Jackie Weaver: How parish councils can learn from Handforth zoom furore and help level up Britain
But you may have more power than you think. In a third of England, you could turn to a body with local powers and democratic legitimacy to turn your place around: the town or parish council.
These civil bodies, staffed by thousands of volunteer councillors and professional clerks, are helping communities to take back control of their communities.
We need more of them, and we need them to do more. Parish and town councils focus on the things that matter most to communities. They might organise a litter pick, raise funds to renovate a town hall or take on the provision of a local bus service or community shop.
Their responsibilities are as diverse as the needs of the communities they serve. And the best thing about these councils is that they genuinely know what their place needs: they are inherently local, made up of people who live and work locally.
But because they are small, they are often overlooked as engines of positive social change. People often underestimate the power that they can have, either by being part of the council or engaging with the council.
And as I know first hand, when councils do become a talking point, it is not always for the best of reasons. The Zoom meeting of the Handforth Parish Council that I presided over may have become a social media sensation, but it confirmed many people’s impression of local politics as argumentative, parochial and frustrating.
But good news rarely makes the papers.
There was no nationwide attention, for example, when Farnham Town Council in Surrey created a safeguarding structure and 500-strong volunteer network during the pandemic to help nearly 2,000 vulnerable people to gather supplies or simply stay connected.
Or when Tollerton Parish Council in Nottinghamshire, working in partnership with local businesses, helped to build, decorate and design local spaces – including the community-owned pub and specialist retailers – for people to come together and thrive.
In neither of these cases did the council act alone. These councils were only able to accomplish so much because, firstly, as members of the community, they knew what was needed and how it could be done and, secondly, they had the backing of the communities they represent.
But the good work done by councils up and down the country should not be an excuse to rest on our laurels.
There is much that could be done to spread town and parish councils to the places that do not have them and to give local people even more control over their own destiny.
A good start, as recently set out by the think tank Onward, would be reforming the responsibilities and resources available to town and parish councils.
When local ambition is held back by insufficient powers, it is incredibly frustrating.
Why should a community not have the authority to take charge of its neighbourhood?
And at the same time, why not give local town and parish councils more resources to make changes themselves, under their own steam, rather than constantly having to look towards central government for additional funds?
Finally, because some councillors will, on occasion, need to not only read the standing orders but understand them, we should take steps to ensure that there is proper training for clerks and greater support for councils, so that they can make more effective use of their powers and better represent the communities they serve.
Such training is available to district and county councillors. We should extend support down to communities as well.
The first tier of local government has too often been forgotten in successive government’s devolution reforms. It is time Ministers enrolled parish and town councils in their efforts to level up.
Jackie Weaver is chair of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils.
She came to national prominence earlier this year when she chaired a now infamous meeting of Handforth Parish Council in Cheshire that went viral on social media.
It made a star of stand-in clerk Jackie Weaver as the chairman Brian Tolver told her she had “no authority here” to preside over the meeting.
However the council has now been renamed Handforth Town Council because councillors wanted to “move away from the toxic side of Handforth”. Since the infamous meeting, three councillors, including the former chairman Mr Tolver, have left.
Meanwhile Weaver has become a minor celebrity and written a book entitled You Do Have the Authority Here!: What Would Jackie Weaver Do?
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