Saturday, 14 June 2014

Democracy and the parish council

In general, democracy in Felsham is healthy and the Parish Council functions efficiently.  However, there are several caveats.

1.  Parish Meetings vs. Parish Councils
I recently attended the Gedding Parish Meeting and was very impressed by the way the meeting was conducted and by the large number of parishioners that attended.  The following evening, the Felsham Annual Parish Meeting was relatively poorly attended and the 'audience' consisted mostly of councillors and reportees of village bodies.  It went through my mind that the institution of a parish meeting is perhaps more democratic than a Parish Council with elected councillors.  Arguable and debatable?

Interestingly, and this is not generally well-known, a parish meeting can be called at any time if a particular issue needs to be discussed to which the whole village can be invited and participate fully just like the Gedding Meeting.  I researched this and it appears that the following is the correct procedure:
Parish meeting
A parish meeting may be convened by the chairman of the parish council or any two parish councillors, or in a parish council without a parish council by the chairman of the parish meeting or by any representative of the parish upon the district council, or in either case by six electors for the area for which it is to be held (Local Government Act 1972, Sch 12, para 15(1)(d).  The parish council may also convene it but is under no obligation to do so unless its consent is required before the parish council does certain acts.'
 So, six parishioners can call a meeting.  Meetings cannot begin before 6pm and notices specifying the time and place and business of an intended meeting and signed by the conveners must be affixed in some conspicuous place or places in the parish and in addition, the conveners may give such publicity to the meeting as seems desirable.
 Ordinarily the minimum notice required is 7 days, but if any of the business relates to the establishment or dissolution of a parish council, or to the grouping of a parish with another parish it is 14 days.

2.  Rules of debate and STANDING ORDERS
When I was first elected to the Parish Council three years ago, I was amazed how informal the meetings were.  In fact there was little regard for Standing Orders and accepted rules of debate. Nobody appeared to address their remarks through the Chairperson and sometimes discussion seemed aimless and even farcial.  I wondered whether I had drifted into a rehearsal for a FAGENDS pantomime.  At a recent meeting I proposed that "the council proceed to the next business on the agenda".  Nobody seemed to know what I meant, even though it is part of the approved Standing Orders.  It is rather like having a school rule that says - DO NOT WALK ON THE GRASS - where the children a. do not know the verb 'to walk' and b. do not know what 'grass' is.  All seriously embarrassing.

3.  Elections and co-options
Sometimes there is a vacancy for a councillor.  Accepted practice in Felsham is to ask for volunteers to come forward, provide CVs etc, and then an election by 'in situ' councillors takes place.  There are problems here and one very succinct exposition was recently aired on the CPALC site:

What do you think?