Imagine if your dealings with Handforth Parish Council lasted more than 18 minutes!
I got to know several of the characters in the #HandforthParishCouncil Zoom performance when I was unceremoniously co-opted on to the mess that was Handforth Parish Council in 2011, where I spent the best part of two years discovering how influencing the local area worked in reality. Here is my insight into local goverance.
For those of you who do not know me or Handforth, a little background on both is necessary. I am a big believer in the circular economy and opportunities for all, but I’m genuinely concerned that the system needed a massive reboot and that was before Covid-19!
I got dealt a lucky hand in life. You see, when you are born in Wilmslow and go to an all-girls convent school in Alderley Edge, you can be forgiven for being totally detached from the hardships of regular life. I was the poor kid at my school; free school meals were not the differentiating factor. I did not have a swimming pool, a caravan in Wales, a classic car, a pony, or skiing holidays. And when hard times came, businesses were failing and jobs were scarce, the convent let us default on nominal fees. I continued having a very lovely enjoyable education where I was encouraged to think freely and believe in humanity. Mum and Dad worked every hour not to have the house repossessed and retired well after the normal age of retirement. They did not have time for voluntary committees as they were grafting their way through a recession in the private sector. They were not snobby, and treated everyone with dignity, respect, and kindness.
Wilmslow had a thriving high street, still does by comparable standards. Handforth, the next village along, had a rather ill-designed retail precinct – The Paddock – and few reasons to visit apart from a video library, an awesome Cantonese restaurant (still here BTW) and an Indian restaurant called the Hilal. From a child’s perspective, it seemed like a small village. There was the notorious lane called Spath Lane that had a bad reputation, but otherwise there was very little to write home about regarding Handforth, and when the bypass was finished (new A34), there was no reason to drive through it at all.
I went from my cushy childhood existence in Wilmslow to Newcastle for university and then to Welwyn Garden City for work. All incredibly interesting places as case studies into urban planning, design and local investment. When I met my husband, who was from Newcastle, he knew more about the Colshaw Farm Estate on the Handforth/Wilmslow border than I did. He'd studied the socio-economic failure in A level Geography. If you were from Wilmslow, Colshaw was another independent place, not a ward of Wilmslow.
Welwyn probably did have a very efficient parish council – of the sober Methodist variety I’m guessing! At that point in my life, I still did not know how local funding and design worked, I was too busy making my entry level wage a trainee merchandiser last between pay days. I had not watched The Vicar of Dibley, but Absolutely Fabulous was typical of my world!
Dossing on friends’ floors to afford the London lifestyle had to stop. I had two choices: move up north or into London. It was a no-brainer for me; move back to Manchester where there was a business I knew I would fit right into that few people had heard of. I could use all my commercial merchandising skills even if people did not know what the hell they were north of Watford Gap. A short stint back living with my parents would help me repay my loans.
Getting to Know the Real Handforth
It took Ian and me ages to find a house we could afford, and eventually we happened on a lovely little two-up two-down terrace in Handforth. We were in the house for ten weeks when we discovered that it is quite common for new houses to come with a new baby! We'd only looked at the house as a first house for two party people in their mid-twenties. There was no official parking space, we had not looked at schools or parks or even signed up at the doctor’s surgery, but we were happy and we loved our home and our reception in Handforth.
We'd been in the house several months and discovered many things truly fascinating about Handforth. Spath Lane is not a lane, it is a HUGE sprawling residential area with insufficient parking for the many homes on it. The road through the village divided Handforth into three warring sections. You have the Knowle Park/Lakes estate on one side, and Spath Lane on the other, and a South Handforth part which, for all identity purposes, did consider itself part of Wilmslow.
Spring comes and my baby brings me immense joy. Fortunately, the decision over choosing prams and cots was taken off our hands as my brother-in-law Ali – realising our lifestyles were about to get curve-balled beyond recognition – had gifted us some second-hand stuff. My Silver Cross pram was an all-singing all-dancing transformer mobile but it was heavy. The only place I could not really navigate alone was the train station as there were 32 steps to the platform. Once on the station though, (a station I'd passed through literally hundreds of times but never got off at) it really is a special space. There is some kind of guerilla art and gardening group who titivate this space and keep it lovely and quirky. Its Handforth’s finest spot, even if it is difficult to reach.
Maternity leave is not quite what I’d expected. Feeding and tending to a baby cannot be time boxed, I don’t care what Jeana Forbes says. I thought I could squeeze in setting up my own business. Ha! back to the shackles of a 37-hour-a-week contract.
Christmas 2010 came, and I get the measure of civic pride for the village. Every single Christmas light fixture has big parts of the light element not working. They look so desperate and despairing I take to Twitter to see if it’s just me who is depressed by it. There is not much about Handforth apart from the occasional joke about Clasic [sic] Wines.
Fast forward to two babies and absolutely no chance of using the train with a double buggy. I need to enjoy the park that I can walk to. There was nothing to enjoy at the park apart from an unloved, slippery, rotten climbing frame. When the sun blazed the people rushing to the park were not families, to lap up the sore sight of an unloved pavilion, it was individuals overdosing on park benches where they were certain to be alone.
One soulless, empty day, there was a note on the notice board of Meriton Road Park. ‘Do you want to help your community, register an interest?’ I wrote a letter of interest and was invited to attend a public meeting. I went to my first ever public meeting and I left co-opted as a parish councillor. What had I let myself in for?
My four biggest life lessons from Handforth Parish Council:
1. Expect hoodwinking from the start and deliberate tactical scheming. I had never really been lied to before my Handforth Parish Council experience, no one in work or life had ever been economical with the truth. I trusted people. Rule one: what gets said to your face, is not what gets said behind you back. There are some tricky characters whose intentions are questionable at every level of government. Cheshire East dumped on Handforth when they did the first Local Plan consultations. The difference in what my parents received in communication in Wilmslow compared with what Handforth residents received was astronomical. Handforth residents were purposefully blindsided until the deal to shaft the residents looked like it had legitimacy. The Ponds, as it’s affectionately known by locals, is a nature spot and wetland of super importance. Not just because of its ecological diversity but because of the well-being it gives to many people in Handforth (located next to the fields by Total Fitness). Nature value aside, if 2500 houses go on that wetland then we will need a Handforth RNLI or Noah and his ark!
2. If you question anyone with logic and rationale you lose friends; if you do it openly in public forums you make enemies. Lots of items are discussed in secret before the official meeting and the majority of most meetings are spent arguing about the minutes of the last meeting. What should get done in a month takes twelve months. You have to either really believe in representing your neck of the woods or you enjoy performing in the pantomime nonsense and regalia that goes with public office. Jackie Weaver got her Britney Spears moment. Let’s hope the rest of them don’t end up like the real Britney after their rise to fame!
3. Most people are not comfortable with money – talking about it, spending it – therefore it is open to abuse. Because it’s public money with weak accountability, it is extremely hard to get the balance right between saving for say a floating astro-pitch, (I would say that is the most needed item for Handforth community right now) and having a nice floral display in the village with excessive Christmas lights. Communities need people who can see beyond their egos and think about longer term needs whilst managing a budget. When you are involved with HPC, surviving the week can seem like an epic task, involvement really should come with a health warning. The bad behavior can really make you question your own sanity and when your trust in people and authority is rocked your mental health can be severely impacted. When I see people calling for the rules to be respected my experience tells me it is because they are trying to play by the rules and be transparent not disruptive. Disruption generally happens behind the scenes. Parish council rules are complex, and it is entirely possible to not know constitutional point 101 and default to just standing orders nonsense which bores people into submission and lets menaces get away with bamboozling things.
4. The system is out of date. Why should the responsibility and environmental planning fall to volunteers to make sure it is in the best interest of the local people? This does not work for equity and some highly-skilled people are delivering valuable projects for absolutely no financial reward and a heck of a lot of hassle. Why bother? Pay these people and demand full transparency and local due diligence. It’s not as if the saving on the barristers that are employed when it all goes wrong won’t cover the cost of paying people in the first place. It’s wooden dollars. But that local bond and knowledge are needed, so we do have to strengthen our links with the reality on the ground, and that needs some courage and rethinking and embracing of technology.
Can you volunteer with agency? I think you can, but I don’t think you should. Every role should come with perks. I’ll save that for another blog about the #futureofwork.
Anyone who thinks that 18 minutes of edited video will give you the measure of the good, bad and ugly HPC, please, please, please question what you are observing, perception is never reality.
HPC has made great progress in the last eight years and I genuinely cannot believe where some of those long servers have found the energy to keep going. I am wishing them all the very best of health. I’d like to see absolutely zero money spent on internal investigations but that everyone gets the chance to be asked questions publicly by the community, not via Facebook or some other closed network and without the mass media. #justsaying
If you have enjoyed my style of wtiting please enjoy my blog on Notes by Mother in VUCA where I blog about grassroot community spitit, the challenge of parenting in the digiral era and working within a broken system.
Thank you to the #GimletEyedGrammarTickler, Melanie Cotton for tidying up my grammar. Highly recommended proofreading services, I might have thrown a couple of sentences in that have not been proofread!