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Comment: We Must Know What Went Wrong With This Parish Council

Published on: 17 Feb, 2021
Updated on: 19 Feb, 2021

By Martin Giles

The turbulent times of a dispute-torn parish council seem an ugly anachronism in the historic village of Normandy, once home to the illustrious 18th-century reformer William Cobbett, soldier turned journalist who fought the good fight for democracy as a Member of Parliament.

What would William Cobbett have made of the shenanigans which now appear to have led to the collapse of his old home’s parish council?

I too am a former soldier turned journalist who strongly believes in democracy and fair play and I dare put an inadequate toe in the great man’s footsteps.

Cobbett’s lifelong quest for more democracy, his support for the Reform Act, and his hatred of Rotten Boroughs leads me to conclude he would be deeply disappointed that those rights, so dearly bought and defended over centuries, were being so carelessly ignored.

To dismiss this council’s behaviour as a trivial spat, unimportant and boring, would be easy, but it would be wrong.

Parish councils are at the foundation of our democratic system. The level of amenity and the maintenance of local facilities we all use from time to time, is often down to them. Mostly non-party-political, we still vote for parish councillors and, in the view of voters, can still remove those who don’t measure up.

Or can we? Can you remember voting for a parish councillor? Almost certainly not. Only three of Guildford’s 23 parish councils had contested elections in 2019. Normandy was not one of them.

The notice of vacancy posted following councillor resignations at Normandy

In truth, parish councillors are largely self-selecting. And when a vacancy occurs between elections most often it is filled not with someone voted for by electors but by someone chosen by the existing councillors because voters have shown little interest.

We are more likely to know the details of issues facing the national government or even the US Senate than we are of the budgetary choices of our parish council.

Luckily, we can normally get away with it. Many parish councillors are good, community-minded people who get on with the unglamorous time-consuming work, expecting and receiving little reward.

Then there is the usual contingent of less committed councillors, along for the ride and unfortunately, on occasion, there are those for whom the little bit of power goes to their head. Alas, that power can be abused.

Whenever that is observed others need to speak out. They need to be honest and brave, all bullies flourish on silence. And councillors need to be accountable.

Part of the duty of a journalist is to hold power to account, not for themselves but for their readers. When councillors, at any level, are asked straightforward questions by their local press, to say “No comment” is not good enough.

What state of affairs have we got to when men refuse to even say if they are councillors? Who do they think they are?

Those who have resigned in Normandy are even now reluctant to give their reasons. Why? Are they still afraid? Of what?

Perhaps the hint of underlying causes may lie in serious concerns reported about the 2020 audit. Normandy residents pay the highest council tax in the borough, set by the parish council. They are surely entitled to know what has or has not been done with their money.

Whatever the reasons, there needs to be an investigation, and the record of what has happened must be made public. Everyone should know what went wrong so that can be put right. Normal council duties need to be put back on track quickly and faith restored.

The people of Normandy need to take more interest in their council, those capable and who care about their community should consider standing, there should be a healthy contested election with some intelligent and good-natured debate.

Possibly then they can elect a new set of councillors who have the good of the village at heart, who treat each other, those they deal with and those they serve with proper decency and respect.

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