Having only been elected in October 2021, I recently attended a parish councillor training course at Norfolk Parish Training & Support alongside my colleague Cllr Penny Hubble.
Whether you’re new to a role or have been doing it for years, training is always worthwhile to gain or renew knowledge. And this course also offered a great chance to speak with other councillors from the region and see how our Town Council compares with other parish councils facing similar issues.
The training was hosted by experienced parish council clerks (the head of the permanent administrative staff at a council). In it, they gave an amusing example to visualise their advisory role in a scenario, where councillors were discussing a proposal to paint a grass field pink.
Despite the obvious absurdity of the idea, as clerks, they’d advise councillors on the costs of pink paint, that you’d need to re-paint the grass as it grew, point out that it might cause maintenance issues for the mowing equipment and any other factors to inform the councillors’ decision.
But ultimately, if the councillors still voted that it’s what they wanted to do, that would be the will of the council. The clerk would then have a duty to go and seek contractors and enact it. The lesson: it’s for advisors to advise and elected representatives to decide. I can’t see residents rushing to re-elect councillors who voted to waste taxpayer money on painting the grass pink though.
Another interesting section explained the difference between a council committee and a working group:
A committee is a decision-making body with devolved power to vote on and enact decisions on behalf of the Council. A working group is meant to be set up for a short-term purpose, so that councillors can work together informally to explore options and prepare a detailed analysis for full council. The working group’s report should include the pros and cons of the options and not present a foregone conclusion waiting to be rubber stamped.
Our Town Council has a number of working groups. They include Buildings, Health & Safety and Personnel, New Cemetery, Browick Recreation Ground Review, and Bright Future (town centre improvements). Two additional groups have been proposed and will be discussed at full council on 5th July at 7pm.
In my opinion it is absolutely essential for these working groups to ensure the reports they bring to full council present all the important information to aide councillors in making a fully informed choice when asked to vote on the subject.
This is of particular importance because the meetings held by working groups are not open to the public. Only committees and full council are open, and only they are able to make binding decisions.
All holders of public office are expected to abide by the Nolan Principles, one of which is ‘openness’. If we are to act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner, it must also follow that working group reports and recommendations are fully transparent too.