Parish and Town Clerks are the engines of local government. Councillors may often grab the headlines but it’s these officers who are ultimately responsible for ensuring that everything gets done properly. The role requires a formidable array of skills and knowledge including the ability to grapple with balance sheets, decipher government regulations, draft communications strategies and resolve procedural dilemmas (perhaps all in the same day). Penny Post caught up with Marlborough Town Council’s recently appointed Clerk, Richard Spencer-Williams, to ask for some insights into this important and uniquely demanding job.
How long have you been Marlborough’s Town Clerk?
Since March 2021
What did you do before then?
I was Town Clerk at Malmesbury for two years. Prior to that I was involved in delivering and managing community-based youth services for local authorities in Wiltshire and across the southern counties.
How would you describe what a Town Clerk does?
The Town Clerk is the Chief Executive of a local council – the ‘proper officer’ who is there to ensure the council runs as it should and legally. It is also the overall operational manager for all the council’s services. The Clerk holds the relationship and balance between councillors’ expectations and the resources available. The role involves liaising with residents and partner organisations, managing staff, writing reports, researching new services, issuing advice to the council, creating policy, dealing with complaints…it’s a long and varied list. there is also a civic side to the role which involves ensuring the council runs good events such as Remembrance Sunday and Mayor Making.
What qualifications do you need for the role?
You need a Certificate in Local Council Administration for starters.
And what personal qualities and experience do you need?
Quite a few! Patience, diplomacy, honesty, resilience and good communication and people skills are probably the most important. You also need experience of financial and budgetary matters and of managing services and events. Each council setting has different weightings on what it demands. The main thing is the ability to problem-solve and manage complex situations. The ability to research and understand law is also key – the municipal world is governed by a good many regulations and they have a habit of changing when you least expect them to.
How well do you think local councils at all levels have reacted to the pandemic?
Certainly in the area I know, brilliantly. I suspect this would apply pretty much everywhere in the country. They were all on the front line and kept going supporting and co-ordinating volunteer responses. Much of their work (as it so often is) was unseen.
If there was one change you could make to and national regulations relating under which town councils have to operate, what would it be?
The requirement to get three quotes to do any work. It’s always hard to get contractors to do this because they know their time spent preparing these has only a 33% chance of securing a contract. It also uses up a lot of council time chasing quotes and ensuring they’re comparable. This said, I understand why the requirement is there.
There’s been a lot of debate about the wisdom or otherwise of the government insisting that council meetings at which decisions are taken had to revert to in-person events after 7 May 2021. What’s your feeling about this; and how has Marlborough TC adapted to this change?
Virtual meetings worked well and it would be useful to have this form of meeting remain as an option. Whilst we have to meet in-person now and legally have to allow public access, we are also required to exercise local judgment and risk-assess the meetings, which limits the number of people who can participate. As the practical arrangements need to be Covid-safe, if everyone is to be clearly heard one needs a building with excellent acoustics or a high-class sound system – many councils have neither. We are looking at microphone systems but this probably presents a significant cost to the council.
What role will Marlborough TC have in helping the recovery from the pandemic?
I think it need to facilitate the right conversations between partners locally and the local authority. It also has a number of tenants which it manages in a supportive way. I’d particularly like to find ways to assist young people if the opportunities arose, but this would need funding led by national government. I think there could and should be more proactive employment schemes intuited, as there were in the 1980s, to combat unemployment.
That issue aside, what do you think is the biggest challenge that Marlborough TC is likely to face over the next few years?
Increased expectation on it to deliver services devolved from Wiltshire Council and ensuring young people’s needs are responded to.
Imagine for a moment that I’m Sue Lawley and this is Desert Island Discs. What would be your one, must-have piece of music?
I’m Free by the Soup Dragons.
Any the book?
The SAS Guide to Survival.
That seems like a very practical choice (and one that probably ought to be on the island along with Shakespeare and the Bible). And the luxury object?
Forgive my ignorance: what is that?
A Gurkha knife.
I’m certainly not going to argue with you about that…