Thursday, October 20 2011
I SPENT a fair amount of time earlier this year reporting on the activities of Allhallows Parish Council.
It is one of those authorities to which the Prime Minister wants to hand over greater responsibility. The trouble is, most parish councils in Kent are self-perpetuating oligarchies.
They have insufficient candidates and select from friends and "interested" individuals. It rapidly opens the way to abuse of the system as I immediately discovered the minute I turned up for my first meeting.
"Who are you?" and "What do you want?" were rapidly followed by a refusal to make available papers to which any member of the public is legally entitled - agendas, minutes and any reports.
The problem in the village of Allhallows was the youth club had become a very popular attraction for the local kids who had nowhere else to go.
A couple of recently-appointed councillors had got to grips with the problem, taken over The Brimp (a tatty old builders' hut complex), roused local support from kids, parents and assorted adults, and transformed it.
That upset the Old School of Benevolents who handed out grants, ran a handful of activities and claimed the praise for so doing. They tried to shut it.
They were up against some angry residents.
The most disgraceful thing (for any observer or believer - however jaded - in democracy) was the way the local police support officer was ticked off in public by a councillor for having the temerity to praise the club for the work it was doing with the young people..
Several residents decided to force an election last May.
Hate and abuse messages started to fly through the ethernet, by phone, through whispering campaigns and even at this blog.
The election went ahead, and most of the old school was turfed out.
I raise this issue five months later because in the past few days the newlook parish council has won two of the top five awards in this year's Kent Village of the Year competition.
One was for best newcomer.
The other was for The Brimp - taking the best Social Action award.
Announcing the results, the organisers said "….this community has built itself great social activities almost overnight. If this is what they have done since May, I can’t wait to see what they can do in a year!"
As for the Social Action prize the judge, Ray Owen, said: "From having virtually nothing for the youngsters to do, they rebuilt an abandoned and wrecked building, into an absolute centre of what’s good about village life."
So well done, Allhallows.
Now, the dozens of other communities that had no elections need to think whether they want to continue in the same old humdrum petty, dictatorial way they did in the past, or have a change next time an election becomes available.
One parish councillor (among several who spoke with me during this) wrote that his council avoided elections in Medway because of the cost of staging them.
Democracy always comes at a price (as we all know at the moment!)
If someone wants to vote they should have that right repeatedly fought for over the centuries since Magna Carta was signed on the island of Runnymede 796 years ago.
It is not the right of any councillor to bar that right by coming to gentlemen's agreements on how they can avoid being proved at the ballot box.
Until David Cameron sorts that out we shall continue to have village dictators - and his localism legacy will be more powerful oligarchs.
You may have heard of Swanley Town Council.
It is a very rich authority and once had a chief executive who was paid more than the local top officers in the boroughs.
Swanley is not a unitary authority. It isn't even a borough or district council. It is, in fact, a parish council with a glorified name.
Until May it had a Mayor.
It pays over £3,000 a year as a mayoral allowance, it still has a mayor's chain, and the recipient of the mayoral thousands wears the civic bling.
It simply lacks a mayor.
The man appointed to the position, Cllr Tony Searles, decided off his own bat to drop the title - and become the council's chairman.
No one seems to have approved the decision, consulted on it, or bothered to tell the person who runs their website which introduces Swanley Town Council with these words: "It is essentially a parish council but has adopted town status which means the chairman of the town cCouncil is designated mayor."