Grand Tour by Elisabeth Skinner MBE – Week 3

30 March 2022

“After four restful days in Wadebridge with opportunities for spending time with my son and his family, I set off to see Jane and Guy at Northam Town Council in North Devon. Jane Mills, Town Clerk, is in her final year at Level 6 while her colleague, Guy Langton, has just started Level 4. Just as I approached Bude I discovered that Guy had tested positive and Jane was really poorly. I mulled over the possibilities and decided to take a look at Northam and Appledore all the same and took a lovely photo of the Town Hall on the hill above the Torridge estuary. I’m hoping I can count this as a visit alongside the meeting with Jane and Guy last Tuesday when I enjoyed a pub meal with the Devon students. Even so, I was sorry not to have the planned visit and a chat about the course.

Back on the road, I headed up the M5 to meet Amy Shepherd (Level 4) at her parish of West Monkton near Taunton. I met Amy in a community centre next door to a primary school, both funded by S106 agreements involving an extensive development, with more planned. The original village is out of sight and although the money is welcome, there is a problem to be solved in bringing together the old and the new – us and them. West Monkton Parish Council has therefore employed two assistant clerks with one dedicated to developing a spirit of community which so far, is going well. Amy and I chat over sandwiches about both her parishes, West Monkton and Bishop’s Lydiard, both benefiting from significant funds arising from S106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy.

My next visit should have been to Bridgwater Town Hall but the Town Clerk, David Mears, was working from home so I set off for a village near Chard. David talked me through Bridgwater Town Council’s properties, services, and activities, and patiently answered my many questions. I was impressed by the range of this progressive council’s responsibilities and its willingness to invest in the town. Properties that the council owned were underused or rented out at a ridiculously low rate when David arrived in post, but they have now been upgraded and are appropriately occupied. The council is even willing to set up a company to manage the docks. I was surprised that Bridgwater had docks let alone that a Town Council would take them on! It was clear that negotiating skills are essential if a council is to get the best from any situation for the benefit of its community. David (a CiLCA trainer) might consider sharing his negotiating experiences with the sector. Just ask about the Flower Club and the storage of several vintage Jaguar cars…

My plans for visiting Dorchester on my final day were put on hold because of another positive Covid test – so after a B&B in deepest Dorset, I headed for Shepton Mallet in the first rain since leaving home ten days ago. Claire Commons (final year at Level 6) hasn’t been town clerk here for long so we hunkered down in a meeting room and she told me what she knew about a town where almost all the property was still owned by the district council including the town council’s offices. The future of the town’s assets under local government reorganisation (the creation of the unitary) remains unknown. We discussed the focus of Claire’s dissertation but pondered the learning that was emerging from a piece of group work – as Claire said, we spent some time reflecting on reflecting!

My final visit was just up the road to Midsomer Norton where the clerk, Donna Ford (Level 5) showed me around the antique, but well-used Town Hall. The large assembly room was at the top of two flights of steep Victorian stairs while the original market hall on the ground floor had some small offices. The council has ambitious plans for renovating the building including recreating the hall for an indoor market, building a new office wing, installing a more suitable staircase to the assembly room, new sustainable heating systems, and other improvements. The project is currently out for tender. We walked down the High Street where the council has planted up the river banks with a variety of colours including glorious marsh marigolds. Donna took me to a project of which she was rightly very proud – the recently completed town park created out of a significant piece of waste land. The community can now enjoy a scented garden, an amphitheatre, several walkways, and a large open event space.

I have visited 16 students so far and thank every one for their hospitality. Phase Two will take me to East Anglia in May which I’m looking forward to. I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing students in their home territory; I have viewed council projects and buildings old and new, and just occasionally, we have mused over assignments or a dissertation.”

By Elisabeth Skinner MBE

Elisabeth is raising money to support a new educational charity for the professional development of parish, town and community council officers. Please visit her JustGiving page if you would like to donate. She has currently raised over £600.


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