Being a parish councillor is an often invisible and often thankless job: being the chair perhaps even more so. To do the latter job even for a year or so would be well beyond my powers or organisation, management and patience, so hats off to Dave Shirt who has recently stepped down after a highly impressive 14 years in the Aldermaston hot seat. This seemed like a good opportunity to ask him to explain what kind of things the role involves and to reflect on some of the main issues with which he has had to grapple. Enough from me – Dave, the floor is yours…
Please describe the Parish of Aldermaston
Aldermaston is a rural parish of average size (900 registered voters). The main centre of population is Aldermaston Village. There are two smaller centres, Aldermaston Wharf (most of which lies in other Parishes) and Falcon Fields/Kestrels Mead (right on the Hampshire border). We also have two mobile-home sites, Ravenswing and Pinelands, and a Travellers site. The remainder of our parishioners live in isolated properties in the countryside.
There is a lot of history associated with the parish and much of Aldermaston Village is within a Conservation Area with many listed properties. We are unusual in that (i) although in West Berkshire, we have a lengthy border with Hampshire and (ii) the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) lies entirely within the parish
What does a Parish Council do?
Parish Councils are the lowest rung of local government. Their principal role is to reflect the views of their parishioners up to the next highest tier of local government, the district council. We also undertake local obligations such as maintenance of public spaces. To fulfil these functions we raise a local tax (the ‘precept’). Aldermaston Parish has a relatively low precept. We meet monthly as a Parish Council
What does the Parish Chair do?
The simple answer is that they chair meetings of the parish council. However, that hides a host of other items. Together with the Parish Clerk, they tend to be the prime point of contact with other parishioners. As people mainly contact a council when they have something to complain about – whether or not it’s a matter the council can control – thisrequires considerable tact in responding to. Other tasks include liaising with the next higher authority (in our case West Berkshire Council, WBC), meeting with the Chairs of other parish councils, particularly those which are also in our West Berkshire Council ward, filling vacancies on the Council, including the Clerk (an increasingly important element) and keeping on top of communications and consultations. I think it would be a difficult task if one were still in full-time employment
What are the main qualities do you think are needed for this role?
Respect and diplomacy. You are the ambassador for the parish, and this should not be forgotten. You also need to be able to manage the Parish Council – this requires respect, good decision making – and brevity.
You held that post at Aldermaston for 14 years: might this be some kind of record?
I’ve no idea, but I doubt it. Aldermaston Parish Council was formed over 120 years ago (we have the minutes of the first meeting, held on 3 January 1895) and was chaired by the Lord of the Manor: such people tended to stay in post for quite a long time…
Aside from this, what are the main jobs that you’ve had (or still do have)?
I have been retired for over 15 years. Before that I had a most enjoyable job as a chartered engineer, planning and operating subsea telephone cables. This involved global travel and being a member of a small, select group of like-minded individuals world-wide. I was a member of Aldermaston Parish Council (APC) for a considerable time before I retired but was only elevated to Chairman after I had retired – I suppose my colleagues thought that I had then lost my main excuse.
Parish and town councils have to work closely with their parent authority, West Berkshire Council in your case. What are the main areas of friction this creates?
It would be fair to say we have had numerous run-ins with WBC (I don’t think APC is unusual in this respect). Probably the main area of difficulty has been planning enforcement. It seems strange that WBC has statutory obligations with regard to planning applications but none with planning enforcement, which inevitably becomes the poor relation.
We have also had difficulties with WBC’s school transport policy, which has led to parishioners being charged for getting their children to Willink school because there is a closer secondary school – in Hampshire! That said, I am sympathetic to the budgetary constraints faced by WBC.
And what are the areas in which you’ve found you’re best able to co-operate?
It is difficult to judge, having only had involvement with WBC and no other district councils. I find them easy to contact, and our local ward member attends most of our APC meetings. A downside of WBC is that it is very political. One of the merits of APC is that it is non-political and that our work is aimed at the benefit of the parish as a whole.
Aldermaston borders on another local authority, Basingstoke and Deane. Does this cause any confusions or problems?
Not really. We occasionally liaise with Tadley Town Council on items of common interest, but rarely with Basingstoke and Deane. The current planning appeal by Lidl for a new store – located in West Berks but principally serving North Hampshire – is being watched with interest!
How well do you think local councils at all levels have reacted to the pandemic?
It is difficult to judge. Our local Rector, who is also a member of our Parish Council, readily agreed to set up a local support group last year but has reported that the number of people offering assistance greatly exceeded the number of people requesting it. All in all, our Parish has tended to follow government guidelines and has not been too affected. Our ward member sits on the WBC Local Outbreak Engagement Board, but we have received little feedback. Referring back to the previous question, several of our parishioners are registered with a GP surgery in Hampshire, which leads me to question the accuracy of some of the West Berks statistics
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 Aldermaston PC adapted to this change?
My personal view is that this is a government intervention that we did not need. I believe remote meetings have been well received and add the additional benefit of greater accessibility. Our remote meetings were recorded and put on our website, which has kept us on our toes! APC has held one further remote meeting after 7 May, but our Parish Clerk advised us to not to ratify our decisions (principally financial) till we met in person in June. We rarely get more than one or two members of the general public attend our meetings. I note, however, the hearing of the Lidl appeal in July will be held remotely: it also won’t be recorded (we’ve asked but haven’t been told why this is).
That issue aside, what do you think is the biggest challenge that Aldermaston PC, and other similar parishes, are likely to face over the next few years?
Specifically to Aldermaston, I feel there are two main challenges – AWE and the A340.
Our parish completely surrounds the Atomic Weapons Establishment. Whilst we find them good neighbours, the planning restrictions associated with the Defined Emergency Planning Zone (DEPZ) means that housing in the parish is very constrained. However, there are no similar restrictions on industrial development and we find ourselves under constant threat of further industrial estates. Remarkably, the WBC Emergency Planning Team does not seem to know the number of employees within our parish during the working day – we estimate it to be at least six times the number of residents!
Partly as a consequence of the above, APC is concerned about the traffic levels (and in particular the HGV traffic) using the A340. WBC considers this as part of its Freight Route Network, though few improvements seem to have been made since it was classified as a ‘B’ road. As well as causing problems with the Lifting Bridge at the Wharf, we have major concerns with the adverse impact the traffic is having in the Village of Aldermaston. Many of the properties are historic, listed, and without proper foundations and are suffering damage from the constant noise and vibration. We believe a new north-south route is needed, possibly as part of the proposed expansion in north east Thatcham. APC has recently adopted a policy of objecting to any new planning application that would lead to more HGVs on the A340
Looking at parish councils in general, I believe a major issue will be participation. There is a big demand to receive but little demand to give. I recognise the demands of modern life on families, particularly those with young children, but if we are to be responsive, the general public must be prepared to give up more of their time for the common good.
Imagine for a moment that I’m Sue Lawley and this is Desert Island Discs. What would be piece of music that you wouldn’t want to be without?
Music plays very little role in my life.
Any the book?
My reading is limited to the Sunday and local papers and gardening magazines. I rarely read books.
And the luxury object?
I’m not into luxury!