The parish councils of England could be an engine room for real democracy.
Author: Ian Boyd
Local government in the UK generally, and especially in England is very weak and local government has been the target of cuts by central government since 2010. However the possibility of change and the restoration of a more truly democratic and grassroots approach is possible. But we perhaps need to look in a different place.
England is divided into forty-eight counties, and their systems of local governance are codified through three-hundred and thirty-three principal local authorities of five different types:
Although not replacing their constituent councils, there are also ten combined authorities with devolved powers that permit shared decision making and collaborative action.
All of these Principal Authorities are constrained by statutory functions and the legislative requirements of the Local Government Act 2000; they are held accountable to parliament through government departmental oversight, funding criteria and associated sanctions. Principal Authorities are also variously regulated by agencies such as the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills; the Planning Inspectorate; the Care Quality Commission; the Electoral Commission; Local Government Boundary Commission for England; the Health and Safety Executive; and the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.
Government funding for Principal Authorities in England has been cut by approximately twenty billion pounds in the last ten years, a reduction of forty percent.
But this is not the full story. There is another layer in the stratigraphy of our civic administration, one which connects to societal bedrock, to the street level of neighbourhoods, organised through a network of 10,000 local organisations, run by the largest deployment of volunteers in the UK, and with a work force of over 50,000 people. This is a network with few statutory obligations and prodigious discretion in the actions it chooses for its communities. It is subject to light audit and minor legislative requirement, with no significant oversight or interference from government or ombudsman. It is a system of governance that, though unburdened by statutory demands, retains consultee status in influencing the decision-making of Principal Authorities, has the power to designate and protect public assets, make its own planning policies and write its own laws. It is a system, what is more, with an inviolable source of revenue that has more than doubled in the past decade.
These are the Parishes.
Town and Parish Councils are rarely included in conversations about governance and democracy, and far too infrequently in plans for socio-economic regeneration, and yet they have remarkable powers to initiate and sustain action for change, intervening positively and consistently in the life and times of people and place.
These Local Councils (to distinguish them from Principal Authorities) are however, as likely to be ridiculed in the media as they are admired, often held up more for their picayune excesses than for their progressive impact (cf. Handforth’s brief fame in 2021). It is unfortunate the extent to which this pervasive disregard has seemed to congeal not only in the minds of the general public, looking in (when they do) on the works of their town and parish councils, but in the imaginations of so many of those 120,000 parish councillors and in the civic networks that they inhabit. This is disabling at best, cripplingly at worst, leaving powers unused, opportunities unrealised and the potential for transformational change, designed and delivered closest to everyday society, frustrated.
Town and Parish Councils have existed since 1894 when the Local Government Act gave them the non-ecclesiastical functions and interests that had been removed from the church parishes. These locally elected bodies have continued to spread, with more being added to the network each year (two-hundred and seventy have been added since 2011); they cover over ninety percent of England though less than forty percent of the population, large urban centres being predominantly administered through the combinations of Principal Authorities already described. The largest represent constituencies of over 80,000, the smallest less than 100; an average Parish population will be approximately 3,000.
A Parish Council has the unfettered right to raise money by precept, a mandatory demand on its principal authority. This is then collected as part of the council tax levied on the residents of that parish. There is at present no threshold on the permitted annual increase in precept and no requirement for a local referendum to agree to changes. Though central government retains powers to apply these constraints on Local Councils, it has never done so. The largest annual precepts exceed 2 million pounds, but at the other extreme there are councils which make no charge at all.
The total precept raised through the Town and Parish Council network in England in 21/22 was 620 million pounds. But this is still not the whole picture because local councils are uniquely privileged amongst community organizations in their access to external funding. As well as the guarantee of annual precept income, they are eligible to bid to the great majority of charitable and non-profit grant-making trusts, lotteries and institutions; they can establish trading entities, join social enterprise partnerships and perhaps most significantly for their capacity to action change, they can borrow from the Public Works Loan Board, a lending facility operated by the UK Debt Management Office on behalf of HM Treasury. It is likely then, that in any one year, the network of Local Councils, aggregating precepts, carry-over and external fundraising, spends close to one billion pounds across the English parishes, more than the Government spends on the UK Department for International Trade; it is a truly extraordinary, but uncelebrated level of investment in civil society.
There are two additional powers available to local councils that are worthy of note in a consideration of their capability to institute and maintain positive change in their neighbourhoods.
The first is the creation of byelaws. These are laws made by a Local Council under an enabling power contained in a public general act or a local act requiring something to be done, or not done, in a specified area. They are accompanied by some sanction or penalty in the case of non-observance. Instruments relevant to the Local Councils include, the Public Health Act 1875, s164; the Open Spaces Act 1906, s12; and the Food Act 1984, s60. As with the parishes themselves, byelaws may bring to the public mind an image additional restriction and constraint, a sense of stopping things from happening. There is however nothing in the formulation or implementation of byelaws (nor, as discussed, in the nature of Local Councils themselves) that would prevent their application to progressive and emancipatory causes.
The second is the splendidly titled General Power of Competence. As set out by the Local Government Association (LGA) in 2013:
“The General Power of Competence (GPC) was introduced by the Localism Act 2011 and took effect in February 2012. In simple terms, it gives councils the power to do anything an individual can do provided it is not prohibited by other legislation. It applies to all principal councils (district, county and unitary councils etc). It also applies to eligible parish and town councils. It replaces the wellbeing powers in England that were provided under the Local Government Act 2000. The scope – and some limitations – of the General Power are set out in sections 1 to 6 of the Localism Act 2011.”
Any Local Council may take on the GPC provided that two-thirds of its members are elected (rather than co-opted or appointed) and its clerk has undertaken sector-specific training (for example The Certificate in Local Council Administration).
The GPC is essentially a means of extending powers and confidence to a Local Council to act directly and explicitly for its community through, for example, local service delivery, social enterprise partnerships, regeneration projects and acquisitions. Forward-thinking Local Councils have, amongst many and diverse examples, used the GPC to run youth services, provide small business loans and develop renewable energy installations.
The network of local councils across the English parishes spends approaching one billion pounds each year on grassroots actions and interventions at the level of neighbourhoods. This expenditure is managed and administered by the country’s largest volunteer force and one of its largest public workforces, all drawn directly from their immediately local communities. Each Local Council has highly favourable funding privileges, including the unassailable advantages of guaranteed and unrestricted annual income; wide-angled and lightly regulated freedoms to act in the interests of their localities, and that certainty of continuity over time so essential to aggregated societal gains, and ‘cathedral building’ ambitions.
Why then, given these exceptional qualities and national scale, at a time when the value and urgency of mechanisms of mutual aid and community action at the level of ‘place’ are acknowledged everywhere in national policy and funding conversations, do we not see the network of Town and Parish Councils conspicuously advocated for and included in the public and political discourse?
There seem to be three persistent problems:
Although they form the most basic architecture of civic geography, operating at a scale where shared issues will be routine between neighbouring parishes, adjacent Local Councils have found it hard to work together, even where political wards bind them. Despite the excellent work of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) and the forty-one county associations in England, a federated or affiliated approach to neighbourhood action between adjoining councils, as blocs around common themes and joint endeavours, has been hard to develop or to sustain. Perhaps both cause and effect, a tension often exists between neighbouring parishes, nudging traditional rivalry into unhelpful stand-off and competition. These isolationist tendencies may have compromised practical consideration of the network of Local Councils as a nationally significant force for good.
Local Councils are not subjected to the year-on-year cuts suffered by their encompassing Principal Authorities, nor are they so restricted in their ability to adopt discretionary projects and programmes. As a consequence, there has been an inevitable pressure upon them to take on sites, and services from above, or lose them. This coerced delegation from Principal to Local is often skewed such that income associated with delegated responsibilities is not passed on, only costs. Arrangements such as these of course build resentment, cynicism and hostility within the family of local civil governance, emphasising hierarchical dominance over common purpose and making it harder to build imaginative collaborations, social enterprises and joint ventures founded in One Public Estate and Assets of Community Value. Conflicts and distrust between Principal and Local Councils are likely to dull an appetite to include the parishes in strategic policies at county, regional and national levels.
Perhaps the most frustrating obstacle to the full investiture of the national network of Local Councils comes from within, through the voluntary surrender of capabilities in favour of a diminished field of interest. Of course, it is true that any Local Council will have limitations on the time of its voluntary councillors and its part-time staff and will have numerous and various calls on its resources, but that is true of all community organizations working at the level of neighbourhood. Local Councils have extraordinary powers, unique discretionary freedoms, access to reliable funding and ability to plan ahead for cumulative gains thanks to their continuity, but many retreat from these horizons. Parish Councils manifest too often as ‘parochial’ in a bad way, instead of ‘municipal’ in a good way. Fortunately, there are examples of excellence in the work of Local Councils published each year by NALC in its Points of Light bulletin. These provide invaluable insight and encouragement to Local Councils of any size to go still further. I am writing this article from my office next to the sea on the Isle of Wight, and here we have our own shining star in Ryde Town Council, an organisation that has gone through a complete revolution in ambition, enterprise and impact since 2018.
It is an important and urgent matter, now more than ever, that Local Councils, individually and together, become an explicit mechanism for societal change, delivering counteractive measures against national malaise and building grassroots solutions to underlying issues of community wellbeing.
Here are some preliminary suggestions for action:
Local Councils are uniquely unencumbered and exceptionally well-equipped, a network of independent but closely related organizations acting together at the scale of a government department but individually at street level. Their power, directly and with others, to initiate and sustain positive change in their communities of residents and businesses is unrivalled. As a society we cannot afford to waste the opportunity and capability that is invested in each and every one of them.
The publisher is Citizen Network Research. Town and Parish Councils © Ian Boyd 2023.