Handforth Parish Council and Jackie Weaver have made us laugh, but don't dismiss these councils - they do important work | Blaise Tapp
Due to the limitations of the times that we live in, there can’t be many out there who haven’t heard of the village of Handforth or its parish council.
During the past week, millions of people in search of something to ease the tedium have spent 18 minutes laughing at an internet clip that some have dubbed the funniest British comedy in years.
If you’ve somehow missed this much-needed non-pharmaceutical antidote to Covid, the viral clip is of a Zoom meeting of the council which quickly descends into farce when the chairman becomes increasingly annoyed with an externally-appointed clerk, who soon kicks him and his allies out of her virtual arena. The clerk, Jackie Weaver, has become an overnight celebrity and there is already an extensive range of merchandise including mugs and T-shirts being churned out to honour this star of the most high-octane Cheshire drama since Hollyoaks first hit the small screen.
The toe-curling footage will only serve to fuel the general public’s preconceived notion of parish councils being the natural home to self-important busybodies who spend all their time bickering over tedious procedural matters. If this perception sticks in the minds of millions more, it would be a real shame because, as someone who has spent hundreds of hours covering parish meetings, I appreciate just how vital these people are to the communities in which we live.
While I haven’t personally witnessed a chairman be ejected from his meeting, I have both some fond and vivid memories of covering grassroots local democracy in action. As a snotty-nosed reporter, I soon learned that such forums were a fertile source of great stories, the trouble is you sometimes required the staying power of a Kenyan long-distance runner to ensure that such tales made it into the following day’s edition.
To say that parish and town council meetings can be long-winded affairs is a bit like suggesting that Jeff Bezos is worth a bob or two, but where else would you be able to sit in on an hour-long debate about whether investing in a new outfit for the ‘well built’ new town crier is the wisest use of council funds?
It was during one such meeting that I stumbled across the man who later entered the record books as the country’s oldest local councillor at 95. His life story was a genuinely fascinating one, he was a prisoner of war who attempted to flee the clutches of his German captors and, according to local legend, was the inspiration behind the Great Escape. In his later years, however, his main contribution to civic life was his ability to fall asleep within five minutes of a meeting beginning. Not that anybody minded very much because his service to the community was as distinguished as it was long, on top of the fact that they were short on volunteers.
While such councils attract people that you and I might politely describe as ‘characters’, it would be grossly unfair to dismiss those operating at this level of local government as duffers. Such local authorities are the first line of defence for residents when the threat of development looms large and while they have very little in the way of power, the influence that they can have over district and borough planners is not to be dismissed. They are often the mouthpiece of their neighbourhood and most fulfil that role diligently and passionately.
What’s more, these community stalwarts tend to pop up on every community forum and committee going, such is their commitment to improving life where they live.
I've been unlucky enough to encounter the odd bumptious so and so who would be better suited to a central Asian dictatorship than leading a band of local volunteers but they are in the minority.
While the circumstances surrounding Handforth’s new-found fame might be highly amusing, it's vital that not all parish and town councils are tarred with the same brush.