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.

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