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.

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