I live in a beautiful part of the world. That’s why I find it very unsettling when I read in my local paper that the police had to be called to a council meeting to maintain order because local people were so irate about the council’s closed door policy, when I hear that there have been allegations of bribery of a local councillor and when I cannot get straight answers to my questions about what is going on in this beautiful part of the world!
Village gossip has always been a nasty past-time. In the past, you were likely to be put in the stocks or if you were a woman, tied into a ducking stool and plunged into the duck pond several times to make sure you kept your mouth shut. It is sometimes hard to differentiate gossip from whistle blowing. You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Making the decision to put something that you feel is seriously wrong in the public domain, takes courage. You have to check your sources carefully and make sure you have concrete proof that what you are exposing has some foundation. We are not a nation of natural whistle blowers, but increasingly, we need whistle blowers because there are ever more smells on the landing, as a friend of mine put it.
When you find yourself living in an area where you suspect that your local council is not acting appropriately, then what do you do? There are procedures. You can go through these procedures and make a complaint, and if you get nowhere, you can go to the Ombudsman. You can write hundreds of letters, but if you get blocked at every turn, it takes a great deal of strength to carry on until you expose what is really happening and bring people to book. Once you open Pandora’s box, there is no saying what might fly out and bite you.
And you need support. A single voice is easily silenced. You also have to have tactics. Strategies are essential, as is good research. And while you are doing all this, where is your life? Of course, you can contact a good investigative journalist to do the spade work for you, but then you open yourself up to abuse, not only by those you are seeking to expose but by the press. After all, a story is just a way of selling news. So, you have to chose your journalist carefully. It has to be someone with a conscience and an interest in social injustice. It has to be someone who will see the bigger picture.
Increasingly, people are questioning their local and parish councils. We are demanding accountability. There must be transparency. Ask yourself a very important question: is there anyone you really trust in your local council. If the answer is yes, then you are fortunate. Mustering proof, researching your subject, standing up for your rights, recognising when power is being abused, putting your head above the parapet and keeping it there takes time, committment and courage. But we live in a democracy and in order to protect that, we have to make a stand.
The word democracy is banded about freely in local government. I recently had a letter from someone called the Democratic Support Officer; a grand title that gives you expectations. Sadly, my questions were ignored and I was told to go to that holy grail of all complainants, the Ombusdman… More time, more, form filling, more stress – all guaranteed to make you want to give up and bury your head in the sand, saying to yourself: What’s the use? But isn’t that what the people who are breaking the law want you to do – give up the fight for justice and let them carry on? Councils are under much financial pressure at the moment, but pulling up the drawbridge and refusing to listen to the people, is to my mind, very shortsighted.
Remember: Where a freehold house purchase is concerned, no one can alter your proprietary rights. Contracts are legal documents and to change them, you have to go through due legal process, using a solicitor. The view of ‘the majority’ has no basis in law. Residents associations have no legal power. If you have been promised services and amenities as part of your contract, you are not obliged to accept anything less than those services and amenities listed in your contract. You can claim compensation for the time that services and amenities were not provided as per your contract, but you would have to see a solicitor to let her/him examine your contract.