Parish council chicken
One of the main ideas for giving people more of a say about their area is to give more powers to parish councils to set local bylaws, enforced with on the spot fines. While there is some merit in this, the following story may explain my concerns about it.
A couple of years ago, a friend moved to a new area, and being a civic minded sort of person, started to attend the local residents association. This meeting was attended by a number of older residents, and the two local councillors, both Liberal Democrats.
Now Liberal Democrats, as you will know, are used to saying different things to different people, depending on what they think that they want to hear. So my friend decided to conduct an experiment. He tried to discover whether there was any proposal, generally supported by local people, which a Liberal Democrat councillor would publicly oppose. Anyone who might be interested in conducting this experiment elsewhere should be aware that the technical name for this game is ‘residents association chicken’, because the aim is to see whether the councillors will chicken out or stick up for what they actually believe in.
For example, there was a local building which had a large metal fence and gate, and a few of the local teenagers used to spend their evenings kicking things against the gate, climbing it and generally disturbing the peace and quiet of the people who lived nearby. The solution which my friend suggested was to electrify the gate – “that would stop them making trouble and keep them away”. All the local residents, weighing up the advantage of a peaceful night’s sleep against the potential disadvantage of electrocuting children, were enthusiastically in favour of this. And the councillors, representing the party of civil liberties? “I agree with what you’re trying to do there, but I’m not sure that is the best way to go about it”, was about the strongest criticism that either was willing to make.
As a general rule, any restriction on the liberty of others, no matter how onerous, which was perceived as being of benefit to the local area, no matter how small the benefit, gained enthusiastic and unanimous support.
Now, consider if this organisation had the power to decide to levy on the spot fines of up to £100. The safeguard in the White Paper is that local councillors would be expected to use their role as community leaders to prevent this having negative consequences, but in a country with thousands of Liberal Democrat councillors, this is not a safeguard which I think can be relied on.
Although there is one other safeguard. The fines could only be levied by a police officer or community warden, and as anyone who regularly attends a residents association or parish council meeting would be able to tell you, you never see a policeman except when they decide to persecute people who are driving just a little bit over the speed limit.