Mark Whitehead 25 October 2019

The perils of being a parish councillor

Members of a small parish council resign en bloc after suffering anonymous and abusive phone calls, and 'disgusting hate mail'. They complain of their homes being watched and personal details being published online.

As a result, Carrington Parish Council in Greater Manchester recently ceased to function and its responsibilities were taken over by Trafford Council.

'The levels of vitriol that have been aimed at the council have caused an untold amount of stress and anxiety on all our members,' the official letter from the outgoing council members to local residents said. 'Unfortunately it has reached the point that all the councillors feel their positions are no longer tenable.'

The details of what lay behind the mass walkout are being kept under wraps. One of the ex-councillors contacted by LocalGov said it was now a police matter and refused to comment further.

It would be easy to speculate that, while Carrington is a small council, the issue at stake may be significant. The council covers an area including the 1,665 acre former Shell petrochemical works, purchased by developers Himor five years ago. The company's Future Carrington project, now forging ahead in conjunction with Trafford Council, will include more than 7,000 residential units and 8m sq ft of commercial property.

On the other hand it may be much less noteworthy. Disruption on this scale is not unheard of, according to Marion Gelder, chief executive officer of the Lancashire Association of Local Councils.

In another recent episode at a council in her patch, she recalls, every councillor but one resigned. It was a row over the right - or otherwise – of one of the councillors to park their car on a site deemed to be common land.

In that instance, the single councillor soldiered on and kept the council going until new members were elected.

Very often, according to Ms Gelder, rows erupt when a body of councillors have been serving for a long time. A newcomer arrives and, as a fresh pair of eyes, asks questions. Sometimes the practices being followed are found to be questionable, often because laws and acceptable practice have changed.

'On the whole small councils get on well together but when you've been doing it for years and someone new comes along and questions whether what you are doing is within the law and accepted procedures it can be uncomfortable,' she says.

The key to minimising such disruption is for councillors to keep up to date with best practice by undergoing regular training of the kind offered by the National Association of Parish Councils, covering all aspects of professional conduct, legal and financial matters.

The Carrington episode is ongoing but it provides a snapshot of the pressures that can occur in small councils. The walkout may have been disruptive, and the experiences of the councillors extremely unpleasant, but it may also illustrate dynamic local democracy at work. It may be that bringing the abusive phone calls to public attention will help the community apply pressure on those who choose to behave badly.

A spokesperson for Trafford Council stressed the council had not been dissolved and the intention was to secure the appointment of new councillors so that it could start functioning again.

'We recognise that feelings have been running high recently but we would ask everyone to allow discussions over the future of the parish council to take place in a positive manner,' a statement said.

'We will continue to communicate with residents and will provide further details when we are able to confirm any additional information.'

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