I recommend every person, at least once in their life, attends a Parish Council meeting. There is a standing agenda item reserved for you: “matters arising from the floor”. So why not make the most of it? Like a piece of fine art, the more you observe and experience the piece, the more you will see and the more you will gain from the experience.
I attended my first meeting as the only member of the public, and so it was that I squeezed myself in around the folding table on a stackable plastic chair. Shoulder to shoulder with five of the seven Councillors (there were a couple of no-shows), it was much like the pre-Christmas event only without the Prosecco, and hosted in the far less comfortable surroundings of the village hall. For the first time I also met the Parish Secretary; the only paid member of the gathering, and extremely adept at bringing a certain level of formality to proceedings.
I had little to offer, and did not make the most of the agenda item exclusively available to me. I was happy to declare, “I’m not entirely sure what’s going on. I’m just here to see how it all works”. That seemed to be well received, and a knowing nod from the Chairman seemed to confirm (in his eyes at least) that this was the beginning of something significant.
The remainder of the first meeting was a bit of a blur. I kept pace with the various discussion points, ranging from recent planning applications to agreements on how the remainder of the annual budget was to be allocated. The length of discussion was varied and disproportionate to the severity of the subject at hand. All agenda items concluded with the well rehearsed, almost ceremonial chant of the Chairman: “proposed….seconded….passed unanimous”, with the most subtle of hand gestures or motions of the head confirming the agreement of Councillors. The scope and level of authority of the forum seemed transient to my untrained eye, but the team seemed focussed on getting through the agenda as efficiently as possible. I left with as many questions as answers, but two clear takeaways for me:
A clear tension with the District Council; a faceless, all powerful body from which this group was destined to protect the Parish and its residents;
Some long-standing resentments (apparently decades in some instances) pertaining to specific local business and residents. Details were scant, but the intrigue was immense and extremely entertaining for all the wrong reasons.
It was clear that the post-meeting momentum would be taking the bulk of the Councillors in the direction of the local, and I was invited to join them. I was feeling drawn in, and as we worked our way diligently through the 4-headed round, conversation moved on to the upcoming elections.
The festive period provided ample opportunity for further gatherings with friends and parishioners; starting with New Year drinks. Wine and torch in hand, we set off again for an evening of snacks and bubbly refreshments, hoping for some first class anecdotes from our host for the evening of a life in the armed forces and growing up in the Far East as the sun set on the British Empire. With the group being of a certain age, we were confident that we would be back in time for the Hootenanny.
Just one councillor was present, so not much Parish chat. However, planning permission and the status of various village developments seemed to be a popular topic of conversation, and so remained an undertone of pseudo authority within the group; a strange feeling I recalled from our pre-Christmas gathering. The evening passed without drama, bar a brief excitement about an absent neighbour’s mistress speeding along one of the single track lanes. There seemed to be plenty of threads to pull at in this story, but it didn’t feel like the time or place. After saying our goodbyes, and the offering of good wishes for the New Year, it was just a short walk past the local to get home.
After three pints, I felt it prudent to briefly return home to check on the dogs. As the wife ordered the next round I popped back to find, inevitably, both of them sound asleep. The eldest stirred briefly and accepted a biscuit, before settling back down. I returned to the pub to find a pint waiting for me, along with the Chairman of the Parish Council. I recognised him from the pre-Christmas event, and it would appear our conversation picked up from where we had left off that evening.
The following three hours or so passed swiftly and with minimal recollection. I failed to make it back for the Hootenanny after all, but through the haze of the following morning it was clear that further steps had been taken towards public office. My potential candidature for the upcoming elections had become a discussion point with the locals, and I was being referred to as “some much needed younger blood”.
The wife offered her characteristic wisdom, recognising this is exactly the kind of thing I should get involved in, and exactly the kind of thing I didn’t have time for or particularly enjoy. Her assessment was accurate, but I felt compelled to learn more and attendance at the next Parish Council meeting seemed the natural next step. Time to see how this all worked first hand.
It all began with Christmas drinks. Our third Christmas in the ‘new’ house, but the first where our various emergent neighbourly relationships had achieved a critical mass to warrant an invite to the mid-December soirée. Bottle and torch in hand, the wife and I negotiate the long, dark driveway quickly checking the names of the likely attendees and estimating the threshold for a polite departure.
We need not have worried. The couple from two doors down with a similar appetite for the grape are already there, and a Prosecco a piece is handed to us on entry. I clock a few known faces as I enter into small talk with my host in the corner of the living room. He is one that I am meeting for the first time, and we share some professional and cultural background – it’s a promising start.
Alarm bells start to tinkle when the third person introduces themselves and feels the need to highlight their position on the Parish Council. By the end of the slow meandering introductions, it is evident that four of the seven sitting members are present (including the Chairman) and that I have stumbled into the political hub of the village.
Festive small talk continues, but I notice I have become flanked by my host (the most recent addition to the Council) and the Chairman. I show enough interest to be polite, followed by genuine interest at this apparently rich seam of local intrigue and gossip that is the bottom rung of the British political system. With regular top-ups to my glass I am becoming positively enthusiastic about the whole thing.
What better way to make a positive contribution and get to know people in this small village community that we are so happy to call home. Until now, our relationships in the village have formed up around pets and passing encounters in the local pub. Could the parish council be the way to take a more formal role in village life, enhance our community, and continue to get to know and look out for those around us? If nothing else, it appears to be a cracking spectator sport.
My interest has been duly noted…
“Neighbours complaining about someone’s dog making an awful racket. You could hardly blame the poor beast, its owner had died in her bed at least a fortnight before and there hadn’t been much left of the old girl worth eating.” — James Oswald, Natural Causes
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.