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Podcast script - Wednesday, June 10, 2020

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Good Morning Chelveston, Caldecott and Chelston Rise it’s Wednesday 10th June and this is Adrian Dale with the daily podcast.

Yesterday’s podcast reporting on the Council meeting was more popular than I expected. I had lots of feedback from people saying that it was indeed a useful way to find out what the Council was doing on their behalf. Very few people normally take the trouble to go and search out the minutes. And the minutes of course only record the decisions taken and not necessarily the detailed discussions that happened, nor the historical background.

If this is useful, then I’ll discuss whether the Council would be happy to publish a commentary podcast each month. Of course, my record of events reflects my own perspective on things and cannot be taken as a true record of what was said or decided. Only the recording and the minutes can do that.

One question raised with me was about Council finances. There was surprise at the closing balance of over £15,000 held by the Council. Why this much and where has it come from?

Our council is very transparent with its financial dealings but it can still be a complex subject to approach as a novice. So here is my take on Council Finance 101.

When I first joined the Council in 1996, the finances were a complete mystery to me and there appeared to be little in the way of budgeting or financial planning. At least nothing that my business education recognised. There was just a pot of money that we kept dipping into that miraculously refilled each year. This pot wasn’t very big though, as the Council didn’t actually do a lot other than pay for the street lights.

When I became Chairman in 1998, I set about reforming things. I wanted to know what our normal annual running costs were and what improvement projects we needed to do. I wanted these two halves of the budget kept separate so that we could manage them differently.

When I looked in detail at the present Council’s financial planning documents last night and I was delighted that they still follow the same format, albeit with big improvements made by Mark Hunter, as you’d expect.

So where does the money come from?

Well the Parish Council is a precepting authority. It has the powers to raise money from every household in the Village and can ask East Northamptonshire to collect this money as part of your council tax bills. It is a little known fact that the Parish Council can actually demand as much as it needs from you. Millions if it wanted. There are no government imposed caps. However, if a Parish Council tried to raise excessive amounts, they wouldn’t be popular, and councillors wouldn’t last long in post. In this Village, the precepting process is open and transparent.

Every November, the Council publishes and discusses a draft budget. This can then be commented on by residents until it is finalised in January. In January, the Council formally sets the precepts and sends off its demands to East Northamptonshire Council. Each household then gets the Council Tax demands through its door showing clearly what this Council has demanded.

For many years, whilst I was Chairman, the guiding principle in this Village was to keep the Parish precept to approximately £1.00 per week for a band D household. Through the personal generosity and financial wizardry of Mark Hunter, we managed to absorb inflation year in year out and still delivered major improvement projects in the Village – the War Memorial, new street lights, the allotments, things I have previously talked about.

So what do I mean by Mark’s personal generosity? Well there is story worth telling. We used to rotate the Chairmanship of the Council annually between the same two Councillors (in reality the only two prepared to do it). Whenever I took over, I did a financial audit. This was in the days before this was compulsory. In 2001, I found that the accounts were a mess. The Clerk of the Council (long before Mark Hunter) had not been paying our bills. The only cheques that had been cashed were for his salary. As an officer of the Councillor, Clerks are entitled to a nationally agreed payment which reflects the size of the Parish they work for. My recollection is that this was £150 a meeting in those days, reflecting 2 months part time work.

I sacked the Clerk on the spot and appointed Michael Foulger as the temporary Clerk, whilst we advertised for a new Clerk. My advert for the Clerk’s post was cheeky and, it turns out, illegal. I decided that if the Councillors were voluntary posts, so should the Clerk be. I knew that our previous Clerk did less work than me as Chairman and so I couldn’t see why they should be paid. I was entitled to a Chairman’s allowance of £80 to cover expenses, but I had never drawn it.

Well this chap called Mark Hunter applied for the voluntary post and he flew through the interview and was quickly appointed. I had revised the Council’s administrative processes, but Mark quickly took this to a whole new level. Furthermore, because the Clerk was not being paid, our Council finances were suddenly vastly improved and we could start making a difference.

But then Mark dropped his bombshell a couple of Council Meetings in. It turns out that my advert had been illegal and employing an officer of the council on zero salary was also not legal. There was a stunned silence in the meeting. And then Mark made his offer. He was prepared to work for free as long as we financed his professional training to become qualified as a local council clerk. Frankly we didn’t know that Clerks ought to be qualified, or that training existed. But we agreed. His next bombshell was that it would still be illegal for him to work for free. He needed to be paid a nominal £1.00 per annum salary. Well that was no problem surely I said. Ah but, Mark replied, the Council had already resolved not to pay the Clerk, so it couldn’t legally reverse that decision until another meeting. In the mean time he couldn’t work.

The solution was sheer genius. If the Chairman i.e. me at the time, was to dip into his own pocket and pay that £1.00 personally as donation to the Council, then all would be well. And that is exactly what happened and what continues as a tradition to this day. Mark Hunter, forgoes his salary each year (which should be nearly £3,000 a year now) and each year there is a ceremony in which the Chairman of the Council personally pays over £1.00 to the Clerk.

One year I was so grateful that I handed Mark the contents of my pocket, which amounted to £1.21. This was duly recorded in the minutes. The next meeting Mark came back and pointed out that this was effectively a 21% pay rise. Unfortunately, this was also illegal under the public sector pay curbs. So Mark duly donated his 21p back to the Council and there was much laughter all round.

Just imagine what future generations will make of all this when they read the minutes!

However, the benefit to this Parish is enormous. The current budget shows an annual running cost for the Parish of nearly £16,000 (including the true salary for the Clerk). In this year’s budget the Council is also planning possible improvements totalling nearly £15,000. So that’s £31,000 worth of delivered value to the Parish.

However, the 2020/2021 Council tax precept has been set at just £11,000. So now you understand what I meant by Mark Hunter’s financially wizardry.

Year in year out, Mark is not just the most qualified of the County’s Clerks, but he also has the best track record for running funding campaigns and securing grant funding for the improvement projects in the Parish. We financed the war memorial at zero cost to the council tax payer, the allotments cost the Council nothing to set up. The Cross of Sorrow is being refurbished through public donations. The Village Hall projection system came from district council grants, as did the Council PA system.

We are fortunate in having two excellent grant awarding bodies that trust this Council, the Wind Farm Trust and the Foulger Trust. Grants from these Trusts have financed substantial improvements throughout the Parish.

Guess who set them up and who is Clerk to the both of them . . .

You’ve got it, our own Mark Hunter.

So Mark, I am sure that all our residents will join with me in thanking our generous financial and administrative wizard. I know this Parish would be a much poorer place to live without the work you have done.

Thank you