Allendale Parish Council is comprised of 13 ‘elected’, or co-opted, councillors, who put their names forward for a term of four years and who are all neatly listed on the Northumberland Parishes website, as ‘People‘. The current chair is David Crellin, and the Parish Clerk is Helen Newsome. Contact details are all nicely arranged on the website too. The term ‘elected’ is rather circumscribed, as rather fewer candidates than places available, usually present themselves for ‘election’ so they are mostly just ‘acquired’.
Well, so what, we sometimes wonder, does the Parish Council actually do? I know I’ve often thought that the group is more of a ‘talking shop’ than a ‘doing effort’, though I’ve been impressed with some of the worthy projects the council have assayed, over the past few years, decorating the village with tar bar’l planters, for example, though an earlier effort to cover the place with hanging baskets did founder under its own self-importance. Obviously, from the Dalek controversy, we know that the Parish Council is involved in early planning matters. So I asked David Crellin, current chair of the council: what is it that the Parish Council actually does?
“Ok Larry, here goes in no particular order:
- The parish council manages the cemetery, employs the grave diggers, sets fees, arranges for the cemetery to be appropriately well kept and safe.
- We scrutinise planning applications in line with the Neighborhood Development Plan, which we wrote in consultation with residents, businesses and organisations throughout the Parish. Our decisions are conveyed to county planners each month. The County Council has to give due regard to our decisions and this plan as it is more recent than their plan and is approved by the Secretary of State. We do not, and cannot, extend this to national planning issues, such as conservation area, AONB and listing status.
- We manage the village greens throughout the Parish. This extends beyond, but includes, grass cutting and employing a village keeper (position vacant at present). We do this through a formal agreement with Northumberland county council under the Commons Act 1899. Watch out for developments as we consider in particular the legal status of Allendale village green. We may be unique in England!
- We survey and do our best to respond to reports relating to rights of way.
- We meet once each year to set and agree priorities for the parish, budget for all these activities, and then set the precept, which is added to Council tax.”
Thanks David . . . when you look it this way, all neatly listed and demarcated, you realise that the Parish Council’s responsive capacity is rather severely limited, in many ways. The councillors really can’t do a great deal, can they, in response to many of the concerns from the public. But Dave goes on to mention that every Parish Council meeting is open to the public (apart from specifically sequestered, confidential items arranged at the end of the agenda), and these meetings are most often held at Allendale Village Hall on the first Thursday of the month, as today, actually, Thursday the 4th of April, at 7:00pm. In many ways, I assume, councillors do have a variety of informative contacts which they can resource out to residents who may come with enquiries, and that is facilitation of a high order.
In many other ways, we’d like the nanny state to take care of us, to comfort us when we have issues and grievances. The Parish Council is frank about what it can do and what it does, and similarly we need to be aware, and frank, about what the County Council (that huge bête noir of most residents of West Northumberland/Tynedale-as-was) can do, and does with its available (capped and increasingly stringent, under this ersatz ‘austerity’ regime) budget. Another diary entry, no doubt. Over all of these council matters, we need to be aware of what the federal government does that percolates (or doesn’t) down through the councils to us, before we casually blame the county for all the ills it visits upon us. And then, well that’s national politics, isn’t it? How politics does insinuate its ghastly head willy-nilly into just about everything we do, unbeknownst unless we look, really.
Meanwhile, in addition to David’s kind explanations, I’ve spent some time for myself trying to get a picture of what the Parish Council does by perusing the minutes over the past year (all available on the website above). Apart from endless letter-writing and arcane ripostes back and forth with the county council, some local grant dispensations, matters arising over the maintenance jobs that fall under the PC’s remit (trimming hedges, overhanging trees, that sort of thing), I’m afraid that I’ve struggled to make any better sense of it all. I know that parish councils have been largely stripped of most functional powers by successive central and county governments, so that yes, they act now mostly as a kind of ‘letting-off steam’ utility, as one councillor so impotently demonstrated with unavailing sturm und drang at last month’s meeting, repeated in the Hexham Courant. But I shall probably spew if I read again how shockingly negative the county’s Planning Department representatives were when dealing with a perceived infraction. Yes, and?
And therein lies the rub: the Parish Council really can’t do anything beyond its particular remit, even though councillors are ‘elected’ to represent our concerns, and may pretend their grandstanding actually means anything. Isn’t it true that there’s little the PC can do for the village and environs, in many ways that you or I can’t do better, quietly in our own ways, in our own little niches, like taking care of things like the village hall, the sports club, the pre-school playgroup, the Deneholme Woodland, like figuring out how to tackle the dog poo challenges around the place. So then is the PC just an intriguing relic from the past, dealing with the few amenities it has left under its responsibility?
One thing I’ve discovered, as a complement to David Crellin’s last point on his helpful list, that the PC could do usefully, is to raise the (tiny) parish precept on the council taxes we pay, so that useful local services could be maintained (people have to pee during the winter, and often-times are taken short — that’s the civilised point of public toilets, just as one example!) and maybe there are other, simple ways that people could be helped to feel more comfortable in their own villages and hamlets. But then that would mean the PC actually doing something with the money thus raised, stepping up to the crease as it were with new responsibilities, which inevitably raises issues of more accountability, eliciting more interest in actual competitive elections, that sort of thing, and maybe the councillors just like talking, better, and wringing their hands, who knows? I do know that year after year, the precept rate is a holy shibboleth that must never be altered. Why?
Pace: things always sound fiercer written down than they’re meant, and this diary is supposed to be fair-minded. I realise that I do have something of a ‘pee in my bonnet’ about this topic, actually, so I’ll cease and desist now, and await acerbic, but possibly entertaining, comment, below the line if it comes to it.