Monday, 14 March 2011

WALC Annual Seminar - 5 March

Earlier this month I attended the Warwickshire and West Midlands Association of Local Councils (WALC) Annual Seminar in Warwick. It is now the third year that I've attended this one day training event that brings together representatives from many of the town and parish councils in Warwickshire and the West Midlands to listen to speeches, undertake training and share best practice with colleagues.

Once again, there were three main sessions that I attended:
James Derounian from the University of Gloucestershire led a very topical discussion on parish councils' role in the Big Society and Localism, Gary Stephens, Planning Policy Team Leader at Warwick District Council talked about the Government's proposed changes to the planning system, and then Nick Booth from Podnosh spoke about the benefits of social media as a means of effective consultation.

All three sessions were really interesting. The Localism debate, and what the Big Society actually means in reality, rages on and it's clear that parish councils have a big part to play in this, as borough and county councils across the country end up cutting services (whether they want to or not).

Given its very broadest definition, I would imagine its hard for anyone to disagree with the philosophy behind the Big Society, and I am a huge supporter of the principles of localism given how chronically over-centralised this country has become over the last generation or so. But (and it's a big but), I'm not sure of the capacity parish councils have at the moment to step in and fill the void left by retreating county/borough councils and other service providers.

Attending conferences such as this one opens your eyes to many of the amazing things that some parish councils do within their community, but the parish council sector as a whole needs to be honest enough to admit that there is a mixed bag out there and many local councils just do not yet have the capacity, skills, knowledge and ability to deliver effective public services to their community. The challenge will be how this can be addressed over the coming years.

'Planning' is always a contentious subject matter for parish councils, where it is almost impossible to please everybody. It was therefore interesting to hear of the Government's new approach to the planning system that is contained within the Localism Bill. Back in May last year, the Government announced that the Localism Bill would, amongst many things:
develop greater powers to councils and neighbourhoods, and give local communities control over housing and planning decisions.
Of particular interest to parish councils within the Localism Bill is the creation of Neighbourhood Plans, which are intended to give a focus to the local planning aspirations and objectives of a parish area and are written by the local community itself. These plans cannot contradict national planning policies or the borough council's Core Strategy, so it might be argued that they serve little purpose - especially as they're projected to cost £17,000+ to produce. If that turns out to be their true cost (which to my mind seems ridiculously high) I can't imagine any Neighbourhood Plans being produced. The value of producing such a plan appears to be where the community wishes to encourage more development than might otherwise be envisaged in the borough's Core Strategy. As Gary Stephens said, the Government see Neighbourhood Plans as "not a means to prevent growth, but to stimulate more". Any takers?

The day finished with Nick Booth from Podnosh demonstrating how social media tools such as
Facebook, Twitter and Blogger etc can be used to engage with members of your local community. Clearly, he was preaching to the converted in my case(!), but it was interesting to see the many examples of where the internet is being utilised to spread the word of what parish councils and councillors are getting up to. The flip side of this is that social media is also increasingly being used by local residents to hold public services to account. I talked about this back in 2009, and another more recent example is the community website. As the traditional local print media seems to get less and less 'local', many people predict that it'll be sites such as this one where people will look first for their local news. Anyone out there planning a '' or even a '' website??

Overall, it was really interesting day with plenty of ideas to mull over in the coming months (and at a very reasonable cost of £15 to the Shilton taxpayer).

Monday, 7 March 2011

Fosse Community Forum - 17 March

Click on the image above if you need to make it larger to read it more easily.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Planning Application Decision

Rugby Borough Council has reached the following decision on a planning application submitted in February:

  • 2 Lower Road, Barnacle - extensions and alterations to bungalow to create two storey dwelling and use of roof space - refused.

The full decision on this application can be viewed here.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Parish Council Meeting - 1 March

On Tuesday night I chaired the March meeting of Shilton Parish Council. As usual, the meeting began with updates from County Councillor Phillip Morris-Jones and Borough Councillor Rachel Watts. Both reported that their respective councils had now agreed their budgets for 2011/12, and that this would result in an unchanged level of Council Tax for next year compared to this year. There was a little more detail on the potential job losses that are likely to be required to achieve these stand still budgets - Rugby is expected to make 24 posts redundant, Warwickshire needs to find 1,800 job losses.

Rachel Watts was also able to give an update on progress with the Rugby Rural CCTV Network project that
I blogged about following last month's parish council meeting. The trial that is being carried out together with Wolston Parish Council is still on-going. The trial had identified a number of technical problems that needed to be overcome (including poor rural broadband speeds to carry the CCTV images back to the central monitoring control room - a problem that will also impact on the roll-out of any system within Shilton and Barnacle), but these problems have now been overcome and it appears that it's now ready to be demonstrated to other interested parishes. Dunchurch and Ryton-on-Dunsmore parish councils already appear to be next in line, but Shilton parish councillors expressed their wish to see a demonstration of the CCTV system in operation at the earliest opportunity to assess its suitability for adoption in either or both our villages. I shall hopefully have more to report next month.

In other updates on items raised at the last meeting, it was reported that there had thankfully been no further reported incidents of the car park in Church Road, Shilton being used as a discrete location at which to smoke drugs. As ever, local residents provide the eyes and ears that give an early warning of these sorts of incidents and I would urge anyone seeing anything suspicious in the future to report the matter to either the parish council or
Warwickshire Police's Safer Neighbourhoods Team.

There had also been reports of litter problems at the rear of the car park, and it was agreed to install a bin to (hopefully) encourage anyone looking to dispose of their litter to do so in more a responsible way.

In other business, the parish council agreed its cemetery fees for 2011/12. Some fees went up and others came down as we tried to bring our fees more in line with those charged by neighbouring councils. Parish councils are give clear guidance from the Government that the cost of providing cemeteries should be met from the burial fees they charged - effectively, the cemetery should be 'self financing'. For smaller parishes like Shilton this poses some difficulties, as it is not easy to accurately predict demand. Clearly, if only one or two people are being buried in any year, the fees received will not cover the cost of that year's cemetery maintenance. But as with most things, you do what you think is best and then manage the situation during the course of the year in response to developments.

The next meeting of Shilton Parish Council will be held on Tuesday 5 April at 7.30pm in the Parish Council Meeting Room, Church Road, Shilton.