If we pretend for a moment that a snap general election hasn’t been called this week…Cratus would be diligently covering the journey of the Parish Council Governance (Principles of Public Life) Bill 2016-17 following the Ten Minute Rule which brought this Private Member’s Bill before the House on Tuesday 18 April. But as we all know; a week is a long time in politics.
Despite the momentary pause as we watched Prime Minister May take to the lectern outside Downing Street on Tuesday morning, Eastleigh MP Mims Davies (Conservative) nonetheless rose to her feet in the House of Commons later that afternoon and did what many Westminster politicians seem to do best, speak out on matters of local government governance. To be fair to the bill’s sponsor, Mims Davies has twice served as a parish councillor and once as a district councillor so was, some would argue, a credible speaker for this particular Ten Minute Rule motion.
And in a day full of political surprises, this bill was introduced to the House without any opposing speech. There were a mere 4 MPs on government benches and another 12 or so on the green seats of the opposition. Many MPs were no doubt mingling on the fringes of the College Green in a bid to secure some air time.
Parish councils are the lowest tier of our democratic process. Because their activities are often at grassroot level and led by local residents, parish and community councils can react most quickly to events on the ground in their communities. That said, the idea of parish councils has been known to conjure images of a Vicar of Dibley-like group of retired residents lacking any sort of dynamism or decision-making capabilities. But don’t be fooled. Parish councils have power. They are for example an official consultee on planning applications. Mims Davies worked on her own community’s Neighbourhood Plan as a parish councillor, for example.
There are 9000 parish councils across England served by some 80,000 councillors. Many take their seats through elections or co-options while some appointed unopposed. Mims Davies sought to demonstrate, what she considered her fundamental point that when more power is devolved down to local communities, it should be governed in a good way. In a way that Westminster sees fit. A little bit pot and kettle perhaps?
In the view of the Eastleigh MP, the Nolan Principles of selflessness, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership and integrity should be at the heart of parish council governance. And of course, in the majority of said 9000 councils, these principles of public life do run throughout.
Parish councils in London were abolished in 1963, when the London County Council was replaced with the Greater London Council. In Scotland, community councils cover both urban and rural areas. Some English parish councils have been in operation for hundreds of years. There is a growth in parish councils occurring across the country in response to increasing support for decision-making at a local level. More urban parish councils are also forming. In 2014, following the establishment of Queen’s Park Community Council, the first parish council in London for 80 years, groups in Hackney, Barking and Holborn began to look at parish councils as a viable option for their communities.
So what seems to be the issue? To be considered truly representative, Mims Davies has called for a restriction on horizontal multi-hatting in parish councils. This is the practise of being a parish councillor in more than one parish. Vertical multi-hatting, where an individual sits on both a parish and district council, is not currently frowned upon.
In addition to thinly veiled hypocrisy from the Westminster benches, Davies, through this bill, also seeks to introduce new levels of bureaucracy heading in quite the opposite direction of devolution. These include expanding the remit of the Local Government Ombudsmen, the introduction of Standard Boards and/or a review of the Code of Conduct. Mims Davies also wants candidates to be DBS checked as the first step to becoming nominated for election and their activities and interactions should be tracked and logged while carrying out their duties. Should these oversight processes of parish councils be implemented to this degree it could lead one to think that local powers are being bureaucratically stifled by yet more centralised mechanisms.
Political manoeuvring and place-holding occurs throughout all branches of our democratic processes. Of the 80,000 councillors in the network of parish councils, it must be an exceptionally small number who are using their status to access community buildings and school places, such is the example of bad behaviour Mims Davies uses. There is no argument against efforts to protect communities from predatory councillors. Checks and balances are necessary. But balance is the real key and it must be struck to ensure the talented and diverse individuals Mims Davies highlighted are not discouraged by a heavily bureaucratic process or the time-consuming nature of something which should be quite simple; DBS checks.
Mims Davies’ intentions are honest and come from a place of experience but the adult-child relationship between central and local government was clear in the MP’s understanding of the case she presented to the House. To build meaningful and trusted relationships, local governance must be independent of Westminster-born bureaucracy and the centralised nature of the Parish Council Governance Bill as it currently stands.
While the country’s attention was elsewhere, this week’s Ten Minute Rule motion went unopposed and is therefore deemed to have had its first reading and now progresses to a second reading on Friday 12 May. Given that Parliament will now dissolve on 3 May, local government issues are arguably already being overshadowed by a centralised political agenda.