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District is becoming a 'democracy desert' as many parish councils are not contested

South Kesteven is described as a ‘democracy desert' as barely a handful of its town and parish councils have contested elections on Thursday.

The vast majority have their vacancies filled without a fight and many even have spaces left over.

It all means that the councils will ask for volunteers to come forward next month, a process known as co-option.

In 2015, just a fifth of parish councils nationally contested their vacancies.

This month, the Electoral Reform Society warned many areas of England is at risk of becoming "democracy deserts".

Representation is guaranteed due to a lack of competition, which means councillors lacked a ‘proper mandate’ from the people they serve.

Chief executive Darren Hughes added: “This lack of democratic competition is bad for scrutiny, bad for local services and bad for democracy.”

Nonetheless, organisations representing parish and town councils stress the importance of such councils, branding them the first tier of local government and closest to the communities they serve.

Katrina Evans is the chief executive of the Lincolnshire Association of Local Councils. She cites how parish or town councils provide services such as allotments, they administer burials, they own green space and play areas, and operate village halls and community centres. Such is their local nature, that people trust these councils more than any other, helped by members being part of the communities they serve.

However, many parishes will not have enough members to meet legally, forcing them to seek or co-opt unelected volunteers.

Ms Evans wonders if people are being deterred from standing due to the government’s handling of Brexit fuelling a disillusionment with the political process, or perhaps as parish councils take over district council responsibilities, such as grass cutting, the extra time involved in being a councillor is also a disincentive. Furthermore, the work is unpaid and with councils not having rules to suspend or punish unruly members, this may also deter people from becoming involved.

David Sayer, chairman of Ancaster Parish Council. (9385697)
David Sayer, chairman of Ancaster Parish Council. (9385697)

David Sayer is chairman of Ancaster Parish Council which has no contested election this week. Mr Sayer says this "is good as it keeps costs low". He said: “Party politics does not come into. And there is little scope for exciting manifestos to excite voters.”

Mr Sayer points out that in addition to dealing with ‘small items’ like play areas, allotments and burial grounds, Ancaster Parish Council also represents the community on issues like speeding, potholes and consultation on planning.

One example of how it successfully works is Lincolnshire County Council deciding last year that due to budget cuts, it would only cut the grass verges three times a year.

But the parish council stepped in and agreed to cut the grass six or seven further times to maintain a pleasant environment.

Mr Sayer said: “I often feel not many people notice the workings of the council, but they certainly would if it did not exist. The largest attendance at the public forums tend to be for larger community issues, i.e planning applications, abuse of land, i.e by travellers, or developments such as the village shop or changes to the village pubs.”

However, he warns progress can be slow, especially if other councils are involved, with them either late in making a final decision or not treating a parish matter as a priority. He added: “It is also clear that money is getting tighter, limiting what can be achieved and therefore, we become more reliant on volunteers.”

Welby will be a contested parish this time, for the first time since the 1960s.

Jen Fisher, clerk of Welby Parish Council, says parish councils are of immense value as they identify and address issues that impact directly on their community.

The parish council liaises directly with both Lincolnshire County Council and South Kesteven District Council, not only to tell them of issues they need to address but also provide them with “positive and constructive critiques of services they offer or gaps in services.”

The county council leader Martin Hill and district ward councillor Peter Stephens attend some meetings “where they really get a real grasp of local issues.”

Mrs Fisher says Welby Parish Council plays a vital role in keeping the residents up to date on local issues,community matters and events, through its website and Facebook page. She said: “It really does bring the community together. Without a parish council, who would play this role?”

Mrs Fisher says she believes there is a contested election this year because of ther parish council's website and reader-friendly minutes of meetings, making people want to be part of it.

She added: “To attract people, the key is to get them to see how being part of a parish council is not about ‘dry’ political matters, but by working together as a team to make our communities a place people want to live in and be part of.”

Lesley Frances, clerk to the nearby Hougham Parish Council, says she is looking forward to a contested election this year, believing this is the most democratic way to choose a parish council.

Ms Frances added: “Of course we need parish councils - we are the councils who know our parishes best. We are in contact with the people who live in the parish, and therefore have the most knowledge of what is wanted in the parish.”

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