Community forums are vital part of local government

HAVING been an active member since its inception, I was sorry to see Seahouses Parish councillors did not know or value the work of Belford and Seahouses Community Forum.

It is now the only opportunity for elected members to hear a range of views from other elected members, community groups, charities, businesses, other parish councils and Northumberland County Council officers. That is the role of a ‘Forum’ and what it does.

Belford and Seahouses Community Forum has led the way in Northumberland, looking at issues the local community said mattered to them such as broadband, accident and emergency services, responding to heavy snowfall, affordable housing, homelessness, migrant workers and what customers think of local businesses and how they could be improved.

I’m sure the other councillors would have been as proud as their chair, clerk and Coun Grant to learn the businesses voted the top three in the area by members of the public were all based in Seahouses. They might also have been interested in hearing that a great many people from neighbouring farms and villages said they choose not to shop in Seahouses because there is no on-street parking and they had to pay to use the car park, feeling that they might as well travel to bigger, cheaper supermarkets in Alnwick or Berwick instead or use online deliveries. The fact that so much money is leaving the village must be a concern to the parish council.

Before the move to a unitary council, there was an opportunity for the district, parish and county councillors and officers to meet at the tri-partite meetings. These are no more. The proposal for the future of the community forum is to partly replicate these with the ‘community’ being the third, and most important, partner at the table.

There are now only two layers of council in Northumberland. As parishes are finding out they are, quite rightly, being expected to take on their fair share of services to fill the vacuum left by Berwick Borough Council. This will only increase.

All parish councillors must engage with local people and no longer expect voters to turn up at monthly or bi-monthly meetings as if some sort of supplicant, begging favours from their ‘betters’. They must lead and think strategically.

Now is the time for parish councillors, who are, after all, elected to represent the people who live in their communities, to step up to the mark and make sure the opinions of their electors and not just their own views, are heard by decision-makers. Only in this way will this area get a fair bite of the cherry and the services, planning and funding it deserves.

In many parishes, there have been no elections for many years as there have been insufficient candidates. All current councillors need to think long and hard about the new role they are expected to perform. If they are not willing to change with the times, not willing to engage with the community and listen to what is said, then they should take a brave decision and resign.

There may be a short-term gap but others will step forward, hopefully they will demand and attend training and maximise the effect of the council for the benefit of everyone in their parish. I will be at the next community forum meeting in Beadnell and am looking forward to a discussion about ‘Maximising the Impact of Historic Sites in Local Villages’. I’m sure Seahouses councillors will have thoughts and experiences they would like to contribute. I hope all councillors will attend with a positive attitude.

Jennifer Hall, Beadnell