Priming the Marlborough area’s parish pumps
At a meeting in the Town Hall on September 6, Wiltshire councillors on the Marlborough Area Board will be voting on whether to make a grant to a local organisation most people will have never heard of. And that’s how the ‘parish forum’ likes it.
The Marlborough area parish forum is a very lower case organisation. It has no logo, no website and a chairman who is determined to chair no more than four of its meetings. In the words of the song, it’s a ‘loose affiliation’ of the chairmen of the area’s eighteen rural parishes. They work behind the scenes as facilitators and advisers.
The forum was started this year by James Keith (Broad Hinton & Winterbourne Bassett and current chairman) with Mary Spender (Fyfield & West Overton) and the assistance of Jemima Milton (Wiltshire Councillor for West Selkley - covering a swathe of villages.)
As the Marlborough and Village Community Area Partnership (MAVCAP) faded away, James thought a fairly informal organisation which would meet just four times a year and do most of its business by email, could help parish councils. All but two parish councils attend the meetings – but all parishes are on the forum’s email circuit and receive minutes and papers.
(Marlborough council which sits as both a town and a parish council, was asked to join but declined, and this was accepted as appropriate for the time being.)
The forum has three main aims: to hold the area board to account and add parish input; to share knowledge, experience and resources among the parishes; and help resolve issues which affect more than one parish.
On the first aim James Keith told Marlborough News Online: “Something we want to bring about is to give the parishes a stronger voice in the Marlborough area board.”
Examples of the second aim have been the sharing of details of the legal hoops and processes one council has been through to provide new allotments in their village and the compilation of a central register of parish assets, services and issues solved so that each knows where to look for help.
An example of the third aim is finding solutions to the common ‘running sore’ of speeding drivers and traffic flow in villages. Through the forum parish councils with experience of successful traffic initiatives are already sharing details on this topic.
The forum can help with specific issues. The proposed Great Stones Way linking Avebury and Stonehenge will cross through Avebury and East Kennet parishes and the forum is helping bring together expertise to advise on the likely problems. But it will do nothing to bind any parish council.
Councillor Milton told Marlborough News Online that “The Marlborough area board is hugely supportive of the new parish forum.” And she points out that it is not only about parishes working together and sharing knowledge and good practice: “The forum also helps the area board to consult with the parishes as it offers an excellent conduit for cascading information and gaining opinions.”
James Keith says that the coalition government’s localism legislation – now before a House of Lords committee – gave “a sort of green light for us to get [the forum] going.” Greater devolution down the chain of government will put more responsibilities onto parish councils and increase the need for their voices to be heard clearly by town and county councils.
“I hope,” says Keith, “the actual provisions within the [localism] bill will in time prove to support the spirit of the bill and not be used to prevent a bottom-up system.”
One longer term challenge for the forum is how to increase the electorate’s interest in parish council affairs. A recent parish council election in Avebury saw a turn-out of just over twenty per cent (almost exactly the same, incidentally, as the recent ward by-election for Devizes Town Council.)
James Keith admits this is a problem. But he says that when important issues arise then the public will get involved.
While it is hard to get people worked up about a consultation for a long-term local development plan, the priority the government is going to give to pushing through housing projects may well get people in the villages out of their homes and pubs and into the polling stations.