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Calls for council law change

PUBLISHED: 09:19 11 December 2009 | UPDATED: 15:54 03 July 2010

Locals councils in Norfolk are calling for a change in the law to stop one-person campaigns bringing parishes to their knees.

The move has been driven by one under-fire council near Cromer, but the county association of parish councils says there are similar cases - to varying degrees - all over the Norfolk and the nation.

Locals councils in Norfolk are calling for a change in the law to stop one-person campaigns bringing parishes to their knees.

The move has been driven by one under-fire council near Cromer, but the county association of parish councils says there are similar cases - to varying degrees - all over the Norfolk and the nation.

So it is lobbying for a change in legislation to ensure complaints have independent support - rather than being just the actions of one person.

Councils in the firing line of persistent objections have suffered mass resignations, big tax rises, and found it hard to time the time and money to do everyday parish projects because of the cost and workload caused by handling complaints.

At Roughton the council has seen a doubling of its tax demand to pay for fees resulting from the queries raised by local man Tony Musker. It has also had support from district council officials, and community police are heading mediation talks trying to resolve a dispute that stretches back two decades.

Norfolk Association of Local Councils training, finance and administration officer Sue Lake said Roughton was not alone in its predicament, with a scattering of other villages across the county also having to shoulder the extra workload caused by persistent complainants.

“Clerks spend so much of their time dealing with them, they are not moving things forward. The people of Roughton are not getting the service they deserve,” she added.

Most of Norfolk's 119 parish councils were trouble-free, but there were pockets of problems.

The county association had backed Roughton's motion to their annual meeting calling for a change of law ensuring there was independent corroboration of complaints before they went to formal investigation.

It was being followed up by the local councils' national body but would involve changes to Acts of Parliament, so could take some time, admitted Mrs Lake.

People wanting to question the actions of their councils had the right to inspect accounts, which were checked by internal and external auditors. Issues of conduct were policed by a standards committee at the district council. But people's first port of call was the parish council itself.

“But if you have a query you should go to your council rather than sit mumbling in the pub. Councils are trying to increase their contact with the public through question time sessions, to get away from the Vicar of Dibley image,” added Mrs Lake.

Mr Musker had tackled Roughton parish council over a range of issues dating back more than 20 years, confirmed Elizabeth Smith, North Norfolk District Council's solicitor responsible for standards.

A “significant number” of councillors had resigned in past because of the problems and large amount of her time was devoted to dealing with the issue.

But she added: “We are not in control of the parish council, or policing them, but here to support them in their dealings with a difficult member of the local community.”

Elsewhere in the country, one council in Somerset was using powers originally designed for stalkers to tackle one individual who had tabled 118 complaints. Another in Devon had taken out an anti social behaviour order to deal with abusive phone calls by a complainant. At Mentmore in the Thames Valley the council had “imploded” because of unsubstantiated complaints.

None of the 18 complaints tabled by Mr Musker since the district council took over standards control in May 2008 had been substantiated, added Mrs Smith. Complaints were about a range of issues, including the council's accounts and transferring of common land.

A mediation meeting had been held, but ended in “stalemate” and had been adjourned for three months, but the programme of support was succeeding, at the resignations had all be dried up.

Asked about his campaign Mr Musker said: “It is not just me who has these concerns. I know lots of people in Roughton who share my view.”

And he said any tightening of restrictions was “contrary to the Human Rights Act.”

An Audit Commission spokesman said its booklet Councils Accounts - Your Rights said auditors “must take a balanced approach in deciding how much time and money they will spend in investigating an objection.”

They would consider not only the right of the objectors, but also the rights of the council, which had to meet the costs of responding to questions and objections.

The booklet is available on the website at http://www.audit-commission.gov.uk/nationalstudies/localgov/Pages/councilsaccountsyourrights03072006.aspx

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