Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Where have all the Parish Councillors Gone?

Birdingbury and Wolfhampcote aren’t normally places associated with being at the forefront of local democracy. But right now, the residents of these two villages can consider themselves to be showing the rest of Rugby borough the way it should be done. Next Thursday is election day. Not only is there the national referendum on electoral reform being held alongside elections for most wards on Rugby Borough Council (although not Fosse), but there are also elections for 104 parish councillors sitting on 16 different parish councils in the area.

Public voting for any level of government, national or local, only takes place if more people stand for election than there are vacancies. If there are enough vacant seats for everybody who puts their name forward, those people are elected automatically, without the need for anyone else to vote on the matter. It's called an uncontested election.

And whilst an uncontested election is never likely to happen again at a General Election (the last time being in 1951 in four seats in Northern Ireland), it is equally rare in local elections to
Warwickshire County Council or Rugby Borough Council. Sadly, the same can’t be said for parish council elections.

That is why the residents of Birdingbury and Wolfhampcote deserve special recognition, because they are the only parishes holding elections this year where more residents have put themselves forward to sit on their local parish council than there are vacancies available. In the other 14 villages, there will be no need to have an election, because there’s an empty seat available for everyone who put their name forward – and with seats still going spare!

The 14 parishes –
Binley Woods, Bourton & Draycote, Brandon & Bretford, Cawston, Dunchurch, Frankton, Grandborough, Leamington Hastings, Marton, Princethorpe, Ryton-on-Dunsmore, Stretton-on-Dunsmore, Thurlaston and Willoughby - have a combined 94 parish council vacancies, but only 80 people wanting to fill them.

So why don’t local residents want to become involved in their parish council?

Perhaps parish councils don’t publicise elections enough and nobody actually knows that they are being held until they turn up to vote on 5 May, only to be told that it's a done deal. It’s certainly true that an unscrupulous parish councillor can just keep their mouth shut about the upcoming elections, safe in the knowledge that the best way to get re-elected is by avoiding drawing public attention to the matter. Perhaps too many people still view their parish council as a joke and have no desire to get involved (although that view is self-defeating and will only perpetuate the status quo). Maybe people think that they're a toothless talking-shop, and whilst it’s true that you’re not going to be able to change the world as a parish councillor, there is more scope to influence things than you’d initially consider to be the case.

Take the money that's available as an example. The 80 parish councillors returned unopposed this year will, between them, have the responsibility and authority to spend over £330,000 of taxpayers’ money in the next 12 months on whatever they think their villages need. Whether you're elected unopposed or by a public vote, you have a four year term of office, so the lucky 80 councillors will now have over £1.3m at their disposal before they are required to stand for election again.

Dunchurch parish councillors will spend £70,000 this year, Stretton-on-Dunsmore and Ryton-on-Dunsmore will both spend around £53,000 each, and the parish councillors in Cawston will be spending over £50,000 during 2011/12. If any proof was needed of the topsy-turvy world of parish politics, eight residents in Wolfhampcote are fighting for five seats on their parish council (total annual budget £1,500!)

The next elections for Shilton Parish Council will be held in May 2012. At this stage I have no great confidence that enough people will put their names forward to force an election here either. I hope they do. By then, I'll have managed to be a parish councillor for six years without anyone having to say whether they actually want me in that role. Worse still, it's said that there's not been an election to the parish council in living memory.

If you are interested in what happens in your village (and I've met very few people who aren't) there's no better time to get involved. Budget cuts at national and local level, plus the challenges of the
Big Society, mean that villages need people to speak up on their behalf and fight to keep vital services. New legislation will also mean parishes developing Neighbourhood Development Plans that will give them a greater say in planning applications affecting their area. Everybody sings the praises of localism, now we just need the people to make it a reality!

I hope more of us can take inspiration from the Birdingburys and Wolfhampcotes of this world.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Planning Applications Consultation and Decision

This week, a planning application has been submitted by:
  • 74 Wood Lane, Shilton - demolition of outbuildings, provision of a link between dwelling and converted garage, and provision of a replacement garage.

Full details of the application (including site plans) can be viewed here. All comments on the application must be received by Rugby Borough Council by Tuesday 26 April.

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

  • Top Park, Top Road, Barnacle - retention of the use of land and ancillary operational development as a residential caravan site, including the erection of six temporary amenity blocks - refused.

The full decision on this application can be viewed here.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Time for a Bulkington Parish Council?

Have you been wondering what Bulkington Parish Council is doing in response to the proposals to close their village library? The answer's easy - it's doing nothing, because there is no such thing as a Bulkington Parish Council.

Despite the village having a distinct boundary and strong civic identity amongst its residents, there has not been a local council of any description around which issues affecting the village can be debated and problems solved since 1932. Just 15-odd miles to the south, the 7,500 people who live in Whitnash have their own
town council with a £90,000 budget to look after their interests, whilst the 6,500 people of Bulkington have, well, nothing.

OK, to be fair they do have a
county councillor (but who doesn't live there) and two borough councillors. But doesn't Bulkington need and deserve to have access to grassroots representatives who live amongst the people they represent, who hold public meetings locally and are accountable in a sense that someone who lives in Nuneaton and attends meetings in Warwick isn't?

It's not like Warwickshire County Council even holds a distinct Bulkington Community Forum for the people who live in the village, preferring instead to have a 'Whitestone & Bulkington' forum, as if a suburban housing estate in Nuneaton shares any of the issues and problems that a village community does.

Perhaps Bulkington doesn't want it's own council. Perhaps it thinks that the threatened library closure, the solutions to the traffic and parking problems in Chequer Street and Leicester Street, the bus services to Coventry that will be cut, and all the other issues that it will have to face up to in the coming years are best left to bureaucrats in other places, without the direct input and influence of people who have to adapt and live with the consequences of these decisions.

It's been nearly 80 years since the residents of Bulkington were served by their own local council. As the ideals of localism and civic self-responsibility come back into vogue, is it now time to ask again whether those residents can be better served with their own local parish council giving a louder voice to their interests, instead of forever being told by others what's good for them?

Over 200 new parish councils have been established across England in the last ten years, and the
National Association of Local Councils' 'Power to the People' toolkit should be the first port of call for anyone who's interested in exploring this issue further.