Friday, February 05, 2021

Handforth Parish Council - a reminder that technology is not without its perils

It's not common for the deliberations of a Parish Council to go viral - in truth they're generally not that interesting. However, the unfortunate events during a Zoom meeting of Handforth Parish Council's Planning and Environment Committee have led to the video being watched more than a million times. Given that the population of Handforth was just over 6,000 in 2011, that's rather impressive.

Unfortunately for the Parish councillors concerned, their struggles with technology and, in some cases, basic courtesy, have made it look like a bit of a shambles (I paraphrase in order to protect the innocent). In the midst of the mayhem, the acting Clerk, Jackie Weaver, attempts to create some structure, whilst councillors walk away from their cameras, attempt to speak whilst muted, and talk over each other.

From an outsider's perspective, it does look as though the Parish Council requires the mediation skills of a senior United Nations diplomat, although once Jackie (who is the Chief Officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils) had started excluding those behaving badly, the meeting did seem to be rather more cordial.

But, regardless of the circumstances that surrounded the meeting, it is a reminder to those of us in a similar position that, when you're in a virtual meeting, especially one where there are opposing factions, you need to be on top of your game or, at the very least, paying attention to the picture of you that everyone else is seeing.

That can be a challenge, especially in areas where broadband speeds are less than optimal, and where you have councillors who are unfamiliar, or uncomfortable, with technology. And sometimes, people behave as though there is nobody watching, which can produce some rather bizarre moments, as Handforth councillors demonstrate vividly.

The role of the Chair is criticial. Not only do you have to steer the meeting in order to complete the business, but you need to watch the screen to ensure that people can contribute. And, for most of us, that's a relatively new challenge, one that most of us aren't trained for, and it's a real test of your skills as a Chair.

I'm very fortunate in that, having served on far more committees than is really healthy over the years, I have a reasonable sense of what does and does not work. My colleagues have re-elected me twice, so I'm hoping that that represents an endorsement. But I wouldn't call it easy, especially if it's what one might describe as an "open mic session", where it's necessary or useful to open the discussion beyond just the councillors.

For those with less committee experience, there is training available through your County Association of Local Councils, and I would strongly recommend it, although whether or not the training material is designed to cope with virtual meetings is a question I can't personally answer. The basic skills don't change, however.

The basic courtesies don't change either. Allowing people to finish before you speak, keeping your interventions brief and to the point, judicious use of humour and encouragement and staying muted unless you want to intervene, help the Chair and the Clerk in their roles.

I hope that Handforth Parish Council finds a resolution to the problems it clearly has, but when Parish Councils go sour, it can be a hard road back...


Phil Beesley said...

Many viewers found the video amazing. Many would be surprised that Town Councils existed, and that planning questions might be discussed by neighbours. Tell us again. What is that precept about?

So where they live, local people can chip in what they think?

What is your optional spending again, Mark?

Mark Valladares said...


I can’t speak for other Parish Councils, but here in Creeting St Peter, as Chair I tend to be pretty permissive in terms of audience participation, even where I don’t need to be - I’m a strong believer in the wisdom of crowds. And that usually applies to planning applications. The minor ones are dealt with by round robin e-mail and only get formally discussed if a councillor has concerns. Anything bigger is discussed in, effectively, open forum and residents are trusted to behave - they usually do.

Our precept is £52.27 for a band D property, or around £5,250 in total. Half of that is spent on our full-time Clerk, the rest on street lights (we own them), grass cutting, playground maintenance and renewal, dog waste bin emptying and resident communication. We could do more, but there’s little clamour for that.

We’re a statutory consultee for planning applications, and we take that seriously, offering thoughtful comment to the District Council based on their policies and the potential issues as they affect us - traffic, disruption, loss of amenity.

I’m pretty visible as Chair, partly because I get much of my exercise walking around the village, and I’ve tried to make us a little more focused so that we can do things more effectively - shorter, more disciplined meetings for example, that allow us to get through the business whilst giving councillors more time in their busy lives (we’re all still of employment age).