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The Councillor/Clerk Relationship

IN THE most successful Councils individual roles are clearly understood. Councillors stick to their own role and respect the role of the Clerk. Clerks objectively advise and support the whole Council, and do not allow themselves to be unduly influenced by the views and needs of any individual Councillor, faction or party.

Failure to observe these principles can cause significant difficulty, potentially causing Councils to become dysfunctional and leading to a high turnover of Clerks who either resign or are dismissed when the ground rules are not followed

The Core Principle
Section 101 of The Local Government Act 1972 provides that:

Subject to any express provision contained in this Act or any Act passed after this Act, a local authority may arrange for the discharge of any of their functions—

(a) by a committee, a sub-committee or an officer of the authority; or

(b) by any other local authority.

This is a foundation upon which much of the Local Government governance framework is based and from which best practice in Town Parish and Community Councils has evolved over the years.

A Council is a corporate body which has a personality independent of its members. At any point in time it takes decisions based on the view of the majority of members present and voting. Internally the Council can delegate powers to act (and if it wishes, recall such powers) to an individual officer or to a committee or subcommittee of members. Best practice, as set out in model standing orders, indicates that the minimum number of members in a committee is three.

The successful local Council depends for its success on the Councillors and the Clerk playing complementary roles to ensure that the Council devises appropriate policies and that the Clerk carries them out. This is particularly so where, as in most cases, the Clerk is the only employee of the Council and is, in effect, its Chief Executive. It is important that the Clerk and the Councillors understand each other’s role and that they work closely and harmoniously together. This is especially crucial in relation to the respective roles of the Clerk and the chairman. Without each party fully understanding his or her own role and respecting the role of the other party, disagreements and misunderstandings may arise.

The role of the Councillor
Councillors are elected to represent some or all of the community. As a general rule, the role of a Councillor is likely to involve participating in the decision making relating to the management of a small, medium or large enterprise, depending upon the resources available to the Council and its level of activity. This in turn will involve one or more of the following:

  • Agreeing a budget. There is a statutory requirement for all Councils to prepare an annual budget and it is in practice impossible to plan ahead without doing so. The responsibility for preparing the budget rests primarily on the Clerk or financial officer (often the same person), but the Council must approve the final version. Most policy decisions of the Council have, or may have, financial implications and these need to be considered at the same time as the policy.
  • Making management policy decisions. These are usually made by the Council itself, but in medium and large Councils some decision making is delegated to committees.
  • Issuing instructions to the Clerk and through them to other staff to take action on behalf of the Council. Since however most Councils have only one employee (in small Councils usually part time) – the Clerk – it is very important that the council ensures that, as far as possible, a suitable person is appointed to the post. This in turn requires an understanding and appreciation of the position of the Clerk.
  • Suggesting new initiatives or developments of existing policies. Members may seek the views of the community before doing so, either through Councillors surgeries or public meetings of the Council or more formally through a survey or direct consultation with every household in the parish
    Ensuring that the views of the community are put to relevant persons or bodies and that the particular interests of the community are protected or promoted.
  • Checking that decisions taken by the Council (and its committees, if any) are properly implemented.The responsibility for policy implementation rests primarily with the Clerk. However, particularly in smaller Councils, Councillors sometimes out of necessity, have some role to play in policy implementation for example as a representative on other bodies. It is important that this role is undertaken sensitively and that Councillors doing so ensure that it is the views of the Council that they put forward and not their own.

The role of the chairman
As well as the foregoing, the chairman has a special position as the elected head of the council. The chairman must preside at Council meetings (unless absent) and is responsible for seeing that meetings are conducted properly, with the aim of producing intelligible decisions including making use of a casting vote in the event of a tie. He or she may also have a ceremonial role or responsibility as a figurehead in the community and should also set the tone for Councillor conduct.

The role of the Clerk
The Clerk is the council’s Chief Executive and works for the Council as a corporate body. He or she has the prime responsibility for the administration of the Council, for managing any other staff and for carrying out the Council’s decisions. The Clerk is not simply a clerical or secretarial office whose role is merely to produce agendas and minutes (important though these tasks are). By analogy with the chief executive of a principal Council, the Clerk also has the responsibility of advising the Council before it takes a decision and warning it against proceeding with a course of actions which is unlawful.

The Clerk is legally defined as an “office holder” and is an employee of the Council (often the only employee) and, as such, covered by the extensive legislation relating to employment rights and employment protection. They are also almost invariably designated the “proper officer” of the Council and thus has certain statutory duties to perform when the relevant legislation so provides ( sign the summons to Councillors to attend Council meetings).

A good Clerk will always act on the will of the majority of the Council or in accordance with previously agreed policy. This will be easier in councils where there is a strong consensus on the way forward and less so where there is factionalism or personality clashes. Generally speaking if the will of the majority is not clear on an issue the Clerk should not proceed until it is.

The relationship between the Clerk and Councillors
Based on LGRC’s experience of working with many Councils, large and small, we are in no doubt that the smooth running of the Council and its affairs crucially depends upon a harmonious and positive relationship between the Clerk and the Councillors. It is essential that each party understands the role of the other and that, as far as possible, their respective roles do not overlap.

It is thus incorrect in principle for a Councillor to undertake administrative tasks which are properly those of the Clerk (e.g. writing letters on behalf of the Council) except in an emergency and only then with the authority of the Council. In the same way, it is incorrect for the Clerk to usurp the role of Councillors by, for example, seeking to impose his or her views on policy issues on the Council. The clerk should not forget that he or she is the employee of the Council and that a majority of the Council may sometimes make decisions with which the Clerk does not agree or which is against his or her advice. When this happens the Clerk should record the advice given and then make every attempt to implement the decision taken.

Any personal relationship between the Clerk and a Councillor should not be allowed to influence the conduct of the Council’s affairs.

It is not unknown for animosity to exist between one (or more) Councillors and the Clerk which can arise because of a failure to understand that the Clerk’s loyalty and responsibility is to the council as a whole and not to individuals. Such a situation can arise, for example, where a councillor wishes to be provided with information by the Clerk in order to further a personal matter in which the council is not involved or to pursue a factional interest. A Clerk should resist any request of this nature and should, if necessary, obtain the support of the council.

The relationship between the Clerk and the Chairman
As a Councillor, the chairman of the council should have regard to the Clerk/Councillor relationship considerations dealt with above. In addition, the special position of the Chairman means that he or she will have more contact with the Clerk than most Councillors.

It is good practice for the Clerk and the chairman to discuss the contents of a draft agenda for a meeting before it is finalised. This can help the chairman ensure that the agenda items are properly discussed at the relevant meeting. It can also help the Clerk to prepare any necessary advice or guidance for Councillors on agenda items. It is however the Clerks responsibility to shape and prepare the agenda.

Some Mayors and Chairmen mistakenly think of themselves as the Executive Head of the Council and as the Clerks “line manager.” The Clerk reports to the Council as a whole and while a good Clerk will be as helpful as possible they are not at the beck and call of any Councillor including the Chairman. It is difficult however for a full Council to manage one person, so it is not unusual particularly in larger Councils for the Council to delegate to an HR Committee, the responsibility to deal with matters such as the Clerks terms and conditions, annual appraisals and also act as first point of contact for grievance and disciplinary matters.


Sadly there are a few Councils which are famously dysfunctional while there has historically been a large turnover of Clerks in some Councils, leading to a loss of expertise when Councils need it most. Regrettably, a significant proportion of the turnover probably results from the resignation or dismissal of Clerks because of a failure to establish a proper working relationship within Councils. Councillors and Clerks should exercise professional self-discipline in creating a constructive and co-operative environment so that no matter how complex the issues, they can work together to improve the life of their communities.



Nick Randle OBE is Managing Director of Local Government Resource Centre Associates (LGRC). Founded in 2013, LGRC is an Independent Professional Services Provider focussed on the Town, Parish and Community Council sector. LGRC works to bring best practice to every aspect of a Local Council’s activities – from community strategy and planning through to service delivery and council governance and administration. They provide consultancy services, training , locum and interim staff and potential outsourcing capabilities. LGRC staff and associates are a mixture of skilled local council practitioners and functional specialists. They have a wide range of experience and a significant record of successful client assignments.,

Written by by Nick Randle OBE, Managing Director, LGRC
As appeared in Clerks & Councils Direct, May 2020

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