Friday, March 25, 2022

Civility in public life - why it matters and how easily it is destroyed

One of the key projects for the National Association of Local Councils is improving ethical standards in local government, so you might reasonably imagine that the publication of the Government’s response to the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review of local government ethical standards would be studied very carefully.

And, at the end of last week, it arrived.

It would be fair to suggest that it didn’t receive much of a welcome from our sector. Cllr Keith Stevens, the recently elected Chair of NALC, said;

I am bitterly disappointed by the government's light touch, totally inadequate response to the CSPL report on local government ethical standards. It will do nothing to help stamp out poor behaviour in councils at all levels where it exists, and I would strongly urge ministers to have a rethink.

I am, I admit, not terribly surprised. After all, this is an administration whose collective stance on ethical and moral standards of behaviour is to see them as a potential barrier to eliminated rather than respected. The idea that there might be restraints upon their behaviour is something to be condemned rather than celebrated. Rules, it seems, are for other people.

But there is a debate to be had. Is it for central government to design a set of rules for conduct in public life and the sanctions to be imposed for breaking them? The Standards Boards weren’t exactly a roaring success. And sanctions are a weapon in the hands of a cynical majority group, enabling them to marginalise dissenters and opponents.

In an ideal world, a local authority, at whatever level, would publish its code of conduct for local councillors, make it easily available to the public and encourage them to challenge poor behaviour where they saw it. Voters could, and should, punish bad behaviour with the ultimate sanction of rejection at the next election.

I am, however, cynical about the likely outcomes, with partisan individuals and groups using the code of conduct to harass those who don’t agree with them. And, as for the prospects of voters punishing errant councillors by voting them out, we saw after the expenses scandal that, if you had a sufficient majority, you could ride out even the most egregious offences. The public anger is limited, as is voter interest in the behaviour of their public representatives, especially in terms of elections where two-thirds of eligible voters opt out.

Ultimately, well run councils will adopt codes of conduct that deter bad behaviour and encourage a wider range of candidates and potential councillors, whilst bad ones will pay lip service to the idea of behavioural standards and continue to underperform.

Here in Creeting St Peter, under my leadership, we’ve tried to engage with residents and, this month, invited all residents to consider whether or not they might want to be a Parish councillor. I want us to be inclusive, and knowing as I do that there is a range of skills amongst our residents that would help our community to be more effective, putting the idea into people’s heads that they might make good councillors seems like a means to that end.

But they are less likely to step forward if they think we’re irrelevant, or if we operate in an aggressive, disrespectful manner. So I’m torn. You need rules that people respect, but you also need people who respect rules and each other. And, you need effective sticks for those who don’t play nice whilst ensuring protection for minority or opposition perspectives.

There are obvious tensions there, and perhaps you can’t truly balance the competing dilemmas. But, ultimately, we’re spending public money and our behaviour should be above reproach, so there will need to be some properly independent body able to step in and deal with the more egregious abuses.

Just another example of how the unnecessary behaviour of a small minority leads to more bureaucracy for the rest of us to have to deal with…

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

A community governance review is announced… sort of…

I suspect that there aren’t that many people who actively seek to be on the e-mail list for local government press releases. But, for a Parish Council Chair, they often serve as the easiest means of finding out what is going to happen to you next. Indeed, it slightly surprised me that more of my colleagues don’t do likewise.

For, whilst they are sometimes irrelevant - I’m not sure why I get Babergh’s press releases, for example - you get the odd one which might be of genuine value to some of our residents, if only they knew. Grant schemes, school transport programmes, new services, news of which seldom reaches the general public unless they catch a story in the local press or the grapevine picks up on it. I can pass it on to our village Facebook group and perhaps enable someone to benefit.

But last week, I was checking the District Council’s website for timings for its upcoming Full Council meeting when I noted the agenda included a proposal to initiate a full Community Governance Review, covering the entire district. The idea is to examine the town and parish councils to see if boundaries need altering or if mergers (or demergers) might be appropriate.

I was slightly surprised. After all, I’m on the Board of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils, the representative body of Town and Parish Councils across the county, so you’d think I’d have heard something. But no, not only had Mid Suffolk District Council not given SALC a heads-up, the briefing paper for councillors made no reference to us at all.

Having checked with our highly capable Chief Executive, and discovered that not only had we not been told, that similar reviews were being initiated in East Suffolk and West Suffolk too and in neither case had we been informed either.

It isn’t good enough, if I’m honest, but I contacted an old friend and proposed member of the committee intended to oversee the process, Penny Otton, to see if something could be done. I was also somewhat unimpressed by some of the drafting, which was of the “cut and paste” variety - the briefing paper suggested that information would be published on the Lichfield District Council website, for example, and started the consultation timeline in January, some two months before the process would be approved by Council - and asked her to raise this.

Penny was as good as her word, the paper was redrafted and she sought, and won, our inclusion in the consultation process.

So, my next job is to attract the attention of the designated Council officer and arrange a briefing for SALC and its member councils. And time is short, the intention is to wrap up the review by the end of the year, in time for elections on new boundaries (as need be) next May.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Another promotion for the slightly hesitant organisational mountaineer…

I am, I freely admit, not a fan of the “strong leader” school of local government. As a liberal, I believe in sharing power, in encouraging others to act for themselves as far as possible rather than create dependency. And, as a lifelong bureaucrat, I don’t really see myself as a leader anyway. And, for that reason, I’ve tended to yield to others who want power more than I do.

There are, perhaps, opportunities that I have missed through reticence but, on the whole, I know my strengths and cleave to them like a hermit crab does to its shell, occasionally moving on to a different home when my time is up or I sense a loss of enthusiasm.

It’s been slightly different in the Parish and Town Council sector though. Whilst I didn’t seek to be Chair of Creeting St Peter Parish Council - it was rather thrust upon me by my colleagues - I’ve rather got into the idea of leading a team of equals. I’m hardly an enforcer, bending my colleagues to my will, instead I seek to engage with them to enable them to steer those specific elements that attracted them to be a part of Council in the first place.

As everyone seemed happy enough, I rather allowed the situation to drift along, and I like to think that we’re pretty effective, all things considered.

My innate sense of curiosity led me into the wonderful world of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils (SALC), a means of bringing together Parish and Town councillors from across, in my case, Mid Suffolk South, to discuss shared concerns and solutions. And, whilst it was occasionally interesting and often useful, my engagement was limited to turning up.

Attendances are not huge, however, and I somewhat unexpectedly found myself as the only person in the room even willing to countenance the idea of being Vice Chair of the Branch. Odd, really, because Vice Chair is usually a pretty responsibility-free job - you’re at best a spare in case of emergency. But it did grant me a seat on the SALC Board, which I hadn’t known at the time. That in turn led to becoming Suffolk’s representative on the National Assembly of the English representative body, the National Association of Local Councils.

And then, the “emergency” happened, as the Mid Suffolk South Chair resigned - I know not why. So, when the Branch met to elect a new Chair, there were only three eligible people to fill the vacancy. And the other two didn’t want it. That makes me the Branch Chair, I guess…

Just in time for Mid Suffolk District Council to make an announcement…

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Creeting St Peter - replacing the streetlights

One of the toughest elements of being a very small Parish Council is how you fund capital projects. Now, admittedly, we’re not likely to have huge ones, but with a budget of around £6,000 per annum, much of which is committed to day to day running costs, anything much above £500 needs some thought and, preferably, some anticipation.

When I returned to duty as a Parish councillor in 2016, it dawned on me that, in order to deal with these sorts of things going forward, we’d need a capital reserve, and to make regular contributions towards it. I did persuade my colleagues that this was a good thing but the key questions were “how much?” and “over what period?”. That was made more challenging by a lack of data.

We only really have two key infrastructure items - our village play area and our ten ageing street lights. There is a community lottery which is intended to renew or extend assets that residents may want, but the streetlights shouldn’t really be funded like that.

My logic was based on an estimated cost for each new streetlight of approximately £1,000, or £10,000 in total. They are expected to last for twenty-five years and so I calculated that £400 per annum was a decent ballpark estimate. Yes, it didn’t allow for inflation, and starting from scratch means that we were very much behind the curve, but it was a start.

We’re now in the third year, but there has been some good news. The County Council are replacing 43,000 of their own streetlights with new, energy efficient LED ones, and have offered Parish Councils the opportunity to tag along, thus benefiting from the economies of scale that such a big purchase offers. Indeed, it’s such a good deal that the cost to us is not £10,000 but £4,300, a huge reduction and a much easier sum to find.

I’m recommending to Parish Council that we take up the offer, as it will reduce our energy costs, provide more reliable lighting and contribute to our share of cutting emissions. We can cover 30% of the cost from our capital reserve, and find the rest from a combination of sources - County and District Councillor locality budgets, community funds and our own reserves. And, as we still don’t have a Parish Clerk, there’s an extra £1,000 already in our revenue budget to chip in as necessary.

And, going forward, I can trim the annual contribution to our capital reserve from £400 per annum to, say, £250, which would still give us quite some leeway in terms of funding new streetlights in 2047…