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Parochial matters

Parochial matters

What made Joanna Jolly want to become a parish councillor? A lockdown-inspired sense of community and the spirit of Jackie Weaver were part of it, as she explains

I ’m standing on the soft grass of the village green with the chair of Bratton Parish Council. “I’m very proud of the fact we kept the pre-school here,” Jeff Ligo says, pointing towards an old parish building recently transformed into a nursery for 40 children. 

Stretching out to one side of it is an enclosed garden packed with plastic children’s toys. Over the summer holidays, it’s been left to its own devices and grass and weeds are now poking up through a broken fence. This untidy wildness jars with the trimmed hedges and rose beds that surround it. Controversially, the state of the pre-school garden meant Bratton was recently marked down to fourth in Wiltshire’s Best Kept Village competition this year, despite winning the title in 2019. “It’s a bit sad,” admits Ligo. “But at least we have a Pre-school.”

Ligo has brought me here to see how a parish council can be a force for good because I’ve just become a councillor myself. I was elected, unopposed, in May this year to be one of nine representatives of the village, 100 miles to the west of London and close to the ancient monument of Stonehenge. 

In our first village hall meeting we discussed the cost of imposing a 20 miles-an-hour speed limit and whether or not to chop down some overhanging branches. Several more meetings and a deluge of planning emails later, I’m beginning to get my head around the role.

When I told friends I’d become a parish councillor the universal response was to cite the Jackie Weaver incident: “You have no authority here, Jo Jolly!” Weaver, the chief officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, went viral earlier this year for her impressive deletion of shouty men from a parish council Zoom meeting. Since then, she’s opened the Brit Awards and made a guest appearance on The Archers.

Bratton’s own parish clerk tells me she thinks Weaver made councils “almost a little bit sexy”. It’s possible I’m part of a Jackie Weaver effect: there might be women like me all over England taking on roles they never would have dreamt of before.

My own journey into local politics has been a meandering one. I moved out of London four years ago, in my forties, in search of somewhere quiet to finish writing a book. Bratton, a village of 1,200 on the northern edge of Salisbury Plain, is close to family and rail links. It’s also beautiful. In front of my cottage is a water meadow and beyond that a steep escarpment rising to an Iron Age fort. At night I see stars and hear owls.

I lived partly here and partly back in London until Covid hit and I was grounded in the village. Then I started to wonder if I could do more in the community. This thought coincided with a visit from my gardener, himself a councillor, which turned into a chat about a proposed new development and then into his suggestion that I stand for election. Within days, Ligo had appeared on my doorstep, nomination papers in hand.

“It’s a joyous thing,” he says now that I’m fully on board, reminding me I’m one of the youngest councillors in the parish. I also happen to be the only woman, though Ligo assures me this is unusual. Parish councillors, especially in villages where the population is more likely to be retired, tend to be white, male and over 65. Ligo tells me attracting a more diverse set of people is a struggle. “Nobody wants to be on the bloody parish council,” he says.

As a parish councillor, I’ve become part of a network of some 80,000 unpaid, elected officials representing some 16 million people in villages and towns across England. (Wales and Scotland are governed by a different system.) This system of local government has been part of English life since 1894, when it replaced a network of church-led councils that had existed since the Elizabethan era.

Although larger town councils can oversee populations of more than 100,000, the vast majority of parish councils are small, representing fewer than 2,500 people. They are funded through a tax called the precept, added to the council tax, which they – we – use to maintain facilities, employ a clerk and support projects directly requested by residents, such as the Bratton pre-school.

“It’s villagers themselves representing their village and using democracy to decide how to spend that money, how to improve the village, and what to take forward to the county council for further funding,” says Suzanne Wickham, formerly a parish councillor herself and now part of Wiltshire Council representing Bratton and neighbouring villages.

Much of this is dealing with, as Wickham describes it, the mundane. Councils look after parks and playgrounds, allotments, rubbish bins, bus shelters, lighting, car parks and grass verges. They manage cemeteries and may be called on to arrange exhumations. In the countryside, they can be asked to help to deal with stray livestock. Wickham was responsible for installing a defibrillator in her previous parish and made a point of checking it at least once a week, saving her council money by doing so.

“A parish council in harmony is wonderful,” she says, praising its capacity to manage the small details of life that are invisible when they work, but can cause great distress when they don’t. But, as the Jackie Weaver incident made clear, harmony isn’t always present. Tempers can flare, especially over the issue of planning, which parish councils have a right to be consulted on.

Wickham herself was drawn into a planning power struggle in her former parish when a resident applied to build two houses on some unused land. She says the council tried to follow guidance and grant the application, but were opposed by a group of villagers, some of them newcomers.

“Several were from in and around London,” she says, highlighting the tension that often exists in villages between long-term residents and recent arrivals. “Quite a few of them are in thatched cottages so they want the chocolate box view.” 

Wickham says the group began conducting their own meetings against the council. The animosity spilled over to the local Facebook site in a slew of angry posts and messages. “It was extremely unpleasant,” she says. “They weren’t speaking to you when you walked down the road and said good morning. They literally turned their backs.” 

But it isn’t just planning that can cause problems. Councillors are a self-selecting group. They need no particular qualifications and they’re not closely scrutinised. When the system works, the group is committed to serving their community. But the system doesn’t always work and Bratton itself provides a cautionary tale.

Before Ligo was elected in 2016, the parish suffered from a long-running and serious case of embezzlement. The theft was discovered only when Ligo, who was previously a senior local government officer, scrutinised the minutes of previous meetings and realised the numbers didn’t add up. When he presented this to the council, he knew the response would be hostile so recruited friends to sit at the back of the hall for moral support. Ligo wanted to know why an internal auditor had not looked at the parish accounts for years, a requirement under law.

It soon became clear that the clerk at the time had been quietly siphoning off funds for her own use. The police were brought in and the clerk was given a two-year suspended sentence and ordered to repay the £26,900 that was stolen.

Ligo was disappointed that council members weren’t reprimanded for not stopping her. “It was the general view in the village that the clerk was a thief, but people didn’t understand that the councillors had failed in their duties and that’s why she’d got away with it,” he says. The debacle led to Ligo taking over as chair in 2017. By this point, the council had already appointed a new clerk, Nicola Duke.

“One of the jobs of the parish clerk is to be unpopular if they need to be; to say no, you can’t do that,” says Duke, who has 25 years’ experience in the role. “I’ve been in council meetings where members of the public have disagreed vehemently with the decision that’s being made. The members have had toilet rolls thrown at them. I’ve had members punch each other. We’ve had the police come. I’ve had staff locking themselves in the stationery cupboard. It can be quite dramatic.”

Duke says bad behaviour can sometimes be directed at the clerks themselves. Clerks are vulnerable to bullying because they work alone, without the direct support of colleagues, and because they need to maintain good relationships with councillors if they are to do their jobs well. Many don’t want to raise complaints. 

Duke had to cope with the unwanted advances of an elected official who declared his love for her during a late-night council meeting. “You’re on your own. You’re locked in this building. What do you do? They shouldn’t be allowed to behave like that,” she says. “For some members and some chairs, perhaps this is the only position of so-called power that they’ve had, and it’s easy for it to be abused.” 

If disputes escalate, parish councils can turn to their county branch of the National Association of Local Councils. This is a service councils can subscribe to for legal and practical support. In other words, they can bring in their Jackie Weaver. 

“I remember thinking, oh goodness, that could have been me,” says Katie Fielding, county secretary to the Wiltshire Association of Local Councils, and the Jackie Weaver of Wiltshire. “I’m not sure I’ve seen that level of behaviour to be honest, but it does happen that tensions can run high over things like planning. Or just differences of opinions.”

Fielding says that, thankfully, arguments are rare and most of her time is spent researching legal issues and offering advice, information and training. If parish councils want to do something out of the ordinary, they need to refer to a written power to do it. So Fielding trawls through legislation to find a hook they can hang their project on.

One issue that has occupied her time during the pandemic has been helping parishes move their meetings online. Under the 1972 Local Government Act, parish council meetings must happen in-person to allow members of the public to attend. When this requirement was relaxed during lockdown, Fielding says a surprising and welcome consequence was that participation increased.

“The fact that younger people who would normally be out to work suddenly found themselves working from home meant they could engage a bit more with their community. I think slowly the culture is changing,” she says. 

Nicola Duke agrees that parish councils could do more to move away from their “Edwardian”, as she calls them, work practices to attract a younger, more diverse group of people. “With the 1972 Act, we have to put the agendas and minutes up on noticeboards, but nobody really walks around noticeboards any more,” she says. “There’s a lot of modernising we could do and I think it’s incumbent on us to go back to central government and say look, Covid has actually shown us this, we’re a bit out of date, a bit stuck in the mud.”

Back in Bratton, Jeff Ligo, now in his seventies, supports more online and social media use, though he says he doesn’t understand how it all works. After years of service, Ligo is hoping to step away from council duties, saying he’d like this to be his last year as chair. Instead he wants younger members with new skills to become involved.

For my part, I’m working on a media and communications policy for Bratton, with the aim of increasing participation and reaching a younger group of residents. It’s been a busy summer and I’m finding it difficult to squeeze council responsibilities into my working day. But Ligo assures me that if I come up with the ideas, he’ll make sure they happen.

“I’m good at getting the parish council to do different things,” he says. “And I have to support younger people like you.”

This piece appears in Giants, the new Tortoise short book of long stories. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can buy a physical copy here.

Illustration by Charlotte Ager