Defending parish councils and standing up for local government

Parish councils are often largely ignored in the scheme of things. However, the recent antics of Handforth Parish Council have enabled many people to view what goes on in their name in the local council chamber. It has sadly shone a less than favourable light on the more unsavoury goings on in some parish council meetings, which, believe me, are not that untypical.

From more than two decades of experience, I recognise three types of local council, the Proactive, the Reactive and the Inactive. The Proactive Council has members who can think outside the box, are prepared to exercise the full powers afforded them by central government and are not afraid to raise their Precept above inflation to provide services.

Too often reporting of parish councils smacks of eye rolling condescension towards the lowest (or first tier) of what passes for local government in England at least.

I was a Parish/Town Councillor for 24 years, occasionally elected but often returned unopposed. Whilst chairing committees over the years I never fancied becoming Town Mayor. That was clearly what motivated some of my colleagues; but I never fancied being a member of the ‘Chain Gang’, especially as I was still trying to be an activist in our ‘true blue’ county.

I have written before on LDV about the three types of parish council. My own council, which serves a small town of over 14,000 residents, was very much in the reactive category when I joined in 1987. I still remember in my early days our spending nearly one whole meeting arguing where in the Council Chamber to put the Cuckoo Clock we had received as a gift from our twin town in the Black Forest!

Things rapidly improved thanks to the influx of councillors, mainly but not exclusively Lib Dems. They had the vision, intelligence and energy to make things happen. We now have a new Town Cemetery, more open spaces and play equipment, a Skate Park and new Council offices. Along with the increased staff required to maintain our parks etc, to deal with the members of the public and a properly enforceable Neighbourhood Plan.

What we need to do, if we want more proactive local councils is to offer them more powers. Whether they accept that challenge is up to them. The Blair government introduced the concept of the ‘Quality Council’, a challenge which my own council accepted and achieved, and, I believe, was supposed to have pocketed an extra £30,000 for its efforts. At least it earned the right to put the words ‘Quality Council’ on its headed paper! If an incentive is required, why not pay a modest allowance but based on attendance? Standing Orders must be streamlined. They are often used by the dinosaurs to prevent things happening.

But first get rid of the remaining District and County Councils and replace them with Unitary Authorities. Then we really must revisit local government finance. Council Tax in England is still based on property values from the early 1990s is a totally inadequate way of financing local government. Reform is long overdue, as is the need to return some of the powers to local government that have been sucked to the centre by successive national governments of all shades over many years.

Our Victorian ancestors benefitted greatly from local government. Many national politicians, starting with the Chamberlain family in Birmingham, first cut their teeth at this level. It’s a pity that most these days tend to avoid it and look down on it with a certain level of disdain. Believe me, while some probably don’t cut the mustard, there are quite a few councillors and senior officers in our town and county halls who would give many ministers and their less than civil servants a good run for their money!

* John Marriott is a former Liberal Democrat councillor from Lincolnshire.

Read more by or more about or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Dave Simpson 20th Feb '21 - 8:47am

    Fully agree, apart from the proposal for Unitary Authotities, at least as at present constituited with large single member Wards and no ST,V which all too often result in re-instituting the two-party hegemony and near extinction of minority party representation.

  • John Marriott 20th Feb '21 - 9:44am

    @Ian Sanderson (RM3)
    An interesting observation. Let’s analyse those two words. Separate them and you get “cuckoo” to describe the mental state of many of the members and “clock”, which divides up those who want to get the meeting over ASAP so they can grab a quick pint (or two) on the way home and those who just don’t want the meeting to end so that they can go straight to bed, thus avoiding a lengthy and boring conversation with their spouses (male chauvinist alert!)

    Where this argument falls down is when both partners happen to be council members, as my wife and I were for a number of years. Then either way I would invariably have got a telling off for spouting off too much. But, why change the habits of a lifetime? As I wrote on another thread recently to poor old ‘Michael1’, whom, upon reflection, I rather unnecessarily traduced, why use five words, when twenty five will do?

    @Dave Simpson
    There is, in my opinion, a maximum and a minimum population size for a unitary to work effectively. It’s somewhere between around 200,000 and 500,000. Anything much smaller or larger and it either lacks financial clout on the one hand or becomes too remote on the other.Lincolnshire, where I live, would be a democratic disaster as a single Unitary, but split into three broadly on District lines and even on a Humber to Wash basis, by incorporating the two current Unitaries south of the Humber, it would work fine. It goes without saying that some form of PR should be used. However, at Parish level, we could do what used to happen in Germany, and may still do, at Town and Parish Level and did indeed over here until the 1972 Local Government Act. Say there are, for the sake of argument, ten places on the Parish Council. If more than ten people put their papers in an election is called and each elector can vote for up to ten people. Afterwards the votes are tallied and the rest is obvious. Mind you, in most parish areas you would be lucky if you got enough candidates to force a public vote.

  • Matt Wardman 20th Feb '21 - 11:49am

    Good piece, but I am really not sure on the further messing-up of Local Authorities.

    Here we are a district of 100k people, next to another similar. Making the County Unitary would mean 2 towns – of 100k people and 50k people – being run from 20 miles away. Not acceptable.

    On Council Tax, do LDs support the proposals of the Fairer Share group, which would replace CT an SDLT with a 0.48% per annum tax on house value? As far as I can see there is not any downside.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • John Roffey
    I am inclined to believe that it is the Party’s lack of commitment to the climate crisis that deters many voters (and explains Labour’s popularity). This...
  • Ernest
    @Gwyn Williams The Independent for Wales movement YesCymru has always believed that it is about having a free Wales that is able to see its way in the world. W...
  • Jenny Barnes
    no worries, here it is
  • Jenny Barnes
    Could we also promote the new Petition calling for an immediate Election ? link please...
  • Joe Bourke
    The ONS does actually attempt to measure wellbeing ...