Parish councils in England
A parish council is a type of local authority found in England which is the lowest, or first, tier of local government. They are elected bodies and have variable tax raising powers. Parish councils are responsible for areas known as civil parishes. Civil parishes cover only part of England; corresponding to approximately 35% of the population.
There are approximately 8,500 councils in England and the National Association of Local Councils exists to provide support and lobby services. Not every civil parish has a parish council; smaller ones—typically those with an electorate of fewer than 200—have parish meetings instead. A parish with a small number of electors may share a council with one or more neighbouring parishes: such an arrangement is known as a grouped parish council, or sometimes as a joint parish council, common parish council or combined parish council.
The powers of parish councils are fairly limited and in areas where they do not exist, they are exercised by district councils.
A parish council serving a town may be called a town council, and a parish council serving a city is styled a city council.
Parish councils were formed in England under the Local Government Act 1894 to take over local oversight of civic duties in rural towns and villages. Before this date a variety of groups based around ecclesiastical parishes had responsibility for these matters, in a system of local government that originated in the feudal system of the 8th century. Their areas of responsibility were known as civil parishes and they were grouped together to form rural districts. Civil parishes existed in urban districts, but did not have parish councils.
Following the Local Government Act 1972, many small towns which had previously formed municipal boroughs or urban districts became "successor parishes" within larger districts. Since the enactment of the Local Government and Rating Act 1997, district and unitary councils may create a parish council for a new civil parish either through a review or in response to a petition. This has led to the creation of new parish councils at an increased rate, especially in large towns and cities which do not have a history of parish governance.
Elections and membership
The term of office of a parish councillor is four years, and councils are elected en bloc. The legislation provides that the number of elected members of a parish council shall not be less than five. In the case of larger parishes, they may be divided into parish wards, with separate elections for each ward.
Where there are an equal number or fewer candidates than there are vacancies, all candidates are elected unopposed, and no poll is taken. Where there are fewer candidates than vacant seats, the parish council has the duty to coopt any person or persons to fill the vacancies. This power, however, may only be exercised if there is a quorum of councillors present and within 35 days of the election. If the parish council fails to fill the vacancies within this period, the district council may dissolve it and order fresh elections.
Where a vacancy occurs during the term of a parish council, it may be filled by either election or cooption. Elections only occur if, following the advertisement of the vacancy for 14 days, 10 electors send a written request to the returning officer. If no request is received, the parish council will be required to fill the vacancies by cooption.
If the number of vacancies on the parish council is such that there is no longer a quorum, the district council may temporarily appoint persons to bring the council up to strength in the interval prior to an election.
Powers and duties
Parish councils have the power to precept (tax) their residents to support their operations and to carry out local projects. Although there is no limit to the amount that can be precepted, the money can only be raised for a limited number of purposes, defined in the 1894 Act and subsequent legislation.
Powers to provide facilities
Parish councils have powers to provide some facilities themselves, or they can contribute towards their provision by others. There are large variations in the services provided by parishes, but they can include the following:
- Support and encouragement of arts and crafts
- Provision of village halls
- Recreation grounds, parks, children's play areas, playing fields and swimming baths
- Cemeteries and crematoria
- Maintenance of closed churchyards
- Cleaning and drainage of ponds etc.
- Control of litter
- Public conveniences
- Creation and maintenance of footpaths and bridleways
- Provision of cycle and motorcycle parking
- Acquisition and maintenance of rights of way
- Public clocks
- War memorials
- Encouragement of tourism
- Bus shelters
- Signposting of footpaths
- Lighting of footpaths
- Off-street car parks
- Provision, maintenance and protection of roadside verges
Parish councils must be notified by the district or county council of:
- All planning applications in their areas
- Intention to provide a burial ground in the parish
- Proposals to carry out sewerage works
- Footpath and bridleway (more generally, 'rights of way') surveys
- Intention to make byelaws in relation to hackney carriages, music and dancing, promenades, sea shore and street naming
In some cases parish councils possess the following powers:
- Withholding of consent to stop up unclassified highways and footpaths
- Consultation on appointment of managers of primary schools
- Trustees or appointing trustees of local charities
In 1974, at the same time as the creation of successor parishes, the law was changed so that any parish council could pass a resolution to declare its area a "town", with the council known as a "town council". The majority of successor parishes, and a number of other small market towns now have town councils, whose powers are exactly the same as those of parish councils, although their chairmen are entitled to style themselves as "town mayor". Similarly, a handful of parishes have been granted city status by letters patent: the council of such a parish is known as "city council" and the chairman is entitled to be known as the "city mayor".
Following the enactment of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, a parish council has been able to alternatively style itself as a "village council", "neighbourhood council" or "community council".
Since 13 February 2008 the power to create new parishes and parish councils, to alter parish boundaries, to dissolve parish councils and to abolish parishes has been devolved to district, unitary and London Borough councils (collectively known as "principal councils"). This process is known as a "community governance review".
Principal councils have the power to make a community governance review at any time for all or part of their district. It is envisaged that such reviews will occur at intervals of between 10 and 15 years, and will take into account population changes, the need for well defined boundaries and the wishes of local inhabitants. Reviews may also be triggered by a petition of local government electors for an area. A petition is deemed valid where it is signed by a sufficient proportion of the electorate (ranging from 50% in an area with fewer than 500 electors to 10% in one with more than 2,500).
At the end of the review process, which must be completed within 12 months, the principal council is empowered to issue a reorganisation order setting out the changes. This order may:
- Create a new parish
- From all or part of an unparished area
- By the division of an existing parish or parishes
- By the merger of all or parts of existing parishes
- Alter the boundaries of existing parishes
- Group or ungroup parishes
- Give a name to a new parish
- Abolish an existing parish and dissolve its parish council
In order to abolish an existing parish council, the principal council must provide evidence that this in response to "justified, clear and sustained local support" from the area's inhabitants. Where a new parish is formed with 1,000 electors or more, a parish council must be formed. Where there are between 151 and 999 electors the principal council may recommend the establishment of either a parish council or parish meeting. Where there are 150 electors or fewer a parish council may not be formed.
Reviews come into effect on 1 April in the year following the date the reorganisation order is made. Where a new parish council is created, elections to the new body will be held at the time of next council elections. In the intervening period the principal council appoint the parish council from among their own membership.
- "Create a Council: Background". National Association of Local Councils.
- "About NALC". National Association of Local Councils.
- "Local Government Act 1972 (c.70) s.16". Statute Database. Office of Public Sector Information. Retrieved 29 August 2010.
- "Parish Council Elections. A Guide to Election Procedures.". South Norfolk Council. 2007. Archived from the original on 2013-06-13. Retrieved 29 August 2010.
- "Representation of the People Act 1985 (c. 50) s.21". Statute Database. Office of Public Sector Information. Retrieved 29 August 2010.
- Local government in England and Wales: A Guide to the New System. London: HMSO. 1974. pp. 12–13, 157–158. ISBN 0-11-750847-0.
- Guidance on Community Governance Reviews. London: Department for Communities and Local Government. 2010. ISBN 978-1-4098-2421-3.