Transparency Requirements) (England) Regulations 2015 (opens as a pdf)
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