Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Casual Vacancy - Fact or Fiction?

Anyone who's heard anything of JK Rowling in the last few months will probably know that the plot of her latest novel, 'The Casual Vacancy', is set during middle of a by-election for the fictional Pagford Parish Council.

A by-election on a parish council? I'm not sure her fans will be able to swallow such a preposterous scenario!

That notwithstanding, it has been quite good fun to see parish councils having their moment in the media spotlight as a result of the publicity surrounding the novel. Most of this has been - unsurprisingly - negative, critical or dismissive. But, as the saying goes, all publicity is good publicity, right?

At the end of last month, Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph was not much taken with Rowlings' depiction of middle-class snobbery. And he suggests that she also misses the mark in her understanding of parish councils themselves:
For JK Rowling, on the other hand, Pagford is a vehicle, not properly imagined. It is southern, provincial, class-bound and “therefore” contemptible. As a result, the book is negligent about reality. The mainspring of the plot of The Casual Vacancy is, as the book’s title suggests, the space created on the parish council by Barry Fairbrother’s death. It is important for nasty Howard Mollison and his gang that they get the right person (Howard’s son Miles) in to replace Barry on the council so that they can sever the Fields from Pagford and terminate the lease of the Bellchapel Addiction clinic, which helps the druggies.

This is implausible, because the powers of parish councils are far slighter than Miss Rowling portrays. It is unlikely, for example, that the parish council would own the addiction centre building in the first place (the centre is a former church: I wonder if the author is muddling up parish councils with parochial church councils).

People seriously determined to do down the interests of the Fields would be much better off on the district council. And anyone who has had any association with a parish council will know that there is never hot competition to sit on it. Local politics can certainly be petty, but her notion that office-holding on the parish council can become almost literally a matter of life and death is preposterous. In Pagford, the chairman of the parish council wears a chain of office at meetings. I have never heard of any parish council with such delusions of grandeur.
His article has prompted a letter in today's paper:
SIR - Charles Moore is right that JK Rowling has overestimated the powers of parish councils in her new novel.

From four years' experience as a parish councillor, I have come to the conclusion that they are a sop to local feeling. In their present form, they are a waste of money.

Chairmen can be pompous, but the parish councillor's lot is a thankless one. Either more powers should be wrestled from county councils, or parishes would be better served by voluntary residents' associations.

Tim Coles
Carlton, Bedfordshire
A waste of money? Thankless? Pompous? Mr Coles' Carlton & Chellington Parish Council probably aren't best pleased with that description. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it!

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