John Bone: Councillors should not be gagged

Some profoundly wrong-headed advice has gone out to parish councillors suggesting they should shut up when asked questions about their policies.

Their “trade union”, the National Association of Local Councils, has upset the Government, quite apart from me, by telling those public-spirited and elected individuals who are our councillors to say “No comment” when approached by brutes like me from the press or even less brutish villagers.A worse way to go about their business is hard to imagine. Small wonder Communities Secretary of State Eric Pickles is horrified.

To take an example, Newmarket Town Council is, in a technical sense, little more than a parish council. Is it seriously suggested that this sometimes eccentric body should protect itself from wider scrutiny with a wall of silence, all members meekly subscribing to the party line cooked up behind closed doors? Should dissidents be gagged?As local councils go, Newmarket’s council is quite tame compared with some village neighbours riven by internal strife. Meanwhile, the majority of such councils sail serenely on as our Community News columns record week by week.

If any reader doubts that papers like the Journal have a role to play in local government, let them read the report in last week’s issue of the annual meeting of the excellently-run Wood Ditton Parish Council. Repeatedly during that meeting public and members deplored the disregard of district and county when it came to planning applications. At county level, little Wood Ditton felt local opinion was being ignored. This is a very familiar cry from almost every parish everywhere. Do these excellent, sincere and dutiful public representatives truly think they can beat Bury bureaucrats over the head without making a rough and rowdy public protest right here?

Do they think a stiff letter to some worthy pen-pusher will cut any ice? Hardly. A surer remedy is to talk about it openly and sensibly, thus attracting the support of those who voted for you in the first place. In short, if you don’t like your name in the papers then you’re in the wrong job.

I wish I knew your names but I do not even know if you were five men, five women or some sort of gender mix. All I know is that you are heroes and should get a medal.

You are the five members of the public who actually turned up at the meeting called by Forest Heath to brief councillors and we surly serfs on the latest housing plans for Hatchfield Farm and Red Lodge.

Sadly, public meetings are a faded form of sending messages. However, despite the wonders of IT, there is still nothing like meeting the crafty geezer who’s trying to swing something on you and looking at him full in the face.

In these days of tenuous loyalties and fluid families, it is wonderfully reassuring to read how father and son cricketers, Ollie and Simon Lawson, batted Exning to victory over Copford by 50 runs. Of course, the other Exning players did their bit but there is something about a father and son stand that somehow just seems right. Real Boys’ Own Paper stuff.

I have tried, Lord! how I’ve tried, to care about the Tour de France coming our way. I have pondered national honour. I have considered the tourist trade. I have even taken account of what the French call “la gloire.” But it’s no use. I still don’t give a stuff.

Sorry if I seem to have some fixation on Eric Pickles, but the Secretary of State has taken a lot of flak by trying to curb councils’ ruthless pursuit of income from parking fees.

He may have been clumsy, he may have got it a bit wrong, but essentially he is dead right in a way no-one has bothered to point out.

The rapacious, money-grubbing policies of almost every council in the land (Forest Heath is very far from the worst) has soured public opinion against local government. Councils and councillors now only manifest themselves as hated smash-and-grab raiders who use tricks and bully-boy tactics to extract cash from shoppers and businesspeople seeking to use the towns they were elected to defend and represent.

There is a strong case for rationing limited parking space by time and price but the present policies merely alienate the public from the very people who voted for the councillors.When an innocent shopper is fined for lingering too long in a town desperate for trade, insanity has set in.