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Rules of engagement

This blog is tenuously inspired by real life and intended for the entertainment of the author and like-minded individuals. Any apparent link to real people, organisations, or events is entirely coincidental. You are as welcome to comment as you are to leave, but please do so with a smile on your face. Enjoy.

Every day is a school day

I am always keen to learn new things and improve my knowledge and understanding across a broad range of subjects. In recent years this has been more of a ‘learning by doing’ approach, and the theory is that this form of learning is by far the most powerful. This power applies in both directions of course, in that if you are doing something incorrectly and picking up bad habits, this will quickly become the learned behaviour and increasingly difficult to unpick. I was delighted, therefore, to attend my formal councillor training this week – an important nudge in the right direction for my colleagues and I, to ensuring our efforts remain considered, compliant, and legal.

On the face of it the training course was not that different from a normal Parish meeting. Located in a village hall, the characteristic folding tables and plastic chairs, and the undertones of “let’s get through this fairly sharpish and swing by the pub afterwards”. On closer inspection, it was evident from the projector screen and domineering tutor that this was to going to adhere to a more robust schedule than some of us were used to. I say some of us, as we were just one of three groups of Parish Councillors in attendance, with some of the ‘others’ looking quite seasoned and clearly just here for a refresher.

The broad spectrum of experience in the room is confirmed during the slow creeping death introductions. Fourteen years is the longest serving Councillor around the table, all the way down to yours truly at 2-months. I get a knowing glance from one of the others of equally short tenure across the table. We both seem equally relived when it is confirmed that interactive exercises and ‘role play’ are not part of the syllabus.

I will not drag you through the full 2 hours of material, but there were certainly some nuggets of gold in there that I will carry with me for some time.

A personal case study described by the tutor about a complicated Conflict of Interest scenario was especially entertaining. With a clearly well rehearsed monologue, she unfurled a set of personal circumstances that had more than a few of the delegates blushing. A teenage marriage, a separation, a transition to a live-in, same sex partner – it was indeed a complex set of arrangements to square with the legal definition of which third parties may have declarable interests equivalent to your own. When the scenario was eventually revealed as fictitious and presented only to illustrate the point, there was a mixture of both relief and disappointment in the room. At least one of the more elderly attendees appeared to leave that evening under the impression that the story was completely true, and will no doubt speak of it in staged whisper for years to come with friends and family.

On a more serious note, the course covered some of the stark legal pitfalls that potentially await a naïve Councillor. We have, for example, a collective legal status but zero personal status (or more importantly protection) if acting alone. Statements, intentional or otherwise, made on behalf of the council by an individual Councillor but not demonstrably ratified in advance by the Council as a whole, would leave the individual personally liable for any adverse impact. A careless opinion expressed in the local about a planning application, for example, could be considered as pre-determination before due process; no doubt leading to complaints and a volume of paperwork that would make your eyes water.

I was also interested to learn that I am not invited to Council meetings, in fact I am summoned; with equal gravitas as being summoned to court. Over the years this has softened somewhat, especially in smaller Parishes such as mine, but from a legal standpoint attendance is mandatory. I am now legally obliged to attend the village hall every second Tuesday for the next four years! Well I never.

After it was all wrapped up with a ‘how many mistakes can you spot’ video of a dysfunctional Parish Council meeting, the opportunity to de-brief in the pub had unfortunately passed. It was a valuable evening nonetheless, and I am confident that any bad habits have been tempered for now. I will take refuge behind the Parish Clerk and the Chairman, for whom I have an elevated level of respect, as we negotiate the legal minefield ahead of us.

One action I feel the need to discharge is to remind my readers that everything in these pages is of course fictitious, and point you towards the rules of engagement here https://insidetheparish.com/2019/04/09/rules-of-engagement/

This blog does not, I repeat not, bring the Council into disrepute.

The calm before the storm

The last few weeks have been quite tense. On a number of fronts there are pools of tension and anticipation bubbling away, just waiting to boil over. Next week should be interesting, particularly if these various strands of intrigue reach their climax simultaneously. I will do my best to ensure they do.

First up, we have the ongoing saga of high speed broadband marauding its way through the village. The usual poorly constituted roadworks appeared last week, and the characteristic delays were seen for drivers passing through the village. Tailbacks of 15 to 20 yards, were seen with journey times extended by up to 5 minutes in some extreme cases. I personally found it quite amusing watching two confused looking men in high-vis trying to operate a Stop-Go board system whilst simultaneously trying to synchronise some temporary traffic lights.

However, the moderate impact on local traffic flow is not the enduring issue filling my inbox. Instead, the installation of an above ground junction box has clearly upset the masses. Audaciously placed immediately alongside the ‘Welcome to’ sign as you enter the village (and obscuring it from some angles) the parishioners are in uproar and demanding action. I have to say, I can see their point. The 4-foot high green cabinet is clearly designed to be discretely tucked away against a hedgerow or fence line; as was the approach taken by the previous two fibre optic installation teams.

It would appear that the relentless campaign of resistance prior to the work being undertaken, and I suspect abuse shouted at the workman from the slow moving traffic during its execution, may have resulted in a deliberately offensive siting of this new street furniture. A 4-foot high, green finger up to the community that so resented their presence and hard work. At the next meeting we will discuss what measures can be taken to relocate the eye-sore, resulting in more roadworks no doubt.

Secondly, the Village Hall hearing loop continues undelivered and yet increasingly expensive. In expectation of a briefing to the Council on progress so far, and reasons for the delay and cost escalation, I have taken the trouble to research the general concept and technology involved. As a recovering engineer, I do find tremendous interest is discovering how things work. As is typical, there is a broad spectrum of capability when it comes to electro-audio installations; from the ‘bare bones’ to the ‘Rolls-Royce’ solution – and I suspect we have crept into the latter.

I look forward to asking ridiculously detailed questions, and challenging the contractor on why the Village Hall needs a grade of equipment that would be more at home in Birmingham NEC. I’m sure I can rely on one of my colleagues (who is genuinely hard of hearing) to sprinkle some comedy gold dust by asking us to speak up during the exchange.

Thirdly, and more excitement than tension, we are combining forces with a neighbouring Parish to undertake some Councillor training. They say that those who can, do; and those that can’t, teach. I cannot wait to experience those that teach Councillors. Add the ‘them and us’ dynamic between us and the delegates from the next Parish along (with whom I hope there are long-standing frictions and unresolved disputes), it should be quite an entertaining 2-hours.

All of the above will play out early next week. Please comment if you have specific questions about hearing loop technology or by-laws pertaining to the placement of communications infrastructure, and I will do my very best to bring you an answer in future blogs.

Clearing the inbox

I have recently become much better at switching off from work. Through more dedicated effort to protecting time off, more hobbies outside of work, and of course my involvement in the Parish and this blog; I am now far better closing the door on the 24/7 access to the corporate whirl. As a result, I have also become more adept at tackling the deluge of emails that inevitably await my return. Falling slightly short of simply deleting them unread in the order they were received, I can certainly pick out the subject and senders that warrant a response, and the vast majority that don’t.

However, I now have a second inbox to tackle, and it is a completely different World. The nature and volume of the Parish communications is going to take a bit of getting used to. Absolute minutiae is frequently presented with an urgency and prevalence that is completely disproportionate to the subject at hand, whilst what appear to be more critical matters requiring immediate action are often hidden discreetly in the noise.

By way of an example, I have just ‘filed’ the eighth email received in a two-day period confirming the fine details of traffic control measures associated with road improvement works that appear to have been completed some time ago. I can say this with a level of confidence as I can see the reinstated tarmac from my lounge window. Digging down, it bears all the hallmarks of an automated email pumped out by our District Council colleagues. Unfortunately, they are very well disguised en-route by the Parish secretary with a covering narrative and call to action – which is typically no more than “please note…”. With time, I’m sure I will refine my senses so as not to be drawn in, and achieve a laser focus on the critical items – wherever they may hide.

Over my first few weeks in post I have diligently reviewed, triaged, and filed the steady flow of Parish emails within 24 hours of receipt. However, in keeping with my improved approach to protecting leisure time I have recently taken a full week away enjoying the great outdoors with the Wife and hounds in a secluded holiday cottage. Although slightly damp from the classically British summer weather, I return refreshed and ready to tackle my various duties. Being confronted by a week’s accumulation of Parish comms has been a bit of a shock, but this can wait for now as I have neglected the blog.

There are some nuggets of gold bubbling around the Parish at the moment from disputed responsibilities for the funding and maintenance of communal planters, to the rapidly escalating costs of the hearing loop installation in the village hall. I’ll be sure to keep you all posted over the coming weeks and months on these critical matters, and hopefully provide a small slice of escapism from the demands of normal life. I hope this continues to be a welcome notification in your inbox.

Remembrance

Today only a few words are necessary. Call it D-Day, Operation Neptune, or the Normandy Landings; we mark the 75 year anniversary of a tremendous demonstration of courage that shaped the World we live in today. Our council sits in the village Memorial Hall, and I am proud to be custodian of this living testament to those who did not return home.

The secret of Happiness is Freedom, and the secret of Freedom, Courage

Thucydides (460 BC – 395 BC), Greek Historian

Third time’s the charm

It’s all go in the theatre of international politics this week. At the time of writing the number of candidates for the next Tory leader and UK Prime Minister has reached 13, Brexit remains the defining topic for most of them, and the state visit of the US President rolls on like a poorly written docudrama. The NHS has replaced the Northern Irish boarder as the latest political football, violence has erupted in Sudan, and not much is improving in Syria despite it having vanished from the majority of media channels. With so much going on, I have this week been focussed on a particularly pointy Parish issue – high speed broadband is coming to the village, again.

For some time now the UK government has been committed to rolling out high speed broadband, achieving 100% coverage at some date in the distant future. I won’t go into the tiresome details of what constitutes ‘high speed’ and ‘coverage’ but I can’t help but feel it is already fast enough. As I write this post directly into the cloud whilst simultaneously listening to today’s cricket World Cup match on a live stream, I feel I am receiving a perfectly reasonable level of domestic service from my provider.

However, this is not about me. My has attention has been drawn this week to a poor chap just down the road who is about to have his driveway dug up for the third time in 12-months. Notified by a laminated A4 sheet attached to a telegraph pole, yet another high speed broadband provider will arrive next week to lay fibre optic cable under his driveway which also serves as access to two isolated houses. I am fairly late to this, with my first engagement being sight of an exasperated letter of escalation to the District Council; but the back story seems to be thus:

  • Under the UK government commitment a number of companies have been contract to install fibre optic infrastructure across the country, with a particular emphasis on rural communities.
  • These companies are now clambering over themselves to deliver this work and hoover up the associated incentives. I speculate that this delivery is prioritised to minimise their costs, and therefore focus on particular geographies that suit them logistically. My speculation is supported by the large drums of fibre optic I have seen dotted around the countryside of late, patiently waiting for a home.
  • The associated planning activity seems fairly ‘light touch’ so as not delay progress, and I suspect to prevent penalty charges from the companies being prevented from meeting their commitments.

The sum total of this is that these two isolated houses, and the gentleman raising the objection, will soon receive their third high-speed broadband connection option in under a year, and the hero of our story will get another week of disruption and a third scar along his driveway as a living reminder. Now I don’t wish to be ageist, but due to the advanced years of these potential high-speed broadband customers I do not think they really appreciate being amongst some of the most digitally connected consumers in the country. Even if they did, a near speed of light communication channel is unlikely to be improved by the addition of two more. To quote from the letter of escalation, “We didn’t want it the first time, so we definitely don’t want it three times over. Is there no common sense?”.

It’s an excellent question. I’ve always been of the view that common sense is not very common; particularly when you move into the arena of national initiatives, ‘one size fits all’ approaches, and the annualised budgets that underpin so many nonsensical decisions in public sector procurement. This is exactly the kind of idiotic logic that sees unnecessary re-surfacing of perfectly good roads and pavements towards financial year end, whilst other essential services remain underfunded.

So what can we do? It turns out not very much by way of instilling some logical thought into proceedings. There are options, however, to fight bureaucracy with bureaucracy. It turns out that part of the driveway/access road is ‘unassigned land’ and hence utilities companies can do pretty much anything they want with it. However, an application to assign the land to our hero, even whilst pending, puts an instant block on any planned work. If the request for assignment is rejected, he can simply apply again; giving him the ability to frustrate this work indefinitely or at least until the latest broadband crusade has marauded onto the next village. Based on the correspondence I’ve seen to date, he is clearly up for the fight – and good luck to him.

At some point in the bureaucratic chain, this represents a diabolical waste of taxpayers money (including mine); but equally it feels like a valid resistance to ‘big money’ muscling their way through, and literally leaving a scar on rural communities. I am confident this kind of thing is going on across the country, and at a scale far greater than this. I do, at least, now have a front row seat and the opportunity to get ahead of the next piece of nonsense that hits (at very high speed) by Parish inbox.

When it’s time to go

It’s been another one of those weeks in British politics. Eventful, even by current standards. If there was an I-Spy book of political observations, this would have been a bumper week. An election, a milkshake attack on a right-wing candidate, and a couple of resignations (including the PM). I’ve observed Tory leadership candidates circling awkwardly around the carnage like an underage teenager in an off licence. They want to take the plunge, and the rewards may be spectacular; but the possibility of public humiliation weighs heavily. Be it through immediate rejection in front of their peers, or success followed by a spectacular hangover – there can be no winners; just many, many losers.

This has been the first ministerial resignation since I took office and it was the big one, the Head Honcho. As our outgoing PM sobbed tragically over the lectern outside Number 10 it got me thinking, rather prematurely, about how my end would come. They say all political careers end in failure, so maybe I should prepare myself.

A quick bit of research reveals that my options are fairly straightforward. Left unattended, I will be required to face re-election in 4-years time. The uncontested nature of my appointment seems to suggest that this would provide a relatively binary choice: i) stand and be ushered in along with my colleagues, ii) don’t stand, and be replaced by a new-comer. I’ll pencil in a preliminary ‘sounding out’ at a Christmas drinks evening a few years hence; this is clearly where naive new candidates are initially groomed. Of course, in the unlikely event that the nominations exceed the number of seats, an actual election may be required; but there is plenty of time and blogging to be done before we need to think about that.

Far more intriguing are the options for leaving office whilst sitting. These fall into two broad categories: voluntary and forced.

Voluntary exit seems as straight forward as a letter of resignation to the Chairman, and it all seems pretty much instant. I can’t see myself ever initiating this scenario, other than as a pre-emptive measure to negate a forced departure, but it is good to know the safety valve of a swift exit is always there. I may fashion myself a lectern just in case, and draw up blueprints for a very local press conference. I’ll get the wife to arrange for some local hacks to cover the story and create some social media coverage. I’ve always enjoyed the blunt questions shouted from off-camera at such events, punctuated by the flash of cameras. “Are you going to return the money Councillor?”. “Do you have anything to say to the child that fell off the roundabout?”. “Were the safety assessments up to date Councillor?”.

Forced exit, as you would expect, is rather procedural and throws up some amusing scenarios. For example, I am fascinated by the grounds for expulsion due to non-attendance. Under the Local Government Act 1972, I can be relieved of my office if I do not attend any Parish meetings over a 6-month period. Six months! It undermines the gravity of my position somewhat that it is deemed, in the eyes of the law at least, that I can adequately meet the objectives of my role through two 1-hour gatherings per year. I probably spend longer topping up my windscreen washer fluid and checking the tyres on my car each year.

The only other significant grounds for forced dismissal is a substantiated complaint from a Parishioner. This would need to be formally raised to the District Council and then formally, and independently, investigated. I could imagine my Brother creating some mischief on this front, but fortunately he is not domiciled in my Parish, or even the UK. The wife could legitimately initiate such proceedings, but she currently seems very supportive of my endeavours. So save for a tremendous failure on my part that would inspire a largely unengaged electorate to complain, I should be fairly immune to this means of departure.

But that’s enough talk of the ‘end game’. We need not fetishise about the resignations and power games that characterise our Parliamentary politics at present. We choose not to indulge in the poisonous rhetoric that surrounds Brexit. We, at the bottom rung of British politics, are better than that. We are a collaborative, focussed, pro-active team. We have work to do, and we are ready to do it. Life is what happens to us whilst we’re making other plans, so let’s focus on the here and now. I’m very happy for my departure to come as a massive surprise.

Completing the team

Regular readers will be familiar with the family members that support me in my endeavours; the wife and the dogs all, in a very important way, support me in everything I do. However, to date I am yet to mention another key player. When the wife and I first moved to the Parish, we did so with another member of our family. A sporadically loyal, a consistently hungry, predominantly sleeping, cat.

Before the dogs arrived, the cat provided an early connection with the neighbours. Introducing himself to gardens and kitchens alike, he quickly grew his network of human slaves. When work or leisure require us to be away from the house for extended periods, there are a raft of willing volunteers to check in on the old boy. Knowing him only around feeding time, a number of neighbours have been thoroughly charmed by the cat. If only they knew.

As well as keeping us all in check, the cat provides an important support function to the delivery of this blog. More often than not, he sits quietly observing me as I type. Could he be pondering the subject of the latest post, or does he just resent the disturbance caused by my key tapping? Either way, he stares me down, keeps me focussed, and ensures that my writing does not delay his dinner.

In recent weeks the cat has also provided me with a conceptual sounding board for Parish matters. In many ways he is the ideal proxy for the average Parishioner. He has needs that need to be served and he provides minimal feedback until such time that he has a complaint to make; at which point he becomes very vocal indeed. We invest in infrastructure to make him more comfortable, and toys to make life more enjoyable. But rather than use the luxurious bed or multi-sensory activity station, he would rather sleep on the arm of the chair or play with a discarded sock.

I do not wish to stretch the metaphor too much but through the cat I may have inadvertently been preparing for my role as a Parish councillor for nearly 10 years.