BRITISH local governance conjures up images of the Vicar of Dibley, Jeremy Clarkson’s planning ordeals and the chaos at the Handforth Parish Council Zoom meeting. Has local politics gone to the dogs?
Town, parish or community councils in England are the first tier of local government and are statutory community and neighbourhood bodies. They are independently elected and raise their own precept, a form of council tax. There are 10,000 local councils in England covering 30 per cent of the country and 100,000 councillors, with more than £1billion being invested in these communities each year. Their remit is working towards delivering local services and striving to improve quality of life.
Local council responsibilities range from allotments, burial grounds, community transport and crime-reduction measures to litter bins, traffic-calming measures and managing commons and open spaces. This is a far cry from intense pub conversations concerning topics such as Brexit trade negotiations, Net Zero, controlling our borders, infringements of our personal freedom and gender wars.
We have all met well-meaning candidates contesting elections who have nil experience of voluntary community activity, expecting their electorate to vote for them because they advocate ideologies which do not directly affect daily lives. This usually results in a low poll and heartache for the campaign team. Is the challenge to engage in grassroots politics a waste of time and energy or the first stepping stone to greater responsible decision-making?
Having spent over 30 years in voluntary community roles I was presented with the opportunity to serve as a parish councillor in North Yorkshire. Almost 12 months have elapsed since my election and true to form I have encountered those who believe they have the hereditary right to be a councillor and others who revel in their free meals at the ratepayers’ expense.
We can all decry corruption in politics but we must remind ourselves of Edmund Burke’s words: ‘The only thing necessary for evil to triumph in the world is that good men do nothing.’ By engaging with the electorate through a 20-question survey, and holding meetings in the local pub discussing their concerns, I have ignited local democracy. Through empowering their voice and started the slow journey to build confidence and transparency at this level of governance our parish is experiencing significant progress to resolving local issues. One person recently thanked me for hosting informal meetings where they felt able to speak rather than in a formal setting in front of well-dressed councillors. Perish the thought, is this the embryo of a hybrid style of Swiss direct democracy?
On Thursday many of us will have the opportunity to vote in local elections. Turnout is traditionally low and some will even spoil their ballot paper as they feel unable to support any candidate. So what can be done?
Rather than perfecting keyboard warrior skills or pontificating at your local, maybe it’s time to gain valuable experience as a voluntary community member. As John Drewry wrote here a few weeks ago, you could consider becoming a councillor. Or you could speak to others in your community and set up a town, community or parish council.
My time as a councillor has resulted in new challenges. When my daughters ask their mum where dad is she informs them that he’s taking the dogs for a walk and that means he won’t be back for some time as it will involve numerous parish-related discussions with the neighbours. Local politics will go to the dogs if we do nothing, or we can engage and go for a walk with the dogs and start restoring local democracy throughout the UK. The choice is yours. One small step at a time we can change politics for good and make Britain great again.