Does the Handforth Parish Council viral video show that local government should be abolished? Or does it show that all local government meetings should be virtual?

6th February 2021

The interest in that Handforth Parish Council video is extraordinary.

Even at this blog, yesterday’s post has already had more views than any other post here has had in total over the last five years – with the single exception of the post that explained Article 50 the day after the shock of the referendum result.

(Yesterday’s post even attracted a commenter who, without any apparent irony, described Jackie Weaver’s actions as ‘the worst kind of Fascism’ – and one can only wonder what they then thought when their comment was binned rather than published.)

Without doubt the video has added for some to what used to to be called the ‘gaiety of the nation’ – though for others it was a less cheerful public illustration of the abuses, disruption and misconduct in such meetings that is usually hidden from view.

But as interest fades and new memes come along, what – if anything – is the more general significance of the story of that parish council meeting?


One problem of local government is lack of interest.

People, it would seem, can only bear so much democracy.

The turnout in local government is lower than parliamentary elections.

And – as with political parties – the fewer people who are engaged, the more unrepresentative are those who stay involved.

When those unrepresentative representatives have actual powers then this means it is more likely that bad decisions will be made instead of good decisions. 


One response to this observation will be that the solution is to encourage more interest and more engagement.

And such a stirring exhortation will garner claps and cheers – or, at least, their modern equivalent, ‘likes’ and RTs.

But when the nods finish and good intentions are superseded, there will still be little interest in local government.

Because nothing has changed substantially to make local government more accessible.

And so in local government continues to be dominated by those who would only get elected because of that lack of interest.

To which, in turn, there are two three responses.

The first is to shrug and say one gets the local elected representatives one deserves.

The second is to question the need for the democratic element in the provision of local services – after all, many people will not care who their local councillors are, so long as their bins are collected on time.

The third is to see lack of interest as the result of the lack of real powers for local government – and if local bodies had more powers then there would be more local interest.


None of these three responses are, for me, compelling.


The Handforth incident suggests there is a way for there to be more interest in local government – and that is simply to make it easier for people to follow what is going on (and even participate) in the making of local government decisions.

One of the few benefits of the coronavirus lockdowns has been that various bodies are now deliberating online rather than in unknown council chambers, and that those deliberations are publicly available.

As a matter of democratic principle, and from the perspective of increasing transparency, there is great deal to be said for deliberations to be done virtually.

Here I do not mean that council proceedings should just be streamed, but that the actual meetings should be done virtually rather than in some council chamber or committee room.

Indeed, one could question whether – given new technology – there is now any need for council chambers at all, other than for ceremonial events and for showing determined tourists.

And we would be free from the tiresome mock-parliamentary debating society macho pedantic silliness of some oral debates – and it would be easier for all representatives to contribute rather than budding after dinner speakers and those who bray in their support.

Councillors would also be able to readily attend around their other professional and home responsibilities, rather than giving up whole days in the manner of leisurely amateurs in frock coats.

At a stroke such virtual proceedings as the norm would be instantly more accessible to the public – and also to otherwise sidelined councillors.


Much of what we take as the natural norms in our public affairs are just practices and categories we have inherited from previous generations.

And big set-piece meetings in ornate council chambers may have suited Victorians and Edwardians – but, if we were starting from a blank page today, would we come up with the same model?

(Indeed, would practically minded Victorians and Edwardians have insisted on their model had they been aware of our technology?)

Similar points can also be made about other formal meetings – and indeed court hearings.

Other than when the credibility of witness under examination is at issue – and there is no substitute for that being done in person – or when there are necessary reporting restrictions, there is no overwhelming reason why most court hearings cannot be done virtually.


The fact that we inherited practices from a time without virtual technology is no reason, by itself, to persist with those practices, as long as other principles such as due process and fairness are not adversely affected.

Making public affairs more accessible is not only a public good, but would have the practical utility of ensuring more engagement.

People watching – or participating  in – the Handforth council meeting on their laptop or their phone (or indeed iPad) was for many a novelty.

But it would be good for democracy if virtual council and their formal meetings and hearings became the new natural norm.


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54 thoughts on “Does the Handforth Parish Council viral video show that local government should be abolished? Or does it show that all local government meetings should be virtual?”

  1. It always strikes me as odd that there is such determined insistence on the need for democratically elected representatives in local government, but no such interest in the health service. Why do we need a say in how our bins are collected, but not in how our health is looked after?

      1. It is possible, but it doesn’t happen because we have a highly centralised NHS (the clue is in the N) that is accountable to elected politicians in central government. Today’s papers suggest it’s about to become even more centralised.

    1. Every Foundation Trust has elected public Governors able to hold the Trust to account – technically to hold the NEDs to account for the conduct of the unitary Board… but I digress. I agree no such direct involvement in Commissioners or NHS Trusts (which are not Foundation Trusts) by the public.

  2. It shows that hyper-local democracy has a place, and that those participating have next to no training and can demonstrate a lack of professionalism.
    To seek to abolish parish councils is the wrong solution – we should abolish Districts and empower Parishes through better support.

    1. I believe the tiers are broadly right. Parish Councils deal with very local issues, District level with the matters that clearly cross Parish boundaries such as planning control, refuse, housing, environment. Then County with more strategic matters such as education, social care, transport etc. Where there are unitary authorities this is the upper tiers combined, not lower ones. Supporting Parish Councils to handle planning control would lead to ultra-fragmentation, not to mention the “just put it somewhere else” pressures. More likely with abolishing DCs, Parish Councils will gain nothing but upper tier unitaries will become very remote. Ah yes, Declaration of Interest: District Councillor!

  3. The Local Authorities (Coronavirus)(Meetings)(Wales) Regulations 2020 – under this community & town councils in Wales can and now do meet online. While the requirement to admit the press and public is temporarily suspended it is easy to share the meeting link so they can attend. These regs end in April 2021 but is hoped they will not only be extended but made permanent. Online meetings do allow more people to participate, particularly those with mobility or caring responsibilities. So they are more democratic and open.

  4. Cant agree with all of this sadly.

    I’ve been a borough councillor on and off since 1999 (I started young) and while I recognise that some main council meetings can be theatre the smaller ones allow councillors and officers the chance to speak to each other in ways that are not as easy online.
    I’ve been a planning councillor twice and in both occasions you may suddenly want to see a plan – something that’s far easier in the room than online. Also you get a sense of public opinion when over 200 turn up for a public meeting in a way that you don’t when 11 people may be watching on YouTube.
    Then there is the human contact – having known some of the councillors and officers for 25 years now, you become friends in a way that is often underestimated – I wouldn’t rush to have them round for dinner but would certainly check in on health etc – and that sort of conversation which can take place in the corner of a chamber cannot happen online in the same way.
    Finally there is the tech issues – I upgraded my broadband 18 months ago and have had no issues but my borough has a number of villages where the signal is weak or intermittent. This is just as much deterrent as coming to a dreary chamber.

    I would imagine I will continue to hold a number of meetings online in the new world but solely digital would be a cold replication of what I’ve experienced over 20 years so far.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly, councillors and council officers are human and we need proper face to face interaction with each other, for our own mental health but also to build relationships and ultimately make better decisions.
      I would also argue that many people do not behave as well online as they would in real life and I think this zoom meeting highlights that. If these parish councillors had all been in a room together they probably would have behaved much better.
      Some online meetings help with work/life balance but when we can most of us are looking forward to meeting face to face again!

    2. I agree. I am a district councillor. The district is partly very rural. A lot of my colleagues don’t have the internet capacity to be able properly to cope. Also some of the councillors are almost entirely incompetent at coping with technology – and my do I wish they would find the mute button. Other, usually at the other end of the age range are trying to be councillors with their kids running around.

      On the other hand, the watching figures for online meetings are higher than for when we met in the flesh, and that has to be a good thing.

      1. I quite agree and it sounds like were in the same position. I’m looking forward to in person meetings again especially as an Independent not having a party disseminating information to me. The informal discussions before and after meetings are very useful. But the virtual and hybrid meetings have increased attendance and public participation so we should not lose that.

    3. If only 11 people bother to turn up, then I would suggest your meeting should not be “quorate”.
      No more ‘back room’ deals – if you want to claim you are a democracy, then you have to have participation. Decisions should require attendance by a substantial number of people. If no one cares, then no decision should be made.
      * you want a big housing project (& its jobs) – make sure people attend
      * you want a new nursery school – make sure people attend
      * you want more cycle lanes – make sure people attend

  5. The LGA, ADSO and others are making these arguments (amongst others) to Government at the moment as the ability to use remote meetings (granted by the Coronavirus regulations) is due to end on 7 May 2021.

    I can see pluses and minuses to their continued use, there are some potential governance issues (particularly on in meeting lobbying) that arise, but on balance the potential for remote meetings to *unlock* democracy for more groups, both as decision makers and the public is compelling.

    Sorry for the long link, but legal advice is also being sought to see if they can continue when the regs elapse.

  6. Like many things, there’s a balance to this. On-line meetings like these are more accessible to some, but not to everyone.

    There will still be a need to reach out to those excluded by data-poverty, disability and other factors.

    Going on-line definitely a good thing, but there must be broader measures taken to maximize accessibility so that it’s not an issue.

  7. David, remote meetings are currently permitted under s78 of the Covid Act (previously they were not permitted). But that section has a sunset clause of 7 May 2021. It means that councils (including parishes) are in the absurd position of being compelled, in three months time, to meet entirely physically again. To say nothing of the wider benefits you’ve set out, this raises huge risks to safety – councils are obliged by law to convene an AGM in late May, which in some cases will mean more than 100 people crammed together in a poorly ventilated space, without social distancing.

    There’s an overwhelming consensus in the sector that the benefits to transparency and accountability in the long term, allied to the public health benefits in the short term, make permanence a no-brainer. Wouldn’t necessarily agree that all or even most business should be done remotely but having the powers would give councils the flexibility to design an approach which makes sense for them and their residents. A number of local government bodies have come together to work with Government to identify a proportionate legal solution to this challenge (Government asserts that a change to primary legislation is needed, we don’t necessarily agree).

  8. Something would be lost if all council meetings took place by computer. It would mean you never had to meet your opponents in person, see them interact with their friends and family outside the meeting, sit and talk in the cafe outside the town hall. The remoteness of online life makes it so much easier to have an “us and them” bubble mentality, as we see on Twitter every day.

  9. Speaking as a councillor, at two levels (district and parish), I would say that, no, we shouldn’t stick with purely virtual meetings once the pandemic is over. I think the forced use of them during the pandemic has demonstrated that they do work, and I wouldn’t want to simply switch back to all in-person meetings. I would hope that we can retain the use of virtual meetings where appropriate, particularly for smaller committees and panels that only have a few participants and for meetings that need to be scheduled on an ad-hoc basis rather than being part of the regular calendar.

    But… virtual meetings don’t really scale to the demands of larger meetings. Even now, almost a year on from when we first had them, we are still plagued by the inability of too many people to grasp the simple technical aspects of a video meeting, such as knowing how to use the “mute” button and ensuring that they are in an environment free from distracting background noise. And virtual meetings enforce a strict “one to all” conversation policy – you can’t have a side conversation with the person sitting next to you, and you can’t use the time immediately before or after the meeting to have an informal chat with officers or other members about issues that aren’t important enough to actually be on the agenda but still, nonetheless, benefit from talking over with someone else.

    Virtual meetings also pose problems with items that require presentations of technical documents, for example planning committees where detailed plans and drawings are an essential part of the decision-making. Being able to have them up on the screen in the council chamber while people speak works a lot better than screen-sharing on Zoom, where you can see the presentation or the speaker but not both at once.

    Also, don’t discount the personal interaction inherent in in-person meetings. Socialising over coffee in the Members’ Room before the meeting, or over a pint in the pub afterwards, is where relationships are built, ideas are swapped and advice is sought and offered. While social groups can be cliques, they are also often valuable forums for cross-party interaction where people can speak freely without the need to stay on-message all the time.

    So, while I’d like to see video meetings retained as a tool in our locker, I don’t want them to be the long-term norm. I want to get back to the council chamber and get back to normality.

    1. I’d disagree with a couple of your comments;
      ‘And virtual meetings enforce a strict “one to all” conversation policy – you can’t have a side conversation with the person sitting next to you’
      This is one of the most annoying aspects of face to face meetings, where participants start to have side conversations rather than focussing on the debate and it’s something I call out when chairing a meeting.

      ‘Virtual meetings also pose problems with items that require presentations of technical documents, for example planning committees where detailed plans and drawings are an essential part of the decision-making. Being able to have them up on the screen in the council chamber while people speak works a lot better than screen-sharing on Zoom, where you can see the presentation or the speaker but not both at once.’
      This is something you can resolve with a better home IT setup. I join my council meetings using a computer setup with two large monitors. I can see the shared screen on one monitor and participants on the other.

      1. I’m not suggesting that people should routinely be chatting away to other members during a meeting. But between items, and in particular when waiting for a presentation to be set up, a brief conversation can be helpful to ensure that you’re on the same wavelength. Plus, having someone next to you to ask “which page of the report pack is that on?” can be very useful at times :-)

        As far as better home IT setups are concerned, I’m an IT professional and I work from home normally so I have a multiscreen setup and yes, that does make it a lot easier to follow presentations. But, realistically, when half your members are connecting via their phones or iPads, because they either can’t be bothered to set up a laptop or don’t even have one, there is no way that we can reasonably expect that to be the norm. Even if the council provided the equipment, a lot of people simply don’t have the space to set it up at home – especially given that, when in confidential session, they must be alone in the room in their house. And, of course, enforcing the exclusion of family members when in confidential session can be difficult, as if they’re out of camera shot the host doesn’t know they are there.

      2. Don’t believe there aren’t side conversations. I do a lot of business-related teleconferences. During such calls, I am participating in multiple WhatsApp groups having side conversations with all sorts of different groups.

        The other part is how used the younger participants are in creating social bonds via text only channels. Younger is definitely under forties, a lot of under fifties and some over fifties.

  10. As someone who worked in local government during most of my active years as a solicitor, just a few observations:

    First, no-one should ever judge local government by the way parish council meetings are conducted. This one may have been an extreme example, but, sadly, not entirely untypical. District and county council meetings are usually much more decorous in my experience, and much more respect is usually given to officers’ advice.

    Second, yes, there is a compelling argument for making the majority of meetings virtual, but allowance should always be made for exceptions. Planning committee meetings were always well attended by the public, especially if a controversial local proposal was under consideration. I can envisage a degree of public frustration if such meetings were not held in the real world; they have some element of the gladiatorial about them including, often, booing, cheering and applause from packed public galleries.

    Third, whether making most meetings virtual, and streamlining process would make it more likely that a wider demographic would become interested in being councillors is moot, I think. Councillors have other things to do apart from attending meetings, and the problems of allocating sufficient time for someone also working would not be wholly removed.

    Despite many frustrations, I enjoyed my time in local government. I do believe in local democracy; it’s a sad thing that so many powers and so much funding has been removed down the years.

    1. We live stream our Parish Council meetings on YouTube. The number of views of those meetings, combining live and recorded views easily exceeds the number of people who used to attend the face to face meetings.

      I agree there are a few occasions when face to face meetings have very high public participation such as controversial planning applications. Ideally these would be hybrid meetings.

  11. As a local government officer I find that meetings have higher attendance virtually (attendees and public, though latter boosted by interest in the pandemic) plus greater confidence that meetings will be quorate. We are looking to encourage candidacy for May elections (all out). Not to have competitive elections suggests not doing a good job in reaching people, with E&D aspects too. Councillors do miss the human contact, and it seems that this is felt more by those who are more familiar with traditional ways of working. Chairs have found it an awkward adaptation but do a good job, with pre-meeting briefings/rehearsals, presence of MO, etc.

    I share their concerns to some extent as an officer, as moving permanently to home working for all risks significant negative impacts on the mental health of staff, quality of outputs, productivity and staff retention.

  12. From experience local government, however mundane, is important as a method of ensuring local solutions for local problems. Where it goes wrong is you generally get self selecting representatives who may wish to do public good but don’t understand the ‘rules’ for achieving change. They certainly should be recorded. The level of disrespect, rudeness and bullying & harassment is never truly expressed in minutes. The camera never lies. Self reflection is a powerful way of changing behaviour.

  13. I think the video highlights that there is a lower limit to the size of area that can be effectively governed locally, since doing so requires a quorum of competent, interested and available people.

    The real problem for me is that nobody regularly looks at the Handforths of this world and considers if such a quorum exists there. We have no process for smoothly and quickly merging local councils that are too small to form such quorums, and no process for smoothly and quickly splitting ones that are larger than they need to be.

    For me this video serves to highlight the fact that rigidly following church catchment areas that were mapped many centuries ago is not a sensible way of setting modern political boundaries.

    1. There are over 11,000 parish and community councils in the UK. Most of them do a good job, getting on with things in their local commuity. But the sheer number of them means that there will always be a handful where things go horribly wrong. If you only focus on the ones that hit the headlines, then you are not getting an accurate picture of the whole.

      Also, local government parishes have not been the same as ecclesiastical parishes for very many years. The notion that they are the same thing is one that is perpetuated by media misreporting and popular culture. In reality, the only thing they now share is the name.

      1. Thank you Mark, I stand corrected on the boundaries issue. I think my point about the lack of a responsive process for merging/splitting is still relevant though.

  14. David. Firstly, thank you for your interesting article. I chair the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO) and together with Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) we have sought counsel’s advice and are pursuing the case for the continuation of remote meetings through the courts – as explained by Ryan above. I agree with Ed Hammond that we are not advocating for all meetings to be remote. Councils should be given the flexibility to decide for themselves. They do provide increased access for those members of the public who otherwise may not be engaged – although I take the point that they still exclude some. Equally important for me is that they also bring better equality of access to the democratic process and hopefully will encourage more people to stand for election as councillors.

  15. Interesting tensions within the debate here. The advantage of parish councils is that they are truly local. Downside is they have very few powers and little professional infrastructure to support them. Can readily create an ideal environment for the self important with a grudge.

    1. It’s not correct to say that Parish Councils have very few powers. The Localism Act 2011(Part 1, Chapter 1, SI 1-8) provides for Parish Councils to have a general power of competence”. This was brought into force by SI 965. The Parish Councils (General Power of Competence) (Prescribed Conditions) Order 2012 in April 2012.

      Under the legislation, eligible councils have “the power to do anything that individuals generally may do” as long as they do not break other laws.

      There are three conditions for eligibility are set out in the Statutory Instrument as follows:
      RESOLUTION: The Council must resolve at a meeting that it meets the criteria for eligibility relating to the electoral mandate and relevant training of the clerk
      ELECTORAL MANDATE: at the time the resolution is passed, at least two thirds of the council must hold office as a result of being declared elected (i.e. not co-opted)
      QUALIFIED CLERK: At the time that the resolution is passed, the Clerk must hold a recognised professional qualification e.g. Certificate in Local Council Administration, Certificate of Higher Education in Local Policy and pass the 2012 CiLCA module relating to the general power of competence

  16. It’s not just local government meetings that can benefit from more democratic participation through technology. My branch of our union has set up weekly meetings and annual general meeting through online platforms. We have more members engaged and know more of what their issues are as opposed to being dominated by the executive committee.

    Our national conference will be online which will mean potentially all members can view proceedings as opposed to travelling across the country.

  17. So, I think it’s worth pointing out that this Handforth example of a parish council was different from a much larger city or county level. Getting the two mixed up in discussions doesn’t help. They have different engagement, budgets, and politics.

    Where I live, the local town council servers 8000 people, has a clerk, and a small budget and is responsible for things like the “Town Plan” (important), fireworks displays and providing local feedback on planning applications to the main planning office.

    The city council is where the party politics happens. It’s also where the big budgets are. Lots of career politicians, with expense claims saying “China trip to engage with *company*” (said company never actually moves to city).

    Handforth is a local town council like mine. Full of people who want to impose their ideas of what the town should be. Mainly it is people who have lived their a long time who want it to remain how they want it (aka “old people”), and the characters I’ve seen on that video are almost replicas of the ones here.

    So when talking about going virtual, I think it’s important to work out what is meant. There are two things here: transparency and efficiency. Both are valuable and both can be improved with the use of virtual meetings.

    However, given the nature of who runs a lot of the local councils (the smaller version), I can see both transparency and efficiency being things that are not necessarily desired.

    But for city councils, transparency, is definitely needed and efficiency could definitely be improved in multiple places using this kind of technology. The legal system as well.

    But I think the issue will be that everyone needs to come. Accessibility, both for those without devices (see how many kids don’t have laptops for lockdown learning), and also for those who are unable to access video technology, we still need the fallback. We still need to ensure participation.

  18. Local government needs some reform, but the role *good* councillors can play to address local issues is hugely important.

    Simplify processes; train councillors; and yes, make meetings virtual.

  19. This ties in nicely with the Open Justice webinar I watched recently. Digital access to online hearings – previously held in person in hidden/closed venues – is a major positive development arising from virtual meetings/hearings. The Webinar series started with the first panel discussion entitled “Does being watched change how justice is done?” That could equally be applied to these local govt. meetings. Surely going forwards, and having been outed in such a public way, the behaviour of participants is going to change?

  20. Interesting that in our over-centralised country nobody here has yet argued that councils themselves should make decisions on matters such as these.

  21. I chair a small village parish council.

    Local government is a large bucket – from tiny parish councils with a budget of a few thousand to pay for a single part-time clerk to enormous counties spending millions with armies of staff, so I would be wary of compelling a one-size-fits-all approach.

    Much of the commentary I have seen assumes an effective and expansive bureaucracy when the right mental model for many parish councils is that of an overstretched community volunteer group with well-meaning people giving their time to help the place in which they live. Handforth has shone a light on the ugly, petty, bullying, pedantic behaviour that can and does go on but the reality in most parish councils is much more genteel and collegiate. Many are untarnished by party politics with councillors standing for their locality rather than on ideological lines so much of the debate is far removed from the adversarial braying one might see in larger chambers in Westminster and delightfully can be less formal and more focussed on joint problem solving and getting business done.

    Moreover, I’ve only realised what I see as the constitutional brilliance of the town and parish set up since being involved. Run badly, towns and parishes are ineffective and it doesn’t matter that much — all the important stuff is done by the principal authority — and they can safely retreat. Very little is delegated that is important. If all the councillors in Handforth were to fail to meet then bins would be collected, schools run and planning decisions would be made. The burial grounds – if any – might get a little overgrown. However, where towns and parish councils are well run they can be a tremendous force for improving their areas for their residents and that is why we volunteer to do it. This might lead one to ask why they need to be formalised as a layer of government rather than as residents associations which is a good question (I believe that the formal structure helps the ‘discussion’ with the principal authority and tax raising is fair and efficient way to collect funds).

    That is much an aside as to how meetings are run. The technology is not universally better. The ability to look round a room and make eye contact with councillors and public alike, drawing out comments and feeling the mood is something I miss, and the technology and sound quality is exhausting and layers another thing that goes wrong (“you’re on mute!”) compared with face-to-face. On the other hand, while we are lucky to regularly have had many attend meetings in person, we’ve also seen strong engagement during lockdown, including from the less able who would otherwise not be able to make it to the cricket pavillion of an evening. For principal authority councillors attending several parishes or for attending cross-parish or other meetings, it has been a boon to be able to do two in one evening without a long drive, and meeting rooms are no longer the constraint. There are still oddities of the tech to work through which are probably just fine – anonymous attendance (Julie’s I pad is often just a blank I pad with no hint at the owner) and whether (and the expectation) to publish full recordings (should I be able to listen to Julie and Roger’s small talk – did that member of the public have an expectation of pre-meeting privacy in that conversation?)

    I would welcome some flexibility in how meetings can be run after May because if we are to move to a brave new world then the next step almost certainly isn’t to move everyone to online all the time but to allow hybrids to emerge with help and guidance, something I would encourage my council to embrace.

  22. I work (partly) in intellectual property protection and I am also a failed politician. In both roles I’d like to think I push back against people who want to keep things secret. The first question I ask is the purpose behind keeping what you are doing hard to find. What are you trying to hide and why? If this became public, would you be embarrassed? If so, why are you doing or saying this? Bringing knowledge and process to public attention is a good thing overall. I understand the need for IP protection, I understand why certain issues should be kept private or at least anonymised.

    This amusing episode has exposed bad behaviour which is too commonplace. Here we had a Chairman attempting to use suboptimally drafted rules to block a meeting from going ahead to suit his own agenda, the very opposite of how a chairs should conduct themselves. I agree it would be better to use Zoom to do such meetings just as I think the House of Commons has benefitted from remote debates. The medium restricts bad behaviour and increases scrutiny. It might even put off the more extreme people from taking part…

  23. To make local government more accessible we need consistency first and perhaps a simplified structure.

    Where I live there are 27 local authority wards but only 6 parish councils, and 3 reside in a single ward!

  24. Governments of any hue are reluctant to reduce the number of councils or councillors as this is where their foot soldiers are. If they cause disillusionment among this group, they lose the ground game in a general election. Multiple layers of local government are going to be wasteful but they engage the all important local activists.

  25. I disagree entirely with this idea of online only meetings. Doing town council business (I am Chair of one!) wholly by Zoom is a poor experience over time & loses the interpersonal exchanges that are necessary. But a hybrid system is a good idea. And zoom is fine for short meetings.
    Before the first lockdown, we tried to ensure there was an issue of local community interest at start of each meeting, and several times had attendance of 50-100 for that issue and lively debate. But few want to stay for the rest of the agenda.
    In my view we do not nowadays have a true system of local government in much of UK – the districts are too large to be local, and do not represent ‘identity’, and the town/parish councils too weak. Answer is to strengthen powers & finances of town & parish councils. We would then be like most of Europe where each town/large village has own municipality.

  26. Also worth mentioning tools like Consul and Your Priorities for widening the conversation beyond councillors towards a more direct form of democracy :

    I encourage anyone interested in this kind of stuff to read this NESTA review, and maybe have a look at Consul and Your Priorities to see how they could be used in their community(ies) :

    On the subject of the status of parish councils – I’ve witnessed one that from the outside always seemed to do an OK job – more interested in eg getting the funds for sports facilities for bored teenagers than in Britain in Bloom.

    But where they’ve come into their own is when faced with a “crisis” – in this case a major planning application that is hated by locals but supported by district and county. The fact that they already exist allowed a much speedier response and being statutory they have to be notified of things that might otherwise slip under the radar, and one appeal was carried largely on the basis of a failure to consult the PCC as required by statute and ignoring their Neighbourhood Plan. Also their ability to build up reserves has allowed them to pay for fancy planning experts and lawyers that a residents association might not have been able to muster. So in this case the PCC has done a pretty good job for their residents and as an outsider I suspect that their statutory role has made the difference between the development being foisted on an unwilling community and not.

  27. If all local authority meetings were online only, what would prevent elected councillors from participating from wherever they liked – for instance, from a residence in another district or (heaven forbid) from abroad?

    What would this mean for principles of local representation, especially if a newly-elected councillor moving elsewhere for work or other reasons decided to continue in office until the next election?

    On what basis might such non-councillors be remunerated?

    And if the process of debate prior to decision is to be removed in favour of online deliberation, why should representatives be obliged to read out pre-prepared statements? Would it not be more efficient for positions to be submitted in writing in advance, followed by five minutes for reading and then an online vote?

  28. Disagree. I’m in favour of meetings being streamed publicly for transparency, but I find virtual meetings are problematic for a number of reasons.

    I acknowledge virtual meetings are more accessible for some – but equally create their own barriers for others. In my experience, I find people are often much ruder and more aggressive from behind a webcam than would be the case in person. Body language can be impossible to read, social cues absent, misunderstandings more common. The lack of in person meetings (and the greetings and pleasantries that normally grease the wheels of interaction between opposing groups) can lead to a far more polarised atmosphere.

    There’s much to be said for a hybrid approach that allows some participants to be present virtually while others are in the room – but I don’t think a 100% virtual arrangement is desirable.

  29. The dawn of democracy in Greece suggests another solution to this lack of engagement in local democracy. In local democracy in Ancient Greece, every eligible citizen had to serve a year on the town council, chosen by lot. This is not so very different from our idea of juries, also chosen from the electoral roll.

    This could become a democratic responsibility – there aren’t too many of those, so it would hardly be oppressive.

    1. I like this! Isn’t it the case that some parishes have parish meetings (that every elector can attend) rather than a parish council?

    2. The downside of that is that there would be no experience built up over time. The responsibilities even at PC level can be daunting, the funds to be spent significant. Contracts of £100K are typical and sometimes millions for community buildings. Long term councillors can prevent the same mistakes being made repeatedly.

    3. I have always liked the idea that participation in government should be a civil responsibility, akin to serving on a jury. Perhaps not only local government, but more extensive direct representation, even as a replacement for House of Lords? If accompanied by a greater knowledge and understanding of the way government is carried out (which would be necessary knowledge, if you knew that you could be called upon to act in that capacity), it might make for a more engaged and knowledgeable electorate generally, which would be no bad thing.

  30. A comment on the behaviour issues raised by this case. Until the coalition government made its adoption by councils voluntary in 2010, all local councillors, including parish councillors, were subject to a statutory code of conduct which dealt with issues like bullying and rudeness, conflicts of interest and other ethical concerns. Part of my role as a local authority monitoring officer was to investigate and resolve this type of complaint, which could also be raised by members of the public. A breach carried potential penalties. The system was arguably over-bureaucratic, but it provided accountability, and the training on the code which was made available to parishes meant that councillors were aware of the standards expected, which were based on the Nolan principles. Perhaps time to re-focus on these? But I suspect that much of the support and assistance which higher-tier councils used to provide to their parishes, to help them function efficiently and ethically, may have fallen victim to the massive cuts to council budgets since 2010.

  31. “ Then those unrepresentative representatives have actual powers then this means it is more likely that bad decisions will be made instead of good decisions. “ I really don’t see how you have extrapolated this….if this is the case then National Government must make appallingly bad decisions!
    As a town councillor, I see the issue as many faceted….face to face meetings are always better, so much of our communication is non verbal but live stream it or post a video , as we do, to make it more accessible. There is nothing more democratic than having to answer for your actions face to face. Councils have to allow public attendance and could allow the public to ask any questions , but some don’t. Behaviour of councillors can be appalling but under current law there can be no real censure. Some councillors treat the position like a club, turn up when they feel in the mood….but that criticism could be levelled at some MPs and Peers. For all it’s fault I would fight long and hard to preserve this level of local democracy.

  32. I am not convinced that virtual meetings would improve things for the lowest tier of local government. I don’t have a car but it is a 5 minute walk to where the Parish Council meets (same was true at my previous address). Meetings are held at 7:30pm so that is reasonably people for working people. And I fear that remote meetings might exacerbate conflict.

    I think the bigger concern is the destruction of local journalism in recent decades. According to some reports, some Handforth locals had been trying to attract media attention for weeks and it was only when a comedian and a student produced a clip of highlights that it attracted attention. And of course if it was a clip showing a polite but dysfunctional meeting it would not have gone viral. Even now most of the reporting is focused on the rudeness and not the underlying story.

    40 years ago councillors would have known the local journalist and chances are problems with this council would have been covered much sooner. I think my local council is ok but I base that on the quarterly newsletter they push through the door (well at least they are making an effort and thanks to the newsletter I know they exist, what they do and how to join in). But even where local newspapers still exist a large part of their output is reconstituted press releases rather than proper journalism (see Nick Davies’s book: Flat Earth News).

    I think the internet is part of the problem. Not only do the online algorithms promote sensational and fake stories, they demote the worthy but parochial. Democracy can’t function if we have no information on which to make our choices even if that is nominally our own fault because we don’t reject the never ending stream of sensationalism and trivia.

    The broadcasters and some broadsheets at least make an effort nationally and regionally but there is very little local journalism now. Perhaps an Australian style tax on Facebook & Google could be used to finance a network of local journalists.

  33. Re local election turnout:
    At the last local election here there was a town council election and I was given a ballot which was probably the equivalent of 3 sides of A4 with about 15-20 names on it, of which I should choose 7. No party affiliations and scant information was available about the candidates and so I just chose 7 at random. Doesn’t seem like a great way to do democracy.

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