The alternative guide to becoming a local council clerk
Scribe Academy recently welcomed Ray Evans, Clerk and Author of 'An Improper Officer', to share his general top tips on life as a Clerk and discuss the upcoming release of his new book. Whether you've been working in the local government sector for years or are just starting out, we're sure you'll be able to relate to some of these topics!
💼Tip #01 - Job Stuff
A very serious issue, terms of employment, quite unbelievably, is a legal protocol many councils actually believe they are immune from needing to have in place. It's a fact, I know, I have been on the wrong end of an invalid contract, something I should have been aware of as the Chair but have since rectified as clerk in my council.
For some unknown reason, both your councillors and the public at large, think you are a battery driven hologram, open 24/7, filled with the knowledge of Stephen Hawking or Galileo Galilei, and capable of out-smarting Anne Hegerty.
🌱Tip #02 - New Territory
As you begin to explore your new surroundings, if the council is anything like mine, records, items of interest, old photographs and even chains of office, are stored in various buildings around the settlement. This may be the local library, museum or even a lock up garage where documents are stored alongside sandbags and flood warning signs.
You have to track them down and try as far as practicable, to record where they are, I know, terrifying.
You take a look at the acres of ring binder files, tatty old envelope folders, where the content titles have been crossed through and a new title added, filing cabinets that no-one seems to have a key for, a computer that would not look out of place in a Start
Trek episode, but scariest of all, the plastic file box marked 'deeds and covenants'.
🧠Tip #03 - The Knowledge
Most clerks would love to be able to quote chapter and verse on the law and its influence on most of what the council does, when challenged in a meeting.
Get real, it ain't going to happen! Up to 80% of the queries will remain unanswered until the necessary search and research has been conducted.
I liken this process to an apothecary, you walk into your chemist's shop with a prescription, hand it to him or her, they walk off into the storeroom and scan the shelves until they find a container with a name that matches with the prescription. I am not suggesting for one moment that finding things is all a pharmacist does, no more than I would a clerk but, the art of the job is knowing where to look, i.e. The Knowledge, yes, just like London cabbies, you need to know your way around the parish and the law pertaining to its component parts.
🤝Tip #04 - Your Crew
Getting to know how your crew tick is essential, a word you will see used throughout this book. You will not cut the mustard by only joining with them in debate at meetings. No, you have to be fully interactive, join them at public ceremonies, social gatherings where appropriate.
Accompany Cllr Bert Smith, who carries a portfolio on allotment matters, to the annual 'largest marrow' competition. Remember you are the conduit between them and the electorate, you cannot give an account of their actions without knowing their motivation for doing so.
🥳Tip #05 - PARTYGATE
Inappropriately leaked Zoom footage, released during the pandemic, exposed some of the shenanigans taking place in certain town and parish councils around the country. Although thought amusing by most, they show a complete breakdown of the trust that should exist between the people and their representatives on the council.
As Clerk and Proper Officer, albeit a tad less high profile than the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards, are committed by law, and in no less a way, must administer the laws concerning conduct in your village hall, or indeed, out and about whilst acting in an official capacity.
📋Tip #06 - AGAR
Perhaps the most scary event for Clerks, the annual return is troubling because the Clerk's efforts are subject to triple scrutiny - the Council, the Internal Auditor and the External Auditor.
Their comments are vital in ensuring that you provide a correct statement of the year's financial dealings.
As far as I am aware, no clerk has ever been banged up for not getting AGAR right first time, remember, their judgements are purely opinions to be considered for keeping to the straight and narrow and usually dwell in the area of procedure rather than suspected fraudulent behaviour.
💰Tip #07 - Grants
Funny word that, commensurate, but absolutely describes the action, here's an example. Your council are liable to commit a cardinal Sin if they award £5,000.00 to Gertie Smith, who runs a local yoga club with a membership of five, whilst refusing to provide £5,000.00 to the town 'in bloom' or 'Christmas lights appeal fund', which benefits the whole community. Be very careful, very careful indeed.
Develop some form of adjudication process, appoint a grants panel, remember you are taking money out of the pockets of the electorate and slipping it quietly into the yoga teacher's pockets. I use yoga as an example and have no axe to grind with meditation, I may add!
🏫Tip #08 - ACV (Asset of Community Value)
Be warned, if you have recently been employed, take time to look at your council's recent history, certainly the administration prior to yours. Read a few of the more important agendas and minutes left as a legacy to you by the previous council, there may well be a few skeletons hiding in those community cupboards.
When your local authority receive an expression of interest a six month moratorium period is put in place during which time the asset cannot be disposed of. This period is designed to allow community interest groups the time to raise the money to bid for the asset when it comes on to the open market. However, there is no obligation for the owner to sell the asset to the community and the Right to Bid does not give first refusal to any community interest group. This means that the owner at the end of the moratorium period can sell to whomever they choose and at whatever price.
🗳️Tip #09 - Elections
As I complete the book, and after some speculation about whether the Government may delay local elections due to the Covid episode, I am reliably informed that they will take place in May 2023.
You need to be in preparation for this event no later than late summer 2022, and certainly be making provision in your budget as the campaign does not come cheap! You should also be 'informing' the community about the event, after all they are the pool from which you will draw out your new set of members, head for a wide cross section though many younger folk will not have the time to become regular councillors, they may be able to take part in working parties and so on.
☂️Tip #10 - Representation
Clerks presently seek support from SLCC and their local county associations, who provide updates on wage awards and conditions of employment. BUT... Is this enough? Should there be a formalised body such as a Guild or Fellowship who can articulate their needs directly with each other, populated by clerks and an elected leadership.
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