Back on the Parish Council after a few years in self-imposed exile, I have to some extent picked up where I left off, representing the Council to an unsuspecting outside world. And, in that capacity, I was called upon to attend the Annual General Meeting of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils (SALC) last week.
Our new Chair, Machala, had also decided to come along to find out how valuable (or otherwise) SALC is. And so, on a cold, drab evening, we made our way to Elmswell. The Community Centre there was our venue, and it was nice to see that they had managed to find somewhere within easy walking distance of a railway station - past meetings seemed to be held in Haughley, virtually impossible for non-drivers.
Having glanced at the agenda, one thing did stand out, the absence of women in senior positions amongst the elected members. The Chair, the President, all four Vice-Presidents, even the Auditor and Deputy Chairman - all men. I wasn't going to let that go unchallenged.
And so, at the point whereby the Vice-Presidents were to be adopted by acclaim, I sought the floor. "May I say, before I continue, that the slate of candidates are a fine body of men. Which is rather the problem, they're all men. Couldn't the Executive Committee do something about that?".
Apparently, they had approached all seven Suffolk MPs (all Conservatives, one notes), and neither of the women (Therese Coffey and Jo Churchill) apparently wanted to serve. It appeared not to have occurred to them that some of the excellent women in local government across the county might have been an option.
There was a promise to try harder next year and, as I'm not one to labour a point, I'll give them an opportunity to do better next year. I'm not terribly optimistic, if the truth be told, but why not give them a chance?
The reports were informative, if not exciting, before we moved on to our guest speaker, John Connell, who is the Head of Neighbourhood Policy at the Department of Communities and Local Government.
John appears to have an interesting view of the level of capacity at our tier of government and talked enthusiastically about the opportunities to take on responsibilities for social care and the like. One wonders whether he has ever experienced life in a small parish like Creeting St Peter, or spoken directly to parish councillors from communities like ours. We have no capacity, no budget, and no means to obtain either from our population of 275.
I can't say that I was impressed by him either, especially after he made a number of slightly cheap jokes at the expense of civil servants - you can always tell the ones who have come straight into the higher echelons from the private sector.
Finally, we had some motions to discuss. Leiston-cum-Sizewell wanted to enforce a satellite navigation system on lorry drivers to make up for police failings to enforce 7.5 tonne limits. Machala and I were opposed, as we couldn't really see how it was enforceable, but were nonetheless surprised when it was defeated.
Somersham wanted more support for Neighbourhood Watch organisations, which we supported and was passed overwhelmingly, whilst Claydon and Whitton Rural were opposed to automatic precept referendums - we, and the meeting as a whole, didn't need persuading there.
Finally, a poorly phrased motion from Hadleigh urged Government to make it easier to decriminalise parking enforcement. Initially, what they really wanted was unclear, but it emerged that they wanted district councils to have the power to enforce parking regulations. We were supportive of that, and I added an amendment to allow local councils to do so should they wish, something that towns like Haverhill, Stowmarket and Bury St Edmunds might well be interested in.
Awards for best newsletters and websites were handed out, before the meeting came to an end.
Was it worth going? I'm not so sure. It is useful to make contacts with nearby parishes, but we can do that at our area meetings, and given that the National Association of Local Councils needs to do far better at lobbying, given my recent experiences of it, it is not obvious what the benefits of participation are at that level. It also looks a bit like a closed shop.
We'll see though, and if they pick an accessible venue next year, I might even go again...
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