What it means to be an ambassador of the community

Ottery Town Council from left to right, Cllr Peter Faithfull, town clerk Christine McIntyre, Roger G

Ottery town councillors are 'ambassadors' for the community - Credit: Archant

Before I looked into becoming a councillor I have to admit I wasn’t actually 100% sure what councillors actually did. 

I knew they attended meetings and made decisions that affected the area that I lived in but I wasn’t exactly sure how it all worked. Were there guidelines, was there any training, do councillors just rock up at meetings and make decisions there and then? There are lots of ideas bandied around about what councillors actually do but I thought this week I could let people know what the role of a Town Councillor actually is.

Parish and town councillors act as ambassadors for their community, keeping everyone aware of local needs and concerns and reporting back on district, council and regional matters. Councillors represent the voice of their community as a whole, whilst being aware of, and considerate to, specific minority needs. This is why it is so important for councillors to listen to members of the public and have good communication with everyone, in my opinion councillors should be approachable and willing to listen to all sides of a discussion. Once the relevant facts are presented, and as long as all legal requirements are followed, a fully informed decision can be made.

As a councillor you are required to adhere to your council’s agreed code of conduct for elected members. Each council adopts its own code, but it must be based on the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s seven principles of public life.

These were developed by the Nolan Committee, which looked at how to improve ethical standards in public life and are often referred to as the ‘Nolan principles’. They apply to anyone who works as a public office holder. This includes all those elected or appointed to public office, nationally or locally, and everyone working in the civil service, local government, the police, courts and probation services, non-departmental public bodies and in the health, education and social care sectors. All public office holders are both servants of the public and stewards of public resources. The principles also apply to everyone in other sectors delivering public services.

All councils are required to promote and maintain high standards of conduct by councillors, but individual councillors must also take responsibility. For example, you must register any disclosable pecuniary (financial) interests for yourself, your spouse, your civil partner, or a partner you live with, within 28 days of taking up office. It is a criminal offence if you fail, without reasonable excuse, to declare or register interests to the monitoring officer.

Seven principles of public life
Holders of public office should uphold the following seven principles:

  • Selflessness. Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.
  • Integrity. Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.
  • Objectivity. Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
  • Accountability. Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
  • Openness. Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for doing so.
  • Honesty. Holders of public office should be truthful.
  • Leadership. Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.

As new councillors you are offered training but this isn’t compulsory at Town Council level, however I am aware that all the councillors at Ottery have attended the training and I feel very lucky that they have.

At Ottery Town Council we are lucky enough to have a fabulous team of staff who know their roles very well and can ensure that all decisions are made accurately and with all the relevant information to hand.

It can be frustrating trying to work out which bit of government deals with which issue. Cemeteries and allotments are town responsibilities, parks and rubbish are district, and potholes, schools and most social care are county. On most issues all three groups do work together, so even if you ask the wrong person first they will know who to go to.