Wednesday, 15 April 2015

An open letter to our new Parish Council…

Dear Councillors –

Since I moved to Tysoe, four years ago – after falling in love with the place at first sight – I have not attended as many Parish Council meetings as I would have liked. Broadly, there are four reasons for this:
  1. Like many other villagers, I was unaware of the important rôle the Council plays in governing the village; in caring for it (with hearts, minds, and actions); and ensuring that, pragmatically, it continues to develop in a way that respects its past, whilst incorporating the most appropriate of modern instruments and technologies. It is also the last formal bastion we have in defending the erosion of true localism against both large corporations and the extremely remote forces of national and international government – in other words, it is the nearest thing we have, in our small corner of rural England, to realpolitik and direct involvement.
  2. Having said that, much of what occurs during the meetings I have attended has not felt relevant to me – and it took an outsider, Keith Risk (publically raising the threat that Gladman Developments posed to the village, and calling both residents and Councillors to arms), to make me realize how wrong I had been: and that it is each resident’s duty to play their part in continually supporting the Parish Council, however small that part may be.
  3. Information on the Council’s meetings was not always easy to come by; and the procedures are somewhat arcane.
  4. I am badly disabled – meaning that I struggle to sit down, without great pain, for long periods of time. I also struggle to navigate the narrow and labyrinthine entrance to the Reading Rooms, with walking stick in hand. In parallel, I am extremely hard of hearing (even with the latest digital hearing aids): and, therefore, when I do attend, I often miss large chunks of the proceedings; and then fail to understand the context of the bits I do hear.
I would therefore like to address each of these points in turn: with the joint aims of increasing residents’ comprehension and appreciation of the Parish Council (PC); and, thereby, increasing residents’ participation in the Council’s monthly meetings.

Having read the Parish Plan (PP), I was impressed by its cogent understanding of the place where we live, and its vision for our future. However, it has become increasingly obvious that the PC had neither the resources to implement it fully (and answer the questions that many residents had posed), nor the discernment to appreciate the ‘lot’ of many of those residents. I do not know how it was produced: but I do know that in responding to those unanswered issues, and applying the same ethos to the forthcoming Neighbourhood Plan (NP), the PC would do much to reconnect with the majority of villagers. More importantly, they would demonstrate that, unlike larger governmental organizations, they really are ‘in touch’ with the needs of their constituents.

In some ways, the NP should have been the ideal vehicle for this: but it is becoming increasingly obvious that it is not fit for its original purpose; and is actually creating greater distance between the PC and the people it claims to represent. It will therefore need the new makeup of the PC (hopefully elected by a majority turnout) to make some brave and direction-changing decisions – for instance:
  • publishing the Terms of Reference that govern the relationship between the PC and the NP steering group and authors;
  • having these audited by a neutral third party to ensure that all points are being abided by – and, where this is found not to be the case – publically remedying each and every issue discovered;
  • as there is already a growing feeling in the village that the NP is being imposed on them from a great height, and that the document as it stands is even less relevant to them than its predecessor (the PP), such remedies may include either taking what work has been done, and repurposing it – once residents have all agreed how this should be done – or even starting from scratch (as with Graham Collier and Keith Risk’s small group meetings, that commence tonight (Wednesday)).
There are, of course, many other ways of involving the parish’s constituents: but it appears to me that the NP is the current, most pressing representation of the failing relationship between governing and governed. Demonstrating that residents are being listened to on this single issue would go a long way to restoring faith in the PC, and encouraging day-to-day involvement.

Such action would also “go a long way” in demonstrating how necessary, how important, residents are to the PC in not only supporting them ideologically, but in helping them fulfil objectives that were identical to residents’ own aims and hopes for the village and its surroundings – that villagers’ active participation is required in carrying out both the small (such as repairing benches and kerbs) and the big (raising funds, where government stipends are not enough).

The current relationship between the PC and its constituents strikes me as strained and weak: not only because of the obvious class differences, but because there is a mutual lack of understanding and values. Only if both sides see that this relationship is important, and are willing to put the hard work in to mend it, will trust be reestablished. Concrete opportunities must therefore be presented – and continually – for each side to listen to (not talk at) the other.

Communication and procedure
Again, this overlaps with the previous point. The new community website has gone some way to improving matters – but it can still be difficult (if not impossible) to navigate, and find the information you need. Were a database to be built of those ‘parishioners’ who would prefer the PC to be proactive in disseminating minutes, reports, dates of meetings, etc. by email, say (i.e. in the way those residents preferred; not in the way that things were currently done; or in the way that was easiest), then I would be surprised if villagers did not, as a consequence, take more steps to be involved, even if they were initially reactive.

The monthly meetings themselves do not allow for much resident participation. And holding them in such a small space feels like the PC is excluding more than a few ‘regulars’ from attending. It is closed in capacity as well as in spirit.

For instance, we are allowed to comment on individual planning applications – but not on issues that are relevant or timely to our own lives or predicaments. If the PC are discussing the states of grass verges and easements (to take a recent example), why cannot a resident who is currently fighting their way through the complexities of the planning system for such access, not be given, say, three minutes, to have their say? At the moment, such an interruption is quashed by the chair – albeit politely – and then tabled for the end of the meeting: by which time, both relevance and momentum (not to mention interest) have faded away; and most people are doing their damnedest to leave the building.

Although I accept that there may be a slight impact on timings, and lengths of meetings, the whole process needs democratizing: for the sakes of trust, and efficiency.

There was a wonderful snippet in the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald of 9 April 2015:

Disabled facilities are available at Tysoe Village Hall – paid for with £10,000 from Warwickshire County Council’s Investment Board….
     The money was made available under the Community Access for Disabled People: Changing Places and Sensory Areas Fund, and enabled the installation of toilet facilities that are suitable for wheelchair users, together with two new double doorways between the main hall and the committee room.
     In addition to this, the hall is now also fitted with a hearing loop to improve its accessibility for those with hearing difficulties….

Thanks must therefore go to Percy Sewell, in his rôle as chairman of Tysoe Village Hall Committee, for achieving all this; and for the importance I know he places on accessibility. (I just hope the loop system works; and has been tested by those, like me, who actually wear hearing aids – as many installations, sadly, don’t.) I believe – from what I could hear(?!) at last Monday’s meeting – that the Parish Council also helped; and I would therefore ask why PC meetings aren’t equally accessible?

Perhaps Percy – in his rôle as chair (I believe – or at least as an important trustee) of Tysoe Utility Estate – would like to similarly equip the village’s Reading Rooms, or the Village Hall committee room – so that I can hear all that is going on? (Or, perhaps, so that more people feel able to attend, PC meetings are held in the main hall itself?)

I will only mention the Equality Act in passing, as a slight dig; but approximately one in seven people in this country have hearing problems; and in a parish which is slightly skewed to the older resident (like me), I can only imagine that the local proportion is even higher.

I appreciate that the new Parish Council, in establishing itself with many new members, will have much to learn, much to do. But I truly believe that the points I raise above – if addressed – will go a long way to involving residents, by encouraging them to get involved: thus making the lives of our Parish Councillors so much easier, because of the increased support for, and involvement in, the work they do.

In essence, the problems I raise, and the solutions I proffer, are all about communication – which is always a two-way process. Messages may be proclaimed: but, unless they are received, understood and acted upon, they may as well have been written on paper, shredded, and thrown to the four winds. If we all truly care for Tysoe, then that is an important commonality we can build from. We must make the most of it, whilst we still can.

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