The higher purpose of government

Last February one unsuspecting council and a certain Jackie Weaver were catapulted into the limelight. The YouTube video of a fractious Handforth Parish council instantly became a national talking point and phrases like, “You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver!” could be called out in the street to the knowing smiles of any passer-by.

Aside from its comic value, the video also reminded people of what some see as the pitfalls of local government. Amateurism, inefficiency and egotism – all these words could be thrown at those who serve as volunteers on our parish councils.

But take a look at Oundle Town Council for a different picture.

The council declares on its website that its aim is to maintain “a beautiful thriving market town renowned for being a fantastic place to live, work and a joy to visit”.

It may appear relatively basic at face value but, of course, it takes a lot to keep Oundle this good.

The council carries out many day-to-day roles such as maintaining and administering public outdoor and indoor spaces such as Queen Victoria Hall, Fletton House and Snipe Meadow as well as consulting on planning, and allocating grant money. As Councillor David Chapple put it: “This council punches way above its weight providing a small town with large town facilities.”

However, local government, in Oundle at least, serves a higher purpose. Cllr Chapple said: “Of course the council is about local government, and this inevitably means matters of administration, but it means – or should do – so much more than that. It can and should be about trying to ensure that the people of Oundle have every opportunity to experience and enjoy the quality of life that they aspire to.”

Former councillor Tony Robinson said: “The emphasis is on the wrong thing – administration. It makes local government very unimportant. It concentrates more on stopping things than starting things. The governor on an engine stops it from going too fast or too slow, it’s the fuel that makes it go. We grow our communities by helping them fly.”

Councillor Ian Clark agrees, saying that the best thing about the council is, “the sense of achievement when we get a project through to completion and it’s well received. In my time, the new skatepark and the boardwalk feel like things that have enhanced life for residents in Oundle.”

The councillors are all volunteers and no one denies that this is a challenge. “It’s remarkably tough work for a group of amateur volunteers!” says Cllr Clark. But they keep coming back because they want to keep that special quality which Oundle has.

Cllr Chapple joined the council thirty-five years ago. When asked how he would describe what he has been doing for those past years, at first, he said he has been serving Oundle. But then he added: “If I was going to be cynical, however, I might make a more flippant comment along the lines of – my years on the council have been at times both maddening and disheartening but I have kept coming back for more because at other times it has been truly rewarding and the pleasure at such times always outweighs any pain.”

Cllr Chapple said: “Perhaps there is a perception that councillors are in it for personal glory or self-advancement. But there is no glory in what we do; there are more brickbats than bouquets to be found.”

Former councillors Peter Peel and Tony Robinson were more blunt. “You have to keep fighting the b!”; “Don’t let the b* grind you down!” they both said.

The Council has faced its own problems. “I could write a book,” admitted Cllr Chapple. There are the common political problems: not enough funding or power.

In particular, the council was very disappointed to have its Neighbourhood Plan – the blueprint for how the residents of Oundle want the town to expand with new housing – rejected by the ENC.

Cllr Clark said, “The town council is effectively a parish council so has limited powers – and many of the decisions affecting Oundle seem to be taken in distant offices, which we need to get better at influencing.”

Former councillor Peter Peel agreed: “It is not for those who wish to dictate from far afield to say you must have this or that. “It is for all those who live, work and play here that must come first.”

However, an arguably greater blight gnaws at the heart of local government: a lack of recognition for the role they perform in a flourishing town.

Tony Robinson recognises this: “Possibly the greatest problem facing local government is making councillors feel successful. The image of Handforth was there long before we saw the social-media bit. So, image is the biggest problem, and you cannot just say that it’s better, it has to be that way.”

Not just that, but it appears our councillors are a dying breed. Of the 14 seats available, only ten nominations were received. Before any votes had been cast on 6 May, all the town councillors knew they had an uncontested place on the council. Cllr Chapple said: “I have been elected to the council as there were insufficient candidates for there to be an election, which is disappointing but hardly surprising. I wish I knew how we could attract more people to take up the challenge of becoming a councillor.”

The council is unique in that it is the only institution which serves Oundle town alone. Solely focused on our town, it does so much, both in terms of day-to-day administration and by employing a broad vision for bettering Oundle.

This is why Oundle Town councillors – and the majority of other people in local government – are nothing like the shouty little boxes which appear in the Handforth YouTube video.

Even after thirty-five years, Cllr Chapple remains devoted to the Council: “The best thing about the council is that it remains apolitical. The party that all councillors belong to is ‘the Oundle Party’ with all of us trying to make the town as good as it can be, both preserving what is good and trying to have positive developments too.”

Ned Chatterton
May 2021