A cow-ncil meeting with a difference
After pitching up at Cotherstone village green for an al fresco parish council meeting, reporter Stuart Laundy this week finds himself back out on assignment and under cover... but all is not what it seems.
"TIMES have definitely changed,” says Johnny Cooke-Hurle with a wry smile.
We are standing in what, back in the day, would have been the winter home of his young stock cattle at Westwood Farm, on the A67 Bowes Road.
On this occasion, however, it is the one-off temporary home to Startforth Parish Council, of which Mr Cooke-Hurle is a member.
I nod in agreement. As Dylan sang, The Times, They Are A-Changing. Back in the day (the late 1980s, to be precise) a simple notebook and pen were the tools of the trade.
These days I never leave the house without a camera sophisticated enough to film snippets of video strapped to my back, my smartphone – there is always that most modern of all evils, social media, to consider – and more recently a rather sturdy folding camp chair which comes into its own again on this occasion.
In common with all other parish councils, Startforth can no longer hold meetings online, which led to the search for an alternative venue and Cllr Cooke-Hurle’s offer of his barn.
“It’s an old cattle barn and in the old days, where we are sat we would have had the young stock in winter. Over the other side was the hay,” he explains.
At one time, 120 dairy cattle were milked at Westwood Farm, which covered about 220 acres but has since been trimmed back to 90.
On a glorious late spring evening, the barn is more than adequate for the five members of Startforth Parish Council, plus clerk Judith Mashiter.
Cllr Pat Estall is re-elected as chairman for the coming 12 months, while Cllr Liz Franklin is voted in as his number two, with a view to taking over next year.
How to fill the two vacancies on the group is one of 15 items on the agenda of what is the annual meeting of the council.
Rather than pressgang the unwilling into joining, members agree to soldier on as they are, putting a few feelers out and waiting for the right people to come along.
“I am quite happy to continue the way we are,” says Cllr Estall.
“We have enough experience within the group to tackle anything that comes up and let’s hope that in due time people come who are keen to contribute.”
There is little to report on parish maintenance, although the offer of a new green grit bin from a resident in Mickleton – prompted by a snippet in the Mercury – is noted while discussions with Durham County Council continue.
The condition of new noticeboards is a cause for concern. They are proving difficult to lock and unlock.
The clerk has written to the supplier about the problem and a response is awaited.
A change of insurer is agreed after the council’s existing provider informed the council it was hiking the premium by £245.
After the financial position is noted, discussion turns to where the parish council will meet in future. Ms Mashiter points out that nothing has been arranged for after the annual meeting and a return to Zoom is unlikely.
“Although there are a lot of people pushing for a change in the legislation [to allow virtual meetings] there is no indication of anything happening,” she says.
Startforth Community Centre – where the council would usually meet – has now reopened and Ms Mashiter had reassured its committee that as an when possible, members would return.
Councillors agree to meet on the third Wednesday of the month at the community centre, as has been normal practice, though that does mean holding the June get-together before the further planned easing of Covid restrictions.
But as Cllr Peter Worley points out, with the Indian variant dominating headlines, everything is up in the air at the moment.
With that all other business is deferred until next month and the meeting draws to a close.
Despite its setting, it wasn’t exactly what you would describe as a hoedown – but I can think of much worse places to talk over village issues.