The New Normal for Parish and Town Councils

One of the many striking things about Covid-19 has been the extent to which the response has been largely organised from the bottom up. Parish and town councils have been much involved in this. They have helped co-ordinate volunteer groups, make premises available for food banks, liaise with local food shops and pharmacies and ensure that messages and information are conveyed from – and, as importantly, to – the district councils. The gradual process of downward devolution as a result of the financial cuts has already increased their workload and responsibility: Covid-19 has increased this further, though hopefully most of these roles will be only temporary. What should survive, however, is the increased connection with the community that the emergency has engendered. A parish or town council which has acquitted itself well during the crisis – and it seems that most have – will be better able to command the support of the population in the future. For the larger town councils, this will be complicated by their political composition but this fortunately doesn’t apply to the majority of parishes in the area.

Covid-19 has also taught us that amount of time it takes to organise a volunteer group or similar response is directly proportionate to how locally the decisions about it are taken. Volunteer groups were set up in West Berkshire within days; it took a few weeks for West Berkshire to get The Hub fully operational and issue advice to parishes; while some decisions which have had to come from London on matters ranging from the supply of PPE equipment to regulations relating to the holding of council meetings are, as of 23 April 2020, still awaited. Obviously all decisions need to be taken at the appropriate level; but regulations become progressively more blunt instruments as the decision-making gets more remote from the area where it’s to be implemented. It’s been refreshing that, despite the mania for centralisation and control that both national governments and district councils have as their default, no attempt seems to have been made to impose any particular structure on local groups. Indeed, some matters that would normally be insisted on, such as police checks, have been deferred, this being rightly regarded as less of a risk that having the whole process jammed up in red tape.

These points are worth bearing in mind because we must assume that another emergency, virus-related or otherwise, can at any point descend on us. Covid-19 has proved both the fragility and the resistance of the societal structure, in the UK at least. How can parish councils, proved to be a useful first line of defence, prepare?

All parishes have, or should have, an emergency plan and this will in most cases need updating. One obvious extra aspect that might not currently exist is a list of potential volunteers. Hungerford Town Council has already started doing this (few communities know better than Hungerford that tragedy can come without warning). These might be needed, perhaps at short notice, to help with anything from a flood or a train crash to a further global pandemic.

Councils also need to meet regularly and conduct their business in a timely and orderly way. These are governed by national regulations which cover matters such as voting procedures, quorums, public signature of key documents and the re-appointment of officers. These were all framed in some cases decades before the possibility of virtual meetings existed and so make no reference to them. In a matter of weeks – a very short period in the almost geological timescale at which governmental decision-making typically operates – new regulations have been issued.

However, before new procedures are adopted by parish councils, they generally await advice from their member organisations, the National Association of Local Councils and its Berkshire subsidiary (NALC and BALC). This can’t be done overnight and, once issued, this advice may (and one recent case, has) needed to be retracted. Some issues are now clearer but others are not. The idea of voting via Zoom or whatever has now been approved; but as of 22 April it was still uncertain if the process of appointments of Mayors and chairs of the finance committees, which traditionally require the immediate signature of those involved, can be done remotely and, if it can’t, for how long the matter can be deferred (it’s since been established that the changes of personnel can be left until at least May 2021, which seems sensible: this is certainly no time to be learning the ropes in a new role.)

All this may seem unimportant in the current circumstances. Actually, it isn’t. For both democratic and financial purposes, its important that local councils follow the regulations. Once these start being ignored, even with very good reasons, it becomes easier for others to be, perhaps for slightly less honest ones. Scrutiny and enforcement becomes next to impossible. The only solution is to change the regulations: but, as mentioned above, this can take time.

I also suspect most parish councils and officers do not want the stress of having to make unilateral decisions about whether to break the law, something for which they could technically be personally surcharged for. There’s also the risk that any decision taken improperly could be the subject of a legal challenge later. This is particularly the case with planning matters. At the time of writing it’s still unclear if issues that need to come before a committee can proceed virtually: the meeting itself can take place virtually but a site visit would pose serious problems. Clarity is urgently needed on this point as well so everyone can understand to what extent the system has been paused.

For these reasons, councils like Hungerford are therefore waiting to see what they can and can’t do before making announcements and confirming agendas. This may look like inaction. In fact it’s prudence.

Looking further ahead, there’s the possibility that some councillors will find virtual meetings convenient and wish to continue them. This may be forced upon them as if any members are shielded (ie particularly vulnerable) they would not be able to participate in person. It’s hard to see how a meeting can have some members attending in person and some not. It takes time to adapt to the new dynamics of holding meetings but already some advantages are emerging. There  will be an A-V record of the meeting, useful for minute-taking and for journalistic scrutiny. The new technology can also help deal with people speaking out of turn by the chairperson’s use of the mute controls. They might be the better for it, once we’ve all got used to the technology.

There remains the possibility of a democratic deficit as anyone not online being excluded. Hungerford’s Mayor, Helen Simpson stressed on 21 April that she was aware of this problem and reminded people that they could still submit written questions on the day which could then be read out. It’s also likely that the net public attendance will increase as more people might tune in if they didn’t want to travel, particularly if (as if often the case) there was only one item that interested them.

All in all, town and parish councils seem likely to be very different kinds of organisations from the ones many of the members joined a few years ago. Digital conferencing and helping to organise emergency relief is not what most would have signed up for but it’s the hand they have recently been dealt.

Finally, there’s the small matter of money. A thorough review of the way all local government is funded has, like so many other things, been derailed by Brexit, a series of general elections and Covid-19. When normality, or what the new version of it proves to be, returns, it’s to be hoped that some more rational way of funding it will be arrived at rather than the lop-sided reliance on business rates. The lowest tiered councils are certainly doing more, and more might be expected of them in the future. A satisfactory response to any future challenges may largely depend on them. Most have acquitted themselves excellently in the last month. To be fair, West Berkshire Council has done pretty well too, though communication remains at times less effective than it might be.

West Berkshire Council’s Leader Lynne Doherty told Penny Post on 23 April that she was ‘working directly with the LGA (Local Government Association)’ on the funding matter. We wish her all the best with that. If Covid-19 has taught us anything it’s that a number of key organisations, mainly the NHS, have been under-resourced. Let’s make sure that all organisations which will deal with an emergency, including our local councils at all levels, are properly funded before the balloon goes up next time.

Brian Quinn

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Covering: Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage,   Lambourn, Newbury, Thatcham & Theale