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QUALITY STATUS FOR SUTTON BRIDGE PARISH COUNCIL


Oct 21 2011

What Do You Think? What Do You Know about the Parish Council?

At the last Parish Council meeting, the Chairman announced that the Sutton Bridge Parish Council would be applying for Quality Status.

What is meant by 'Quality Status'? What is meant by 'Quality'?

From the information gleaned from www.nalc.gov.uk/Toolkits/Quality_Status which is freely available on the Internet, it appears that, for NALC, 'Quality' is little more than a rubber-stamping exercise, there being little or no focus on the day to day activities of a Council.

There is no reference to who will conduct 'tests' and on what basis. It does not look as if the electorate will be consulted. It does not say whether a neutral observer will come to listen to the exchanges that take place during monthly meetings or scrutinise what goes on behind the scenes. There is no indication of how the Parish Council will be monitored on its continuing promotion of 'Quality'...

ithout a proper definition of 'Quality' it will be easy for any inadequate council to claim 'Quality Status'. The term 'Quality Status' will be meaningless.

According to what we have gleaned, it seems that...

In order to achieve Quality Status, parish and town councils must demonstrate that they have reached the standard required by passing several tests. These are:

Notes:-

Electoral mandate test — Councils will be required to show that at least two-thirds of councillors were elected. 'Elected' can mean either at a contested or uncontested election. However, they must have stood for election.

Bridge Watch comment: It's one thing to get oneself elected but might it not be important, for instance, to take into account the fact that only 10% of the electorate cast a vote for the present Council? See NALC further recommendations under the heading Promoting Local Democracy and Citizenship test

Council meetings test — Councils will be required to publish draft minutes of meetings within two months of it taking place and make them available for inspection by any elector in the parish, as a minimum.

Bridge Watch comment: What about the quality of discussion at the meetings? Will an examiner not come to Parish Council meetings to make sure that there is proper informed and well-chaired discussion with all councillors possessing up to date information on matters of significance?

Communications and Community Engagement test (Mandatory) — Councils will be required to have a website which provides a list of council members and officers, details of how they can be contacted and which also provides access to the annual report.

Bridge Watch comment: Is that all? See below under Communications and Community Engagement test (Discretionary) for further options...

Councils will also be required to have an email address that is publicly available.

Councils now have the option of either producing their own newsletter or contributing to a community newsletter. The information that is required to be included in the newsletter has not changed nor has the requirement that the newsletter is made readily available at public sites.

Bridge Watch comment: What exists at the moment is a 'Newsletter' issued by one councillor in his own interests but giving the appearance of emanating from the Parish Council. It is not delivered to all households in the Parish. What is needed is an unbiased Newsletter generated by members of the Parish Council itself which goes to all residents regardless.

Communications and Community Engagement test (Discretionary) — Two new options have been added:

Bridge Watch comment: We hope that the Parish Council will take these options up; they will be of real benefit to the community and enhance the status of the Parish Council itself.

The very few members of the public who turn up to Council meetings are given 15 minutes to have their say most of which has, in the past, been either ignored or not acted on.

A councillor who deliberately turns his back on 'the public' in a Parish Council meeting and talks so quietly that he has to be asked by the chair to speak up does not provide an example of community engagement. Councillors who come unprepared to a Council meeting do not provide an example of community engagement. On the other hand, a chairman who voluntarily suspends Standing Orders to ask 'the public' for their opinion offers a great example of 'engagement'. Councillors who provide full written documentation to all in support of issues under discussion offer a great example of 'engagement'.

Code of Conduct test — Councils will be required to have formally adopted Section 12 (2) of the Code of Conduct which concerns the prejudicial interests of councillors and public participation.

Bridge Watch comment: This seems to be a very limited aspiration. It is to be hoped that a Code of Conduct will also address issues like treating fellow councillors and 'the public' with respect which has not always happened in the past.

Promoting Local Democracy and Citizenship test (a new test) — Councils will be required to demonstrate that they work proactively to support local democracy and citizenship... We would encourage councils to be innovative.

In order to thrive, democracies need active, involved, informed and engaged citizens.

Activities aimed at promoting democracy and citizenship can offer a great deal: they can show that local voices can matter; they can help to take the mystery out of local democracy, how it affects people and how people can personally shape it; they can help to inform young people about the democratic systems that make decisions on their behalf and how they can get their voices heard.

Activities can help hard-to-reach groups to feel part of the community and they can encourage the wider community to get more involved in helping to shape the decisions that most affect them.

Re-engaging the public in the democratic process has become a significant issue in recent years and it is important that parish and town councils play their part.

Research shows that people have become cynical about their elected representatives who often seem distant and out of touch with the wishes of their communities. However, parish and town councillors live and often work within the communities they serve, can be highly visible and much more in touch with the wants and needs of the people they represent.

Bridge Watch comment: It will be interesting to observe what innovative proactive initiatives the Council embarks on to further the aim of 're-engaging the public in the democratic process' in view of NALC's acknowledgement here that 'people have become cynical about their elected representatives who often seem distant and out of touch with the wishes of their communities...' What specifically will each individual member of the Parish Council do to support local democracy and citizenship?

Terms and Conditions (a new test) — Councils with a paid clerk will be required to provide evidence that they have adopted (as a minimum) the NALC/SLCC Terms and Conditions agreement and provide evidence in the form of a statement that they have issued all paid members of staff with a contract of employment.

Training (a new test) — Councils will be required to provide a training 'Statement of Intent' which shows that the council has identified key areas of training need for both staff and members.

Bridge Watch comment: It is one thing to draw up a 'Statement of Intent' and quite another to ensure that councillors take their training seriously and put its implications into practice. How will councillors be assessed on their learning?

With our diligent Clerk undergoing training there might be a danger that Councillors will come to rely on her too heavily rather than do their own research and knowledge update.

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