Workload pressure causes casualties

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PRESSURE on town and parish councils to adopt new services could lead to a wave of resignations and retirements, as councillors find themselves buckling beneath a mounting workload and greater responsibilities.

Dorothy Hankin and Susan Bell, who served on Alnwick Town Council for 10 and seven years respectively, opted to hand in their notices at Thursday’s meeting.

Like other towns and parishes across Northumberland, Alnwick is being asked to consider adopting services currently run by the county council, such as street cleaning, playgrounds and the maintenance of civic buildings.

But with many councillors either being retired or with full-time jobs to contend with, some feel they are now being asked to do the work of professionals on an unpaid, voluntary basis.

Mrs Hankin, 66, said: “I really felt that, personally, I was going to be out of my depth and not able to make as much of a contribution to the town council. I imagine this will be the same for many other parish and town councillors.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the town council but given the way things are changing, I felt that there are far more able folk around who might want to get involved. I do understand that the council needs to move forward, but I couldn’t commit any more time than I have been giving and that’s what will be required if more services are adopted.”

Like Mrs Hankin, Susan Bell said the increased demands on the town council had played a part in her decision to retire.

“It had some bearing, no doubt about it,” said Mrs Bell, 69, who was co-opted to the council without election seven years ago. “We are expected to do more and I felt that I was already doing enough. I ran out of steam.

“I put more into the town council than just attending meetings, particularly on issues such as litter. I have been putting my heart and soul into looking after the town for the last seven years. Now I feel I really need a break.”

Mrs Bell also recently stood down from Alnwick in Bloom after five years’ service to the town.

Their reservations about increased workload and responsibility were reflected at other town and parish councils in north Northumberland.

At Belford, parish councillor Geoff O’Connell said: “It’s certainly causing concern here and at other councils in this area. Bearing in mind that we are all volunteers, although elected ones, we are being asked to get into rather deep waters for services which we are not qualified to carry out. Against that, if we get something wrong, there is a very real risk that we will face legal action. We do this job for the love of it, but such demands will cause a wide spread of parish councillors in this county to reconsider their positions.”

Chairman of North Sunderland Parish Council, Geoffrey Stewart, said: “At the beginning we were told the unitary council would save £17million a year, but there was no mention that they wanted the parishes to take on all these services.

“We’re still in the dark. It’s quite possible that some parish councillors could resign because of the added pressure.”

Amble Town Council chairman Leslie Bilboe said they were neither ready nor equipped to adopt such far-reaching responsibilities without proper training being made available by the county council.

“This will more than likely lead to resignations because we are volunteers and many of us are retired,” he said. “There a serious implications to this.

“Without proper training we are not going to be in a position to do it.”

Rothbury parish councillor Alan Fendley said: “It’s quite conceivable that some parish councillors will resign. The whole situation of parish councils becoming employers, even on a voluntary basis, will cause concerns over health and safety legislation, employment law and liability.

“It does not augur well and I can see a lot of parish councillors asking whether this is what they want to devote their time to.”