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IS THE PC SYSTEM DYSFUNCTIONAL ?

+2 votes

As an individual with what I would call an “inquiring mind” I believe that Parish Councils as set up are dysfunctional and dare I say in some instances the word corrupt could be used. I genuinely believe my PC if it was subject to an Offsted report they would be in special measures.   The problem is that if you read the House Of Commons Briefing on PCS you will see that once elected Councillors have absolute power to raise and spend  money as they see fit.  There is no challenge facility and the auditor regime and conduct codes are toothless. As readers will know after many years of complaining I recently became a Parish Councillor. I knew I was going into the lions den as there was an inner sanctum of senior Councillors who ran the show along with a shall I say a complicit clerk .  Now when I arrived I asked the Locum  clerk for certain information  which she refused .  I pointed out to her after a few exchanges that she did not set policy but implemented policy as set by Councillors. After several such exchanges she took umbrage and wrote to me . Her E mail included the following extract 

 I am not employed by xxxxx. The organisation I am employed by would not be happy with this situation and would support my departure, they certainly would not place another locum in xxxx. They are very mindful of placing their locums in Councils with issues.

 

So its your decision, you respect my role and the work I am doing for xxxxx or I will move on and the reason will be because of Councillor xxxx. xxxxx the other locum, who has also received some emails from you has said she will leave if I do as she also has other opportunities.

 

Unfortunately, the Chairman and another senior Councillor wrote open E mails  to all Councillors supporting the Clerk . So I resigned .   Since my recent thread I have received many E mails from other Councillors affected by the same issue i.e. Clerks acting beyond their remit and facilitating inner circles or whatever you want to call them.   It is also apparent that the SLCC and NALC choose to turn a blind eye to the whole situation as it suits their purposes.

 The issue therefore is does there exist a need to do something about and if so how?

I must admit that right now I feel so angry that such situations can be allowed to happen. If anybody has any suggestions as to what can be done please share as I think things  are toxic at the moment (in some PCs). This feedback has somehow got to "go up the line"

by (2.8k points)
edited by

5 Answers

0 votes
Struggling to write anything particularly constructive.  I certainly recognise so much of what you have described and fear its far more common than many willing to admit.  I have seen far to many good people left completely broken by the "local council" experience.  I am sure some wonderful councils are out there (seen them with my own eyes) but seem so fragile.  A few leave and good clerk leave and they can quickly be plunged into chaos.  There seems little safeguards to stop a well run award winning council overnight change rapidly.  The bad ones are left to there own devices or worse actively encouraged to take bigger risks and make things even worse (SLCC, NALC and others)
by (4.8k points)
I did but couldn't understand the bit about JW being there legitimately . I thought with extraordinary meetings the chairman stayed but if  he didn't then the Councillors could appoint one from the attendees.  So was she acting as chair or clerk ? If as clerk was she entitled to act as such  by default or does she have to be invited ?  If chair again who appointed her
Locum Clerk.  The council had no clerk, so the local association provided a locum.
But isn't a locum formally hired ?? Or if offered , formally invited?

Surely the local association cannot step of its own accord
She could only lawfully attend as a member of the public unless appointed as a locum clerk. Even then she could only advise and guide, not perform as acting chair.
This was an extraordinary meeting called by two councillors. There was no clerk, so I presume the two councillors asked the local association to provide one.
0 votes
The only way forward is to get massive numbers of people to support a petition calling for more accountability via the  petition number 10 website. Such a petition needs to oblige Parish and Town Councils to hold a referendum for precept rises over 3% and to make them subject to investigation by the Local govt ombudsman. Most council tax payers are blissfully unaware that a parish precept is on their council tax bill and need to be educated too.
by (30.8k points)
When I worked I was responsible for producing progress reports on various projects for the board and I had this generic expression which encompassed all aspects of "control and monitoring". It seems to me that the Localism Act in many ways took  any "control and monitoring" away and left us with a free for all. In my experience  I have found several major issues which include
a) many PCs set up charities and appoint Councillor trustees who widely ignore the constitutions and do what the hell they like (often unlawfully) , Their colleagues wont act because conduct wise it falls to the Charity Commission who have no audit resource. Re-Appointments are routinely confirmed. This to me is  a major problem
b) Earmarked reserves are seen as a parking place for any underspend and often add up  under to 3/4/5 times the precept and lie untouched for years
c) Openness and transparency are often non existent.  A simple thing like posting background papers to communicate Agenda content is resisted
d) Now we have the issue of the clerks role and NALC
This board I am sure contains many good Councillors and Clerks but the whole PC process can be abused and there is I believe a need for a review of the system .  I like the idea of a petition but I think there is a need to get a bit organised to discuss how we go about it i.e. do we also write to our MPs , do we involve the press .  Now I don't profess to have all the skills manage such a campaign but I am prepared to kickstart things. In this respect could anyone interested in joining  please PM me. Meanwhile I would ask that members continue to comment on this thread which I would emphasise is not anti clerk or NALC but pro a better more relevant form of local government
I've said it before and I'll say it again, the ultimate control lies with the electorate. But they don't care until they have a negative experience personally. The parish precepts form a tiny part of the council tax bill, often less than a quid a week per person, so why should they care, until something goes wrong? There are a million uninsured drivers on our roads, but that only matters to me when it's my car they crash into. Otherwise, I turn a blind eye to their law-breaking and get on with my life.

Giving principal councils an enforcement role would make a difference, but the workload would be unimaginable (nine frivolous or misguided complaints for every valid one) and the cost unaffordable. In England alone, we have 307 district, borough, and unitary councils that would each need a couple of extra staff. Let's say, for argument's sake £100k including oncosts, etc. I'm not sure there's a spare £30million in the system right now, or that this would be the best use of it if there were.

One final thought. Where would they find these 614 people with the necessary knowledge and experience? Former chairmen of parish councils perhaps?!
Has anyone suggested giving Principal Authorities a Town/Parish Council Enforcement role?  I suggested they are subject to being investigated by the Local Govt Ombudsman.
Who will determine which issues are sufficiently serious to require the attention of the Local Government Ombudsman, or are you suggesting that this should relate solely to the precept? The Charity Commission has an all-encompassing regulatory function and receives thousands of complaints each year, most of which, as Openspaces will tell you, are consigned to the "not worth bothering with" pile. They don't have the resources to deal effectively with the hundreds of charities that fail to comply with charity law, so they focus all of their efforts on the biggest offenders.

On the issue of precept referendums, they are considered to inhibit proper financial management. One of my councils had too much money and no spending plans, so I dropped the precept to £1k, which I could not have done under a capped system. A 3% rise would have restricted the following year's increase to £30 without a referendum, which would have cost upwards of £2k! I needed the freedom to revert to a precept of over £10k when the time was right. Imagine a referendum with a single question seeking approval for a precept increase of more than 1000%
The same process would be followed as for a Principal Authority for raising complaints to the LGO.   The LGO do not as far as I am aware have a seriousness threshold and the LGO would determine whether or not they should raise a case.  The whole point of putting rises to a referendum is to provide democratic accountability.  Who considers precept referendums as inhibiting financial management?    NALC or PC's with over zealous spending ambitions?  Or Precept payers?   A Principal Authority Council tax increase cap does not mean the tax has to be set at that the cap limit, it can be set anywhere below it, and the same would apply to a precept cap.
The problem with referendums is that you inevitably end up asking the majority to vote to pay for something they don't need. Children's play equipment is great, if you have children. Services for the over 60's are really valuable, if you're over 60. Installing lighting on an unlit road is illuminating, if you happen to live on that road. If we are to provide any new amenities or services, we need the flexibility to increase the precept to find the cash. We have no other source of funds. An increase of over 100% can be the right thing to do as long as the Council is acting responsibly in its financial administration.
One could say that if a principal authority has to face the precept problem why should Town and Parish councils not be subject to them also? A precept referendum ballot paper would not outline the spending aspirations or views of a parish council, it would be down to the third tier authority to really put some effort in and communicate and engage with their partitioners and sell the rise to them. If they can't persuade them, then they would have to accept they weren't justifiable in the eyes of their partitioners and take that on the chin and perhaps accept they don't know best, with the option of looking for other funding sources. Accordingly a parish council precept rise might not be seen as a problem but making a parish council more accountable. Some parish councils waste a lot of money because neither the clerk nor the members have the appropriate knowledge to make informed decisions.
One issue I tried a few years ago was participatory budgeting. This involved  a village committee having the capacity to review the budget setting process.  Does this exist anywhere?
Let's take the example of a council with a precept of £10k. They'd be capped at a £300 increase, so anything over and above this would require a referendum, which would cost about £2,500, (the price my district charges for a casual vacancy election), which would need to be added to the proposed precept increase. The referendum would probably fail, for reasons I've already mentioned, so then the council must find the £2,500 from existing resources, leaving even less scope for new and exciting things. What is the point of having elected representatives if every spending proposal is decided by referendum? For smaller councils, a cap would result in paralysis.
DavetheClerk you are working on the pretext that all Town/ParishCouncil decisions are totally justified and completely backed by the paritioners.  As I said before a referendum would make such a Council put some effort in and communicate and engage with their partitioners and sell the rise to them.  I accept that a very small council might seek a relativley small absolute rise and it might take them over a nominal 3% cap. If the rise was for a one off capital spend, it would be justifiable to try and recover the cost of the refernendum as part of the increase, perhaps phasing it out over a few years. But you have to see the big picture.  There are some large town Councils that have tried to increase their precpept by over 20% on a budget of £250,000 for items that the paritioners don't support, and have no power to stop.  A refernendum would give paritioners powers to stop such increases.
I'm working on the pretext that you can't punish the good councils for the failings of the bad ones. The cycle of elections gives every taxpayer the opportunity to determine whether or not precept rises are acceptable, but they don't take this opportunity, so they support them by default.
One thing I would like to point out here regarding the capping of the parish precept....  all other levels of government have a cap to their precept but quite often, the parish council precept is the pressure valve for the system.  Quite often, local government will pass the responsibility for works down the line or stop the work altogether, expecting the parish council to take up the slack.  Things like maintenance of a recreation ground will mean nothing to a Borough Council but everything to the local population so the parish council might feel the need to step in and take over.  That would require money.  With a cap on the precept, they would not be able to take up the slack despite the support and desire of the local residents...
My reading of the suggestion is that currently there is little in the form of true accountability in the present PC model. The issue of precept caps is relevant in most circumstances but can  be explained  through one off project expenditure. To me the question is what is the best form of accountability.  There may not be a one thing fits all  solution  but some thing is better than nothing surely . There needs to be some sort of review.
I see things differently. You are effectively advocating a principal authority trying to bypass financial legislation by using a Parish Council to act as their contractor who does the PA bidding. Perhaps there are parallels with widespread corporate tax avoidance. It should be noted that if the spending  measures were properly explained to eligible electorate, and supported by them, the cap wouldn't matter, because they would be passed anyway in a referendum, whichever tier if Local Government wanted to increase their budget to deliver them. Swindon Borough council imposed a set of parish councils via a governance reviews on unparished wards for that very reason and many residents were up in arms and said they didn't need or want a parish council.https://www.swindonadvertiser.co.uk/news/14690027.anger-at-bid-to-introduce-new-parishes/
+1 vote
I understand why your resigned but do feel it's a shame you felt you had to. This PC obviously needs more like you. You mentioned Locum Clerks. Do you not have a regular Clerk? is she off sick, on holiday or resigned? If resigned is the PC actively seeking a replacement? The right Clerk could make all the difference. Another thought -  is the 'inner sanctum' a majority? If not you could have met with the others and sought their help to put your PC back on the right track. The Chairman is a Councillor, same as you were. He may support the Clerk but does the majority of the Councillors?
I am fortunate to be on a Town Council that has a lot of wonderful Councillors who wish to do the right thing, the just don't always know what the right thing is! This is because we have a very controlling clerk. She has no qualifications at all and I have had to call her out on a few occasions for giving out completely incorrect 'advice'. There have been a few times I have felt like resigning myself but have stuck to my guns and carried on. The result is she now seems to be more informed about things and is less likely to try and steer the Council in her direction. I have also become the Chairman supported by almost all Councillors so am able to take an even better lead on changing things where necessary. I have joined all Committees, including Governance. I went to each meeting armed with the correct facts and any relevant legislation. Most of our Councillors had never heard of Terms of Reference let alone approved them! They do now. We have recently adopted the Model Standing orders and Financial Regulations - from 2018!

 I totally agree that PC's should be more accountable for what they do but any changes are going to take a long time.  So when elections come round, or a vacancy, I would urge you to stand again. It is possible to make changes from within. It can be a long and frustrating road but if you can get even one or two other Councillors on your side it's a great start and makes the task more bearable.
by (2.5k points)
Jann, recently our clerk left and the PC could not recruit another on their first attempt so when I was co-opted we had a hired in Locum.  I asked for access to NALCs members area to view LTNs and she point blank refused saying access was at her discretion.  A phone call to the local NALC confirmed that that was their policy. I wrote the clerk advising that the Council was the member and questioned her authority in refusing me. Matters escalated to the stage that I told her that  her job was to implement Council policy not to set it .  I asked the Chairman to put the matter on the next agenda but never got a reply .  Eventaully the clerk wrote to me and as you see will effectively sought to blackmail the Council .   The problem is that my Council consists of the inner sanctum whilst the rest really make up the numbers and don't say a lot . The inner sanctum refer to them as the "in it for the kudos" Councillors.  Its all a bit toxic at the moment but plan B is on the move
I can only be glad that I live in Wales! English PC's are not answerable to NALC. It's the Council that pays the fees and the 'C' in NALC stands for Councils not Clerks. (I won't even start on what I think about SLCC).  The Council makes decisions not the Clerk. Our equivalent is One Voice Wales. Their members section is available to all Councillors. This is something our Clerk did not advertise until I found out. So now any Councillor can ask for the password to go on the site. If I was on an English Council I think I would start a campaign to boycott NALC until they realised who they are accountable to! Good luck with plan B
0 votes
Notwithstanding the comments and view expressed here which all have some validity according to each persons experiences I feel we are missing the whole point.

Parish councils are the councillors not the clerk not the chair and not NALC or their county affiliates.

The problems will not be solved until the standards held by ALL councillors reach a professional level and are accounted for. At the moment there is no incentive to even attempt meeting laid down principles and standards. Especially where there is no incentive to achieve and maintain those standards( or responsibility or censure for not meeting them).

I have long said that councillors have ultimate responsibility for their conduct and as far as I can see until they have (or form) their own professional institution run by councillors for councillors and ultimately to advise on and uphold standards of councillors( not NALC) then we will have nothing but the chaos that by the day is infecting our precious Parish Council system to a point where it will ultimately be abolished by someone in government wielding a pen.

As the saying goes "physician, heal thy self"!
by (16.6k points)
I'm struggling to add anything of value but it's all been said. Having personally gone through hell and back I'm standing firm; for now anyway. My new problem are members attending meetings under the influence of alcohol hence a new question. It's all rock n roll!
Have all your Councillors been on the Counci8llor and ultimately the Chairman training? Personally I find NALC very supportive in Essex but as I tell the Council every year as the invoice demand coms in - Its Your Association - You Pay for it - You get access to it at all levels. How many of you have been on their Local Association  AGM etc to Complain about how you feel your treated - if you dont pay they will start to struggle. AS Clerk my Job is to serve the Council as an independent person so I can avoid all the cliques and other influences. End of the Day the Councillors need to work a a Team to make changes.
Auditors play a part - Mine is an ex county council auditor - Very picky - but great for the Council  - Ensure your not fobbed off with a sub standard Auditor.
Firstly ClerkinEssex I agree with you. Sadly none of the members will attend training. In fact one stated during a Tudor Court meeting ( yes you read it correctly) that he'd be off if he had to undergo training. We pay into out local Calc but that's it. Our Clerk is newly appointed and fully qualified. The Borough Council is currently carrying out a governance review. This is why, I'm guessing now, that our Clerk is being quietly cautious in their approach. The auditor is weak but will do for now. However the Clerk has without challenge brought in National S/O's and Code of Conduct hence more agitated Members. They know what's coming and currently venting their frustrations on female members. Like many on this forum I have so many stories but summing up the whole situation stinks of corruption.
Training is compulsory in most district and county councils for newly-elected members and I'd love to see the same rule applied to parish and town councils. The difference is that district and county councillors are being paid a "salary" and their "employer" can insist upon this in return for payment. I provide basic training for all of my councillors, which might explain why I have so few problems with them.
+2 votes
From reading this I can see these experiences are not uncommon.  An inner group of Councillors (facilitated by a supposedly impartial Clerk,) who feel they have the right to lord it over other Councillors. The main objective being to delay, or obstruct positive change. Personally I would support Parish/ Town Council sector reform
by (240 points)
So would I Shiloh as personally I am sick and tired of the criticism the sector is getting.  I joined the Clerking profession to make a difference to a local community and I am professionally embarrassed by the reputation councils are getting with the likes of the Handforth shambles.  Some councillors, clerks and councils as a whole are a shambles and bring the rest of us into disrepute.  But there is no desire in the higher levels of government to make any changes and they are content in seeing the parish council sector as a stupid poor relative who should be ignored and derided.
I am getting really angry now.  I recently produced a detailed report which I sent off to my MP about failings in the PC system which I asked be referred to the relevant government department for comment knowing full well that getting past his secretary was a key stage in the process.  Here are some of her remarks in our correspondence obviously based on her personal experiences of Councillors.
a) However, usually the Cllrs are just there and the Clerk is the driving force and does all the work and often motivates the Cllrs who would rather be somewhere else.  Good Clerks are worth their weight in gold and well worth the little salary they receive.

b) They (Cllrs)  don’t want to be controversial or have rows, just to tick along nicely.  Sometimes, the Clerk has to gee them up.  Parish Council Pump Politics can be nastier than mainstream politics as everyone knows one another and it gets personal

Clearly national governement seem to accept mediocrity as an acceptable price to pay  for cheap local government
We must not lose sight of the fact that there are thousands of well-run councils made up of councillors who work together for the benefit of their parishioners delivering valuable projects and services at a local level under the guidance of experienced and professional clerks. The failing councils are a small minority and tightening the regulations to rein them in risks clipping the wings of the high fliers. Whatever rules exist, people will always find a way to break them, if that is their mindset. That old Dalai Lama quote about knowing the rules well so you can break them effectively springs to mind.
My only response to that Dave (and I am not saying you are wrong) is "how do you know"?  Unless there is some sort of audit/survey whatever you want to call it nobody knows the size of the problem. If indeed there is one !!
Of course, I agree there are well run Councils as you describe, and is why I became a Councillor, to work for the Town and the community as part of a untited team. Unfortunately; in my almost 6 and a half years on a Council, I have not found it easy, for there are factions and personal politics instead that seems to take priority.
Addressing both of the above points, with another hat on, I visit many parishes, meet hundreds of councillors and clerks, as well as members of the public, and have many discussions about the way they operate. Problems exist, but they are often of a relatively minor nature and those councils usually acknowledge them and seek advice and support to improve. From the sample I have met, I would have concerns regarding fewer than five percent. Personal politics should play no part in parish councils, although it can be a problem in town councils, and in my experience, there are far more problems with towns and larger parishes than with the smaller parishes. I would like to see more clerks reminding their councillors of the standing orders. To coin the popular phrase, "Read the standing orders, read them and understand them!" (delivered with an appropriate level of passion!)
That is good to know. My experience has been with a large Town Council, and from what you have said, explains much. Thank you.
It is predominantly myself, who has to highlight the need to follow the Council's Governing  Documents.
Having tried to implement the Governing documents I now find this is being turned on its head and the Documents are now being `cherry picked` or disassembled to fit needs of those with requirements or plain ignored.
From my personal experience, the PC system is dysfunctional.

We have similar issues to other parish councils.  Not all councillors want to work in full compliance with the PC’s governing documents.

There has been a significant turnover of clerks.  The lack of continuity has been disruptive.
 
There is also a very controlling and power-hungry chairperson who is part of a dominant group, which includes 2 family groups who make up the quorum of 5, and their 3 like-minded and loyal friends, who all vote together.  The remaining third of the council vote independently and have no connections with this group.

There are few sanctions that can be imposed by the MO for breaches of the members’ code of conduct.  The outcome of 3 recent breaches of the members’ code of conduct by our councillors was further training (i.e. re-visiting training previously attended).

Some members of the parish council are in conflict with the community.  This has been going on for quite a long time and has led to the community requesting a governance review.   The public have been informed that it will not be carried out until 2023 due to an ongoing boundary review.

The district council and local ALC have said that any significant change is most likely to come at the next four-yearly election in 2023!

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