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Minutes 13th November

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BULFORD PARISH COUNCIL

The Village Hall, Watergate Lane
Bulford, Wilts. SP4 9DY

Tel: 01980 622374 Email: parishclerk@bulfordparishcouncil.org.uk

 

 27th February 2013

Angus Macpherson, Esq.
Police and Crime Commissioner,
Police & Crime Commissioner’s Office,
Police Headquarters,
London Road,
Devizes,
Wiltshire,
SN10 2RD.

 

Dear Commissioner,

I am writing to you about your Five Year Plan which sets out the strategic direction of policing in Wiltshire; unfortunately, the documents concerning this did not arrive with me in time for the matter to be considered formally in full Council, but Members have been contacted individually and are in agreement.

I am instructed to say that Councillors’ opinion is that there appears to be a significant omission where the six main sections of the plan are concerned. It is understood that these are section headings not necessarily priorities, nevertheless, it is considered that they are likely to be interpreted and quoted as such; this omission is, quite simply, that there appears to be no mention of what must be the first and foremost priority of our Police Force, namely, "To Enforce the Law". It is Councillors’ view that this should be stated somewhere in the Plan as it is unequivocal, cannot be misunderstood or manipulated, and, where it is concerned, would go some way to reduce the necessity for endless discussions with unofficial QUANGOs which tend to proliferate at the present time; indeed, it was stated recently to this Council by the Police Inspector, whose writ runs in this Parish, that the prime reason for the Police working locally through ad hoc Tasking Groups (whilst at the same time opposing regularising them), as opposed to Parish Councils, is that the prime Police priority is to "prevent crime" — how to prevent crime is something that can be debated almost indefinitely. That is not to say that the six main headings shown are unworthy in their own right, but their attainment is subjective and wide open to individual opinion and interpretation; they must surely be subsidiary to the main aim that is quoted above.

It is our Councillors’ (some of whom have served for many years) opinion that, over time, there has been a steady deterioration in policing in this Parish, and whilst this may be partly attributed to cuts in funding, it is considered that it is also due to the Constabulary losing its way and becoming muddled as to where its real priority lies. I would stress that this is not necessarily to criticise the junior Police representatives (PCSO and Constable) who labour at the sharp end, but this level of Police representation at Council renders discussion impossible of any matter that may affect policy to any degree.

I have been asked to copy this letter to the Parish and Town Councils which adjoin this Parish to discover whether or not there is general agreement with this view.

Yours sincerely,

N A Grove

Nichola Grove

Clerk to Bulford Parish Council

div BULFORD PARISH COUNCIL

The Village Hall, Watergate Lane,

Bulford, Salisbury, Wiltshire, SP4 7RY.

Telephone: 01980 622374 Email: parishclerk@bulfordparishcouncil.org.uk 

 

3rd April 2013

Cllr Jane Scott, OBE.,
Leader of the Council,
Wiltshire Council,
By-the-Sea Road,
Trowbridge,
Wiltshire,
BA14 8JN

Dear Mrs Scott,

I am instructed by Council to write to you about matters that are explained below.

Preamble.

1. The Wiltshire Unitary Council is fast approaching the end of its first four year term of office, and Bulford Parish Council considers that now is an appropriate time to review what these four years have brought about and to examine whether or not this major re-organisation has proved to have been an improvement on the Salisbury District administration that it supplanted. This is not intended as negative criticism, but rather as a constructive approach to where the Unitary has seriously fallen short of the District system.

To look back.

2. The transfer to Unitary was uncompromisingly forced through in the face of substantial local opposition. The proposal was sprung, at local level, at short notice and, remarkably, Parish Councils were excluded from the list of consultees. At the same time, the very short time scale imposed on Districts prevented them from consulting and co-ordinating Parish Council views; both our local Members of Parliament opposed the intention in the House. Be all that as it may, the Unitary system is now in force and it is accepted that it is extremely unlikely that the move will be rescinded.

Detailed Comparisons.

3. Council can only put forward its own points of view and hope that, where shortcomings are recognised, steps will be taken to make improvements. In this Parish Council’s considered view, these shortcomings are as follows :-

a. General. Immediately after the move to Unitary, it quickly became apparent that, in most cases, but with some very marked exceptions, the long established Officers in County Hall were completely unused to (and in may cases impatient of) dealing with Parish Councils and were unaware of how they worked and of the legal restraints that govern them. With hindsight, this is unsurprising, since, during the days of District administration, Parish contact with County on official business was rare; moreover, unlike District Councillors, County Councillors had very seldom attended Parish Council Meetings and those County Councillors who remained in post after the move, quickly demonstrated their lack of familiarity with the legal restraints that govern Parish Council proceedings; those, who were recently elected at the time, appear to have been overwhelmed and largely rendered impotent by the Cabinet system which had been introduced only a comparatively short time before. These deficiencies both on the part of County Officers as well as the elected representatives, have resulted in Parish Councils being sidelined, to the loss of any sense of purpose amongst Parish Council Members, and to a difficulty in persuading ordinary people to make themselves available to serve on Council. It has also often led to a mere appearance of consultation, where, due to legal restraints, none has actually taken place. Parish Councils have thus been frequently effectively ignored and, whether this is intentionally so or not, it has been an intensely frustrating experience and has proved to be a very uncertain way of working. Whilst some Unitary Officers, mainly at Head of Department level, have proved to be a substantial help, many Officers have not and have demonstrated a reluctance (and in some cases impatience) to show a willingness to improve the situation. This has been the subject of a separate, recent letter (as yet unanswered) to the Unitary Council Director of Communications (Mrs Bell).

b. Town & Country Planning. Council considers that the planning system is one of the most vital of Local Government functions, since it has the power to permanently disfigure both the environment and the landscape, as well as to seriously weaken area infrastructure; it has been very substantially degraded under the Unitary system. The number of Members of the Planning Committee has been halved and the area for which the Committee is responsible has doubled in size. Moreover, the majority of the Members of the Committee are no longer immediately local and, in contrast to the District system, are only occasionally able to visit and preview the sites of the applications that they are about to decide. Moreover, any pretence of a real local approach is abandoned, in that, markedly unlike the former District authority, Parish Council representatives at the Committee, far from being regarded as the official representatives of a constituted Local Authority, are restricted to a role that is little better than that accorded to ordinary members of the public. Members of this Parish Council have witnessed misstatements made in the Southern Area Planning Committee (through ignorance of local circumstances), which, whilst clearly influencing the final decision, by reason of the limitations placed upon debate by the Committee Chairman, could not be corrected by the only person present who actually knew the local situation namely, the Parish Council representative in whose Parish the application lay. In fact, this state of affairs could be simply and largely corrected by doing away with the present Planning Committees and transferring the powers to the constituted Area Boards which are already in place (as used to be the case under the Salisbury District Area Committee system).

c. Area Boards. The creation of these Boards, from the outset, gave every appearance of being no more than a knee-jerk reaction to the criticism, irrefutable at the time, that a move to a Unitary system would result in a degradation of local contact between the Authority and the public; at the time of their formation, enquiries to the County Officer charged with putting them in place in this area, resulted only in the reply that "… their Terms Of Reference will evolve over time" ! In other words, an entity was being created for which no-one could see a use at the time of creation, but for which it was hoped that usefulness would eventually evolve; it is a truism that, any organisation abhors a vacuum and, sure enough, time wasting and expensive activities have filled the vacuum that was created in this way. These Boards' legal respectability, under the Local Government Act (LGA), appears to rest upon the fact that they are constituted Committees of the Unitary Authority (to which it is legal to delegate powers); but their respectability seems to end there, since they appear to have no properly constituted or published Membership, no defined Terms of Reference, and no published and defined delegated Powers. In fact, enquiries have resulted in showing that, whilst some budgetary powers appear to have been properly delegated, even these are shrouded in mist, since they also have never been either published nor defined; Council has little access to legal advice, other than the published authority "Local Council Administration" by Charles Arnold-Baker, but believes that this state of affairs, strictly speaking, may well be illegal under the LGA. Nevertheless, these Boards are gaining in influence, as, whilst they seem to abstain from making decisions themselves (apart from authorising financial grants, the source of which is unknown to Parish Councils and members of the public), agreements resulting from discussion outside their defined budgetary powers are beginning to result in subtle changes in policy within County; more dangerously, it now seems that some outside agencies and authorities (such as the Police), that attend these Meetings, are framing their own policies in the light of what is little more than discussion within the Boards. In Council’s opinion, if they are to continue to exist (and this Council’s view is that they are an expensive and time wasting luxury) the entire set-up urgently needs to be made more transparent and to be properly (as well as publicly) defined. Apart from budgetary powers, these Boards appear to be acting more as catch-all Committees, often acting at short notice, that deal with anything that may arise that the Unitary Council itself finds unattractive or tedious to grasp. Acting in this obscured and often arbitrary way seems to Council to be not only manipulative and of dubious legal standing, but to be thoroughly undesirable; it serves only to bring the Boards and those participating in them into disrepute.

d. Legal Assistance. Modern legislation in a number of areas (such as the employment of staff) exposes Parish Councils to the need for commercial legal advice. In this respect, Parish Councils have become exposed to the legal interpretation and process amongst the Byzantine byeways of employment law, as a direct result of the sudden HMRC ruling that anyone who works for Councils must be "employed" and may not work as a Contractor, as had been the sanctioned practice for many years. This was a revocation of HMRC's previous position and required the immediate removal of HMRC's exceptive guidelines that had been published on the HMRC website. Without sound legal advice, effectively, Parish Councils are now at the mercy of their employees (who, in the event of a dispute, in most cases would have access to Legal Aid) without the expenditure of very large sums of public money in order to obtain legal advice from commercial sources. Whatever prompted this destructive change, it has opened a Pandora's Box that will eventually come back to haunt Councils at Parish level. This problem has been succinctly put to Unitary at a senior level (as well as to our Ward Councillor), but, whilst admitting the need and promising action, nothing has been forthcoming over the entire life of the Unitary Council; in direct contrast, our old District Council was extremely supportive with its professional, legal advice, even when the latent threat to Parishes, was nothing like as dire as it is today.

e. Data Protection. As a result of a recent change in legislation, Data Protection has become an onerous burden at Parish Council level, where little that is worthy of protection is stored; indeed the Parish Council ethos goes further than this in that it rests upon the imperative that all business is conducted and published in the open for all members of the public to see. Whilst it is accepted that this change has come about as a direct result of government regulation and its interpretation by ICO, it has nevertheless become a significant burden on the limited resources of small councils. Parish Councils’ exposure in this way has introduced the preposterous necessity for heavy expenditure of taxpayers' money on IT hardware, computer software, maintenance contracts, et al.; it has also been the source of almost endless (and in hard, practical terms mostly fruitless), hard work that has replaced more useful activities on the part of the Council. Once again, the difficulties have been clearly explained to the Officers of the Unitary Authority, but whilst goodwill has been evident, little practical help has been available from the Unitary Authority’s IT Dept.

f. Highway Maintenance. Under this Unitary Council, public roads (other than the Strategic Road Network) have been allowed to deteriorate to a dangerous degree; potholes have been permitted to develop that are a real danger both to vehicles and to life and limb. It is safe to say that, whilst it is impossible to say at Parish level whether or not the extent of this is due to reductions in Government funding, the situation is very greatly worse than under the Salisbury District administration.

g. Military Civilian Integration Programme (MCIP).

(1) At the present time, uniformed Army personnel and their families constitute approximately half of the total population of Bulford Parish (at present totalling about 5,000 souls) and, under CILOT, in spite of the extraordinary exemptions that MOD enjoys, the MOD subscribes approximately half the Parish annual financial turnover.

(2) In addition, there are large and ongoing MOD building contracts in progress, both inside and outside the wire, dating back, in origin, several years. Since the abolition of Circular 18/84 planning procedures, MOD has been subject to the requirement to submit normal planning applications for all parts of this programme and the Parish Council has both the legal right, as well as the obligation, to comment in detail on these applications as they are submitted; these comments are expected to include comment on all aspects, including the adequacy of the area infra-structure to support the proposals in hand.

(3) In spite of very large planned increases to the size of the Army Garrison in Bulford, Bulford Parish Council has never been informed that the MCIP had been constituted and put in place and its existence and the extent of its activities were only discovered by accident; concerted efforts over some four years, up to and including the Commander 43 (Wessex) Brigade, the TNB Garrison Commander, and the appropriate Cabinet Member in the Unitary Council, by both this Council and by our Unitary Ward Councillor (Cllr John Smale, who has also been excluded) to be included in this planning (if only as observers) have come to precisely nothing. Three extracts from the MCIP documentation are as follows (as far as possible, these are fully quoted to avoid the impression that they have been taken out of context; for clarity, relevant wording has been highlighted in bold italics) :-
(a) Under the heading "MCIP Projects" : "A Sponsoring Group is running the MCIP. WCC (now the Wiltshire Unitary Council) is the Senior Responsible Owner on the Sponsoring Group which includes : HQ 43 (Wessex) Brigade, Defence Estates, SWRDA, local authority representatives, and representatives from the private (Wessex Association of Chambers of Commerce) and voluntary (Community First) sectors in Wiltshire."
It hardly seems necessary to point out that Bulford Parish Council is the local authority in this Parish, and yet, in spite of this, for some unknown reason, has been purposely excluded from the programme.
(b) Under the heading "Key Facts" : "Military changes are most likely to impact on communities in Amesbury, Bulford, Chippenham, Salisbury, Tidworth, and Wilton (and Swindon)".
(c) Under the heading "Aspirations for the Salisbury Plain Super Garrison" : The Salisbury Plain Super Garrison will improve the way of life for those working and living within it and the community at large. …… but it will also encourage closer integration with the civilian community. … Together with more employment opportunities … we will deliver more choice and a better quality of life for … and the adjoining civilian community.

4. With these extracts from the official MCIP documentation in mind, this Council is of that opinion that the exclusion of the Local Authority for Bulford Parish from the MCIP proceedings, defies reason, in that it is illogical, damaging, and, moreover, undermines the Government policy thrust towards Localism.

Conclusions.

5. In short, Parish Councils need help from (and a smooth working relationship with) our Unitary Council in these difficult times and this has been largely absent during the years that the Unitary system has been in place. The aim must be to work closely together, with the Unitary Council providing authority, help and advice from its superior position and resources, whilst Parish Councils provide the detailed local knowledge and the local experience. It should go without saying that goodwill, tolerance, and a knowledge on both sides, of each other’s difficulties is essential to good working and efficient execution of government at local level; as a generalisation, it is safe to say that and all three of these essential attributes have been largely lacking on the part of the Unitary Council since the introduction of the Unitary system.

6. To summarise the current perceived shortcomings :-

a. Even at this late stage, Unitary Authority Officers should be instructed as to how Parish Councils are legally obliged to work and why and, above all, they should be also encouraged to develop a more constructive and less dismissive approach. Realistic time frames need to be employed when consultations are put in train.

b. Despite the efforts of high grade Officers within the Southern Planning Department, planning procedures compare very unfavourably indeed with those of the old Salisbury District. Procedures within Planning Committees need be adjusted so that Parish Council representatives are able to correct decision influencing factual errors that arise during debate (made all the more necessary by the fact that Committee members are now mostly not local to the area). It is Council’s view that shortcomings, in the main, stem from the creation of Planning Committees that are separate from Area Boards.

c. If Area Boards are to be retained, their Membership, Terms of Reference, and Delegated Powers should be legally and clearly constituted and published, together with an explanation of the precise nature of their relationship with PCs . Moreover, it should be borne in mind that, over the four year period since their introduction, attendance at them by members of the public has been minimal, whilst attendance by representatives of organisations of all shapes and sizes is most marked, whenever the raison d’etre is to milk the system of as many financial grants as possible.

d. Urgent action should be taken to enable the Unitary Authority Legal Department to be available to Parish Councils for legal advice, as had previously been the case.

e. Action is needed so that the Unitary Authority IT Department is available to Parish Councils for help and advice.

f. A comprehensive repair and maintenance programme for the public roads needs to be put in place as a matter of urgency before accidents and deaths occur.

7. Overall, taking everything into account, Council is of the opinion that the Unitary Council system at present compares very unfavourably with that of the supplanted Salisbury District Council. However, Council’s position is that this need not be the case, if the Unitary Council can only learn to work constructively with Parish Councils.

8. Since the thrust of this letter is potentially a wide ranging subject, it has been copied to the Bulford ward Councillor (Cllr John Smale), to the Head of Democratic Services (Mr John Quinton), and to a number of Parish and Town Councils in the local area so that they may have the opportunity to contradict or add to it; since the Army is closely involved where the MCIP is concerned, it has also been copied to the Garrison Commander and to the Commander 43 (Wessex) Brigade. In addition, since much of the present situation appears to be at some variance from Central Government’s advertised Localism policy, it has been copied to the Member of Parliament for this Council’s constituency (Mrs Claire Perry MP) and to the Secretary of State for Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles MP). It has also been copied to the local Press.

9. It is Council’s hope that, in spite of the criticisms made, this letter will be taken in the spirit in which it is intended.

Yours sincerely

N A Grove
Nichola Grove
Clerk to Bulford Parish Council

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