Caryl on localism, consensus driven politics and inevitable change

MHBG-04-05-12 Caryl Billingham Retires  Caryl Billingham who has retired from Brackley town council after more than 30 years of service.
MHBG-04-05-12 Caryl Billingham Retires Caryl Billingham who has retired from Brackley town council after more than 30 years of service.
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AFTER her resignation from Brackley Town Council last week the Advertiser’s Gavin Moore speaks to Caryl Billingham about her 37 years of service to the community.

As we enter the Courtyard Coffee House Ms Billingham is immediately greeted by people at two separate tables, and we wait take a table as she hugs the proprietor.

Her grandparents were born in Brackley and her family once ran a newsagents in Market Square, now Gems stationers. And after having served Brackley as mayor five times over the last four decades it is difficult to imagine a more prominent figure in the town.

On Monday night town councillors heard her letter of resignation read out by current mayor Theo Hayward.

Blake Stimpson, who now becomes the council’s longest serving member, said all too often wisdom and experience did not go hand in hand, but added: “Fortunately for us former councillor Billingham had both experience and wisdom.” And added: “I for one will miss Caryl.”

Ms Billingham said there were a number of reasons why she taken the decision to stand down now.

Firstly she feels there has been a change in the sensibilities of council members. Where once they were able to reach a consensus, now their discussions are more confrontational.

Ms Billingham said: “The tenor of discussion is not as it once was. I think that a town council, which is a parish council, is a community body, we are there to serve the community and do what we think is best for the town. And I think there’s a politicisation now, where as it used to be an agreement by consensus. Maybe it’s just progress and I’m too stuck in my ways, or maybe it is society as a whole.”

We quickly work out that as a 60-year-old she was mayor for the first time in 1979, when this reporter was two years old. She joined the town council in 1975 as a fresh faced 24-year-old modern languages graduate of Lanchester Polytechnic, now Coventry University. The same year Abba won the Eurovision song contest with Waterloo, and Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency after the Watergate scandal.

She had planned to move abroad to teach English as a foreign language, but when she protested to the council about plans for the Brackley Bowls Club, which took away her family’s view of the fields, she remembers being asked: “If you feel like that, why don’t you join us?”

The bowls club was built as the old Brackley Borough Council devolved power and assets back to the district council and the new Brackley Town Council in the 1970s. A fresh round of local authority reorganisation is now forecast as part of the Coalition’s localism agenda. Ms Billingham feels the agenda is poorly thought out and risks stretching parish, town, and district councils beyond their capabilities.

Ms Billingham said: “At a time when larger authorities are looking at joint working to create economies of scale, localism is suggesting things should be devolved down to a lower level, which means that lower authority needs more administration, more resources, and more expense.

“I’m not sure that was the idea when local government was rearranged in 1974.”

Ms Billingham points out that if the 80-plus parish councils in south Northants all sought advice from South Northants Council on local plans, proposed as part of the Localism Bill, the district council could be overwhelmed.

She added: “Yes, localism is an issue for me. Yes, I think the town council is changing, and maybe I’m changing. I’ve just retired from full-time employment after 34 years as finance and administration director for Cantor and Nissel. And maybe it is time I should be looking for something else.“

Ms Billingham said it was hard to pinpoint the high points and low points of her tenure, but said the death of Cpl Nicholas Webster-Smith of the Royal Miliary Police in 2009 was an example of them both.

She said: “Probably the lowest point was Nicholas Webster-Smith being killed in Afghanistan in 2009. One of the things that happened as a result was the way the town responded.

“I remember his commanding officer at the funeral thanking me for allow us to use the town for the funeral. But it was just the circumstance, this was Nick’s home, it was the right place for it to happen.

“And I remember the wonderful support given to his family.”

And as her father Tom was a veteran of the Northants Yeomanry and served in the Second World War, she was particularly proud of her, and the town council’s role, in ensuring Mr Webster-Smith’s name was included on the Brackley war memorial.

She has also overseen massive changes in Brackley. The move away from borough status, the building of the town and Banbury Road by-passes. When she joined the town council the population of Brackley was around 3,000, but today it is more like 15,000.

Ms Bilingham said expansion was the life blood of market towns like Brackley and like her decision to stand down, people have to accept change is inevitable and that you have to make the best of what comes from those changes.

She added: “People move here, have children, and they grow up here. The town only lives by growing and you can’t stand still in life. When you have a development coming you have to make sure it is done in the best interests of the town.

“There comes a time when you have to accept the inevitable and say yes. In the same way I feel now is the right time for me to go.”

Ms Billingham said she has been immensely proud to have served her home town and will continue to as a member of South Northants Council.

Danny Moody, chief executive of the Northants County Association of Local Councils, said “There aren’t many parish and town councillors that serve their communities over such a long period. Only one third of councillors in Northants have served more than eight years, so Cllr Billingham’s contribution over such a long period is immense.

“The association wishes her well.”

Ms Billingam served as mayor in 1970, 1989, 1998, 2000 and 2009.

She thanked John, her partner of 30 years, for supporting her during her many evening and weekend engagements.