Rutland and Stamford: A ‘democracy desert’
Rutland and South Kesteven is something of a ‘democracy desert.’
Barely a handful of their town and parish councils have contested elections last Thursday.(May 2)
The vast majority had their vacancies filled without a fight and many even have spaces left over.
It all means that the councils will ask for volunteers to come forward, a process known as co-option.
Stamford Town Council has just issued such an appeal.
In 2015, just a fifth of parish councils nationally contested their vacancies.
Last month, the Electoral Reform Society warned much of England is at risk of becoming "democracy deserts".
Representation is guaranteed due to a lack of competition, which means councillors lacked a ‘proper mandate’ from the people they serve.
Chief executive Darren Hughes added:“This lack of democratic competition is bad for scrutiny, bad for local services and bad for democracy.”
Nonetheless, organisations representing parish and town councils stress the importance of such councils, branding them the first tier of local government and closest to the communities they serve.
Katrina Evans is the chief executive of the Lincolnshire Association of Local Councils.
She cites how parish or town councils provide services such as allotments, they administer burials, they own green space and play areas, and operate village halls and community centres.
Such is their local nature, that people trust these councils more than any other, helped by members being part of the communities they serve.
However, after next week, many parishes will not have enough members to meet legally, forcing them to seek or co-opt unelected volunteers.
Katrina wonders if people are being deterred from standing due to the government’s handling of Brexit fuelling a disillusionment with the political process, or perhaps as parish councils take over district council responsibilities, such as grass cutting, the extra time involved in being a councillor is also a disincentive.
Furthermore, the work is unpaid and with councils not having rules to suspend or punish unruly members, this may also deter people from becoming involved.
Katrina advises councils to do more to promote their works, saying a good website also helps, especially if it makes it clear which services are the responsible of the parish, district or county councils.
She also calls for transparency from councils, with them encouraging people to attend meetings and get involved with committees. Non-councillors can be involved with committees and this can lead to people becoming more involved.
Councils should also set up youth councils with local high schools/ colleges. Working with neighbouring councils on a common issue is another solution.
All the same, such is the variety and diversity of such councils in Lincolnshire, she adds there is no easy answer as much may be down to local factors outside anyone’s control.
Coun Guy Jackson, chairman of the Leicestershire and Rutland Association of Local Councils, agrees.
He accepts people have less free time nowadays and councillors need to have an interest in serving the community.
But he says parishes have extensive powers and if a community has a need for something, they can raise the money and provide it.
Challenges, frustrations and meeting the queen
Tony Story and Bob Sandall are both former mayors of Stamford and they have just stood down as town councillors.
Tony admits town councillors have much work to do and says it is a shame people seem to have less and less spare time nowadays.
Many councillors have their own business. But the now 82-year-old had already retired when he became a Stamford town councillor.
He said of his council involvement: “I loved it, I enjoyed it, it was challenging.”
“You have to get to know how local government works. It’s slow, it grinds away slowly but otherwise it’s good.You can do as much or as little as you want.”
Stamford Town Council has a budget of £500,000 and it encourages income from the buildings it owns, which also gives its members more to do.
Tony added: “I was very lucky. I was mayor last year. It was a most enjoyable year.”
He looks back at achievements such as seating in Red Lion Square, the refurbishment of the town hall, with it now hosting artefacts from the former town museum.
Bob Sandall also used to be mayor, and though taking time off from his BJ’s Printing & Co business cost him money, he was proud to serve Stamford.
He said: “When I was at school, I don’t think any of my teachers felt I would become mayor. I met the Queen. You cannot beat that.”
Civic duties also meant the 76-year-old made many new friends.
However, Bob warns of frustrations as some councillors are not inclined to do much work, leaving it “all in the hands of the same 3-4 people.”
The unsung heroes
Perhaps the unsung heroes behind many parish and town councils are their clerks.
With many clerks staying longer than their elected members, they know the procedures and challenges inside out and might sometimes be said to be the ones actually running the show.
Ian Sismey is the clerk of Bourne Town Council, which has just one contested fight.
Ian highlights how his town council has taken on more responsibilities as government policies of ‘localism’ seek to decentralise power.
In Bourne’s case it meant the public toilets being taken on from the district council and the cutting of grass verges and roundabouts from Lincolnshire County Council.
Being the closest of the councils to the people helped Bourne Town Council prevented the county council from selling the old town hall. The town council and its neighbourhood plan also forced South Kesteven District Council to rethink its Local Plan to 2016 when an initial draft “included development land that infuriated the Bourne public.”
Ian added: “Local parish and town councils have an enormous potential for helping to create vibrant communities, where individuals can get involved in shaping the places they live in.”
Other parish clerks make similar comments about their councils.
Langtoft Parish Council has four of 11 seats unfilled.
Parish clerk Julian Tatum notes how his council cares for village playing fields and grits some roads. It also organises an annual litterpick and it will soon take over qa 20-acre former quarry, which will be a nature reserve.
He says councillors get a feeling of doing something for the village and if an issue needs raising, people will come to the parish council and raise their voices.
A parish magazine also raise awareness of what the council does.
Tony Dolby of Little Casterton Parish Council, which has three vacancies, agrees many people do not know what his council does. But details are put on a noticeboard and such information will also go on its new website.
Helen Duckering, parish clerk at Barleythorpe, near Oakham, reports a contested election, which she credits on a settlement of 80 per cent new builds. An influx of new people has driven social engagement and lots of issues all specific to Barleythorpe.
She added: “The councillors are pleased to see a certain amount of cohesion marrying the old and the new. They have worked hand in hand and it's paying off.”