Your parish council needs you - and you need it

Witney Gazette: Charlie Haynes and Peter Cox of Marston Parish Council Charlie Haynes and Peter Cox of Marston Parish Council

TALK of local politicians and most people think of blustering, electioneering businessmen or slick career-driven sharks with an eye on Westminster.

But many fail to realise there are hundreds of normal people making decisions that affect their lives.

Parish councils may bring to mind thoughts of curtain-twitchers or cake stalls at summer fetes, but the reality is that everyday folk – volunteers – have the ability to influence exactly what goes on in their neighbourhood.

Big decisions on planning and funding can all feel the sway of the parish council.

However, with recent reported turnout for Old Marston parish council election as low as 12 per cent, and some groups facing the axe due to lack of members, an entire tier of government that can strike at the heart of local matters could be seen as being in decline.

“I don’t think anyone is really interested. I think they see everything is going okay and are content to let us get on with it,” said Greta Bickley, outgoing parish clerk for Bletchington Parish Council.

“People always come to us if they want something done.”

Figures seen by the Oxford Mail show that more than 70 parish council seats out of hundreds in the county are currently not filled.

But councillors themselves seem confident, despite some organisations being barely half full.

The role of the parish council is to represent the residents of the area it serves.

They are the “first tier of local government” but many of the county’s 243 parish councils have empty seats.

In Blackbird Leys, which is under threat of possible closure, six councillors are still needed to create the full council of 14 members.

Witney Gazette:

Chairman Gordon Roper, pictured, said: “The way we are going we may not have a parish council in two to three years’ time.

“For the last eight years we have been missing six to eight councillors.

“I just do not know why people don’t want to get involved.

“We are trying to help out people about what they can do and what is the best way to go about it.

“It has been going for years and, if people do not come forward, it is a lose it or lose it type thing.”

He added that he wished he knew how to get more people to volunteer, as the parish council’s job to put across the views of the residents was an important one.

He said: “Not many people come to the meetings but we have always had a lot of community spirit, so there is not a problem with that.

“I don’t think people realise that it is completely voluntary.

“I don’t know that if it paid people we would get the people that we wanted. I don’t know they’d be doing it for the right reason.”

Six councillors are needed to fill the council seats available, three from Blackbird Leys and three from Greater Leys.

s For more information, or to get invoved in the council, contact Gordon Roper on 01865 361047.

Both Shenington and Alkerton Parish Council, and Hornton Parish Council, near Banbury, have only four seats filled out of seven available in each council.

Bloxham Parish Council in Cherwell found people for only eight of its 12 seats after elections took place earlier this year, but through co-option, where positions are advertised rather than elected, they now only have one left to fill.

An obvious place to start would be to scrutinise the low attendance by members of the public at the monthly meetings, but it seems attendance has always been low.

Mrs Bickley, who started as a parish clerk over 33 years ago, said she could not remember ever having a consistently high turnout.

She said: “I can’t remember the last time someone bothered to come along, it may have been five or six years ago.”

Most other councils said members of the public only attended meetings when big issues, such as housing developments, were being discussed.

Jenny Yates, of Bloxham Parish Council, said: “More people should come along and take an interest, because it is their money that we are spending.”

Clerks from several organisations who spoke to the Oxford Mail said they were not sure how to encourage more people to stand as councillors, but would like to encourage a wider range of people to come forward.

But it is not all bad news.

A residents’ association in Didcot is hoping to create its own parish council to give itself more powers and preserve the local area.

Great Western Park Residents’ Association chairman John Boden says he wants the estate to be “the jewel in Didcot’s crown”.

Bloxham Parish Council also created a position for a new councillor last year, saying that if everyone did a little bit then they could get a lot done.

And despite a poor voter turn out at last week’s parish election, the chairman of Old Marston Parish Council thinks people are more interested in the council than ever before.

Charlie Haynes, who has 15 years’ experience as chairman, said thanks to social media sites and the media more people had actually started to come to meetings.

He said: “We never had anyone come for years and years, it is only in the last three to four years that people have started showing an interest.

“I think people are interested in what goes on. We have Facebook and Twitter and it is covered more by the local media, but there is still a lot of apathy.

“We had just 12 per cent turnout last week for the election... so that is not very good.

“People turn up in their hundreds to support or oppose a big application, but I think the rest of the time as long as they can see it is ticking along quite nicely they don’t want to get involved that much.

“We have an annual general meeting and I am always amazed if anyone comes.”

He also reiterated the importance of the parish council and added they had no problem finding councillors at present.

He said: “It is government at a grass roots level.

“We have a legal right to be consulted, it is just chipping away to get the best for the parishioners.”

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