(Background: For a decade I was a Town Councillor on a Council very similar in size and set-up to Combe Martin. I am also a District Councillor, have worked for the County Council and am the most senior employee of the Parish Council. As a Councillor I have been co-opted, won an uncontested election and won a contested election – so I have seen and/or experienced most things! – Andi)
Becoming a Councillor
Parish Councillors are elected to the Council every 4 years. There are 12 seats on the Parish Council. In the event that only 12 people (or less) put themselves forward for election, those people are “elected” without having to hold a costly vote. (The Council may start with some elected Councillors and some vacancies.) There are times when a vacancy arises between the scheduled elections (death or resignation of a Councillor). When this happens, the vacancy is advertised, allowing residents to trigger an election. If an election is not called, then the Council is allowed to “co-opt” a member (invite a suitable person to join them on the Council). This co-opted individual becomes a Councillor with the same voting rights and standing as an elected Councillor.
The Notice of Vacancy (allowing people to trigger an election) and the invitation for people to apply to be co-opted, will be published on the Council notice boards, website and potentially any other suitable method.
What is involved in being a Councillor?
This depends entirely upon you. The role comes with an obligation to attend regular (monthly) Council meetings.
After that, the amount of time and effort you put into the role will depend upon you and your personal circumstances. Some Councillors want to be involved with as much as possible and want to be on every committee, others fit the role in around busy jobs and family life and can’t commit to any additional committees, etc. The important aspect is that EVERY Councillor can and does bring something to the Council. I can not think of a situation where a Councillor does not have a relevant or useful life history which will give them experiences which they can represent in the Council meetings. The Council spends public money and it is important that every penny of it is spent on the right things and for the right reasons.
There is an expectation that Councillors will have read through the Agenda and the supporting documents prior to the meeting (which is why the agenda has to be sent to the Councillor at least 3 days prior to the meeting).
No Councillor is more important than any other and each only has one vote – how you vote is important – even if you do not think so. (In the event of a split decision, the Chairman does have a 2nd, casting vote, which is pretty much the only additional privilege that comes with that role!) Even if you represent a minority view amongst the Councillors, you DO represent the will and opinion of some members of the Community. I genuinely can not think of an occasion when a Councillor has been criticised for voting for/against something after they gave a reasoned/principled reason for wanting to vote that way.
Councillors are required to sign up to the Code of Conduct, which explains how a Councillor should act (when they are acting as a Councillor or on behalf of the Council). The Code of Conduct is on the Policies page of this website HERE. Councillors are also required to complete a Register of Interests (again, this has a page on this website HERE). This register ensures that your business interests and land holdings are available for the public to check that private interests are not motivating or influencing your Council activities. The Code of Conduct is basically common sense but does go a bit further by trying to protect Councillors (and the Council) in that not only should you not do certain things (i.e. make decisions for your own benefit) BUT you should also be seen not to. (e.g. in some cases where you may have an interest, not only can you not vote (fair enough) but you should leave the room during the discussion on the item – so it can be seen that you didn’t influence the decision.)
The Council have a raft of Policies which have been adopted and are regularly reviewed. It is also worth reading through these to see what rules the Council operates within (both the legal restrictions and the policy decisions the Council have adopted). The Policies page is HERE on the website.
How we can help you as a Councillor
Every Councillor had a nervous “1st day” when they knew nothing. It is a bit like going to a new school – when you start it seems a bit overwhelming and all the older children know what they are doing and know everyone else, know the routines and don’t get lost. Don’t Panic!
The Council has several ways of assisting you (and they are all free!) Firstly, other Councillors will always help – they know what you are going through and what issues are facing the Council. Secondly, the Council office. As Council employees we can’t tell you what to do but we can definitely offer advice, information and a non-judgemental sounding board. As I outlined at the top of the page, I have considerable local government experience which I’m more than happy to share. Also in the office is Tanya, who apart from being very capable, also knows everything and everybody in the village (this might be a slight exaggeration but not much of one.) Thirdly, (last but definitely not least) is training. The Council has a budget for Councillor training and we are signed up to various organisations who specialise in providing support and training to Councils/Councillors. The format of these sessions depend on the provider but there are currently a mix of day time and evening on-line zoom sessions and face to face physical gatherings.
Is it worth it?
Well, you don’t get paid and there will always be people out there who disagree with what the Council are doing. You will also feel frustrated when you personally and/or the Council, get criticised by ill informed members of the public who think you can do things (or should have done things) when the Council can’t do them or they are not the responsibility of the Parish Council. There will also be times when the Council might have to make an unpopular decision – expect the public to turn up to the meeting to make sure their point of view is heard! But there will also be the good days – when you see a community project delivered or when you are able to get something done that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
Some people join a Council because they want to put something back into their community and others join because they want to make a difference. “If it is worth it?” will depend on your personal reasons for being a Councillor but I would recommend it
If you have any questions or just want a chat about being a Councillor, please feel free to contact me (or any Councillor).
Andi Wyer (Parish Clerk)