A bit more about Parish Councils…

Last week, I wrote in these pages about becoming a Parish Councillor as, perhaps, a stepping stone to other things, although it can be, and often is, worthwhile in itself. I then went home to my Annual Parish Council Meeting and, rather unexpectedly, became Chair. That will teach me…

On explaining a bit about my particular Parish Council, a friend noted that it seemed to be one of the common models, an anarcho-syndicalist collective, whereby someone is notional in charge (a bit like the Constitutional Peasant scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail), as opposed to the Stalinist school of strong leaders.

There are, apparently, more than 10,000 Parish Councils, covering 30% of the country, and there are 80,000 Parish Councillors out there, spending about one billion pounds per annum.

Many Parish Councils are non-political, with elections fought without Party labels, where they are contested. That means that it can be hard to make them accountable, or to choose who might be best suited to hold office. Admittedly, much of the work of Parish Councils isn’t very political, so watching how they operate is often the best guide. Are they actively communicating what they do, are they engaging the community?

And if you are elected, or co-opted, what can you change and how? Your friend here is the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), which operates through a tier of county committees for the most part. They offer very reasonably priced training on how to be a councillor, as well as publishing a series of booklets designed to help you be effective. District Councils offer some training too, in particular in basic planning procedure, which will come in very handy.

So, what are the key areas of responsibility?

The one which is likely to cause most controversy is planning consultation. Parish Councils are statutory consultees when it comes to local planning applications. They have no power to block applications, but a well-argued objection can carry some weight, particularly where an application is not wholly in compliance with the principal authority’s Local Plan, or planning regulations generally.

They can also create their own neighbourhood plan, a document which dovetails with the wider Local Plan, and which, if passed by a local referendum, theoretically makes unplanned development less likely – this came out of the 2011 Localism Act – and offers an enhanced entitlement to a chunk of the Community Infrastructure Levy that accrues from development within the Parish.

You’ll also manage any facilities or services that your Council provides. For small Parishes, that may be very little, but for Towns and larger villages, it could be significant. My nearest Town Council manages a cinema/theatre, and is currently borrowing one million pounds to redevelop it.

That brings me to finance. Even the smallest Parish can raise its own precept, and usually does, to pay for its activities, and as councillors, you’re responsible for how it is spent. And given how close to the community you should be, that responsibility can be a heavy one.

So, there’s a bit more about Parish Councils and, over the coming months, I’ll attempt to bring more news to you from the lowest tier of local government. We’ll try to have a bit of fun along the way…

* Mark Valladares is the Chair of Creeting St Peter Parish Council, and Monday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice.

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13 Comments

  • While its in the link – you don’t need to have a parish council to set up a neighbourhood plan.

    You can also get land or property of “local importance” named as assets of community value – for example local pubs – that gives them some (although not particularly strong) planning protection from redevelopment etc. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asset_of_community_value

    Parish councils were also (and I am not sure whether they still are) able to spend a small percentage of their council tax on anything that benefits the residents of the area – even if not a specific power. And under the localism act they can adopt a “general power of competence” – although not spend their council tax under it – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parish_councils_in_England

    In parished areas, local referendums can be held http://www.iniref.org/local-referendum.html

    As I referenced in a comment to the previous article – you can get parishes set up if they don’t exist. This was relatively recently restored to London (there is currently one in London) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_civil_parishes_in_Greater_London

  • Outside of Parish councils, there are ways to get involved in local “democracy” and um.. community politics and improve it:

    Some areas have neighbourhood forums (with no formal powers) – if these exist there is the opportunity for Lib Dems to get involved and “shake them up” – in some areas they technically exist but don’t actually function – get them rejuvenated ! They may have a chair and an organising committee which may be elected at the annual meeting of the neighbourhood forum.

    Some areas have area committees where the district councils etc. have devolved some of its budget to a committee of its elected ward councillors. Lib Dem run Eastliegh is one such council – https://www.eastleigh.gov.uk/council/your-local-area. Something people may want to campaign for in their area.

    Its worth looking at the governance and public involvement procedures for council(s) in your areas – I believe all principal councils have to debate a petition brought by a certain percentage of electors, the public may be able to suggest subjects looked at by scrutiny committees. And (I think all?) principal councils allow the public to “make deputations” i.e. speak on items on its agenda, , and ask questions.

    Councils may have local bodies that they can nominate people to – a large number of these have to be elected councillors but some are not (normally decided at the beginning of the municipal year).

    There are also quite a number of NHS/health bodies people can get involved in.

  • David Evershed 28th May '18 - 11:16am

    Borough, County and District Councils have their council tax raising pwoers capped by central government but parish/town councils don’t.

    Consequently, some higher level councils are devolving activities to parish/town councils who can raise their precept accordingly to absorb the extra spending and saving some spending by the higher level council.

  • My local parish doesn’t have a neighbourhood plan, so I went along to the recent annual parish meeting and cornered the chairman over tea and biscuits. “But we are doing a local housing needs survey”, he protested. “Hardly the same thing”, I countered. ” But it all costs money”, he pleaded. “Yes, but your reserves are three times the annual precept, and what have you got to spend it on except cleaning the dog mess off the local rec ?”. Touche !
    So, what’s my next move ? Given that they local populace are pretty apathetic about the way this self elected bunch spend their cash, what leverage can I bring to bear ?
    And Michael 1, I like the idea of parish forums. Can you have one where a parish council already exists and are there rules for setting up one ?

  • David Allen 28th May '18 - 3:51pm

    Reserves only three times the annual precept? That may well not be enough when a major need comes along – e.g. replacing the play equipment or resurfacing the car park at the local rec.

  • @David Allen. To use the old expression, “are you havin a laugh ?” . Can’t speak for your neck of the woods, but I have researched the finances of the local parish councils hereabouts and the average reserve seems to be about a years precept, or very slightly more. Our local parish seems to fund things that are anticipated (like playground equipment) out of the precept, but in any event, we are a parish of just over 3000 souls and capital reserves of £150k buys a lot of playground equipment and the rec car park can be maintained out of what we get from the rugby club who use it.

  • @Chris Cory

    Neighbourhood Plans

    I am far from an expert but I am little confused as to why a neighbourhood plan should cost basically any (extra) money or much. I would go and talk to the planning department at whatever council is the local planning authority for your area – district or unitary and look at other areas in your district/unitary area that have neighbourhood plans. Planning officers and indeed public engagement officers (not that I am sure they exist any more in many councils) should offer support. As well as national organisations and ALDC etc.

    If the parish doesn’t want to set up a neighbourhood plan and it has to be the lead organisation where it exists apparently – then I would lobby it to do so – and um.. you might want to stand for election to the parish council on the manifesto of getting it to institute a neighbourhood plan?!

    https://www.gov.uk/guidance/neighbourhood-planning–2

    While I can’t say I am an expert on local government finances – if a parish wants to do something it can just raise the money because as has been said it is not ratecapped – so it could have a parish precept of say £10 one year and £100 the next – although I can understand that it might want to “smooth” things out and it and its councillors might be asked why its council tax has gone up so much!

    On neighbourhood forums v parish councils

    You can have both as Portsmouth did – neighbourhood forums were set up by the city council throughout much of the city – I think in the 90s. Subsequently the Southsea area had a parish council set up (and has now been abolished) but there were still neighbourhood forums there

    I would suggest that in most areas districts (and counties) would see parishes as the main forums that feed in local opinions etc. And in general parish councils are to be preferred as they have formal powers, are democratic (in theory), and can raise their own council tax.

    But it would be up to the district or unitary or I guess even county to set up forums under their auspices but I can see it might be reluctant to do so in districts that were (entirely or mostly) parished.

  • Neighbourhood Plans do cost money but grants are available which would cover the cost fo professional help. A housing needs survey might form part of the Neighbourhood Planning Process.

  • Andrew McCaig 29th May '18 - 1:43pm

    Setting up and then administering a neighbourhood plan is a lot of work. If it is in an area covered by a Parish Council then they are chiefly responsible for that, but the extent to which a Parish Clerk or volunteers (eg Parish Councillors) do it is up to the Parish Council. If there is no Parish Council, the starting point is forming a Neighbourhood Plan group with at least 17 (from memory) people on it, which is then recognised by the Local Planning Authority.

    Expenses include a survey of residents and a local referendum. Where i am the Principal Authority and the Parish Council appear to be arguing over who pays..
    Getting hold of an extra proportion of the Community Infrastructure Levy should be a good incentive for setting up a NP. They are not necessarily loved by other Parties who prefer a more top down approach, but it is hard for them to resist them in the end. Expect plenty of bureaucratic obstacles to be put in your way however!

  • Richard Church 29th May '18 - 2:45pm

    Here in Wales they are called Community Councils, which is a much more appropriate name and avoids confusion with the church. Like England though, historic towns with a mayor are called town councils.

    Having been both a County and a Borough Councillor in England I now find myself with just as much, if not more, immediate power as a member of a relatively (relative to mid Wales that is) large town council. Welshpool has a population of 6,000 and the town council has a turnover of over a million and assets, with the charitable trusts that it controls, of over £5 million.

    As the County Council (Powys) cut services, Welshpool where it can takes them over. So, we do the street cleaning and grass cutting. We have taken over the Tourist Information Centre, the Public Toilets and the day centre for the elderly. We run the town hall, the market and a number of events and we make, I hope, a positive difference to life in the town. Only four of the 16 of councillors (2 Lib Dem, one Labour and one Plaid Cymru) were elected with a party label, but what we do is most definitely political, even when we all agree (which is often).

    With the prospect of substantial local government reform in Wales. with fewer and larger upper tier and community councils the role and responsibilities of community councils could become much greater in the future. Run well, community councils can be fundamental to the liberal vision of community engagement, run badly though and they are an embarrassing joke.

  • On neighbourhood plans
    Googling it …

    It appears that the cost of the referendum falls to the council that is the local planning authority (and the independent examination of a neighbourhood plan)

    https://www.ourneighbourhoodplanning.org.uk/storage/resources/documents/How_to_resource_your_neighbourhood_plan4.pdf

    and the above document does have details on other sources funding – it does suggest that the average cost is £13k which admittedly might be a fair whack for some parish councils but quite a bit of this is not “extra” costs or that which necessarily have to cost anything – i.e. if the parish council is already running a website, doing publicity and employing a clerk etc.

    But the government has just launched a new fund where you can apply for a grant of up to £17k https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-commits-to-further-support-for-neighbourhood-planning

    Obviously technical planning advice might also be got free or cheaply from local planning consultants etc. local university/college departments – and it might provide a project/case study for students etc. and hopefully the planning department of the district etc. council.

    If the district council/councillors are not playing ball it does seem a good campaigning point!

    It seems @Chris Cory might want to scope out the all process through the ton of resources on the internet and picking the brains of those that have gone through the process in a similar area and whether there are other ways of achieving what is wanted e.g. influencing the local plan – and with ALDC, lib dem councillors in other ares etc. if a lib dem.

    I would also hope that Lib Dems involved in neighbourhood plans look particularly carefully at the consultation process and involve youngster and children and others that are “difficult to reach” etc. and it is not just local parish/area bigwigs talking to each other.

  • Gordon Lishman 29th May '18 - 8:33pm

    Two further comments/questions:
    in our area, if not others, managing allotments and keeping peace between different allotment factions and different PC factions would qualify for the professional services of John Alderdice’s Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflicts, possibly supported by a UN peace-keeping force; and
    what happens if a PC implodes (due to intractable conflicts; people not standing; the same number of members as the quorum…………)?

  • On Gordon Lishman’s last question, if there’s an insufficiency of members the District Council can co-opt. If there’s just enough, they can co-opt – if you can get them all to the meeting [been there, got the t-shirt].

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