Plugged In

Author: Alex Thomson, Localis (in The MJ)   |  

For many people, mention of parish councils leads inexorably, if unfairly, to thoughts of The Vicar of Dibley. And, with parish councils’ responsibilities involving managing village halls and public toilets, it is perhaps inevitable that they often provoke more smiles than respect.

But parish councils are at the ‘coal-face’ of local government, providing important services to many thousands of communities. And they might be on the brink of playing a far greater role still.

Although parish councils have existed since 1894, only about 35% of England is served by them, and they do not exist anywhere in London.

Although attempts have been made to encourage district councils and London boroughs to create their own parishes and parish councils, over the last decade, a mere 200 new parish councils have been created in England.

But, proposals outlined in the Localism Bill and the Government’s focus on the Big Society, have raised new questions about whether the number of parishes will need to increase to ensure locally-driven public service delivery across all areas of England.

The Government’s proposals for neighbourhood planning, in particular, seem likely to provide a significant driver for the creation of many new parish councils.

If widespread ‘parishisation’ is going to take place, there are issues which will need to be addressed concerning representation. While parish councils are elected bodies, people can also be co-opted into a vacant seat on a parish council by the incumbent council, if required. And many parish councillors are elected unopposed, suggesting there is a lack of community engagement at the lower-tier level of local government. The Big Society will have to provide tens of thousands more candidates willing to volunteer their time if parish councils are to become more numerous and more representative.

But it’s not just how many parish councils there are, it’s also about what they do.

Currently, their remit is limited by ring-fenced discretionary powers, a strictly-consultative role in some areas of local planning, and restrictions on how they raise money.

A truly localist agenda must presumably lead to a greater devolution of powers and services to lower-tier local authorities, where they are the most appropriate body, notwithstanding potential tensions with local government reforms, such as place-based budgeting and shared services.

Certainly, the Government’s moves towards a community-led approach to service delivery require innovative thinking and decision-making by local authorities of all tiers, and in a number of areas this is already happening. Eastleigh BC, for example, has delegated services across 10 parish councils in an attempt to engage local residents.

Could this be a precursor of things to come? And might the next stage of decentralisation to parish councils need to be mandatory, if we are to enable the Big Society to truly flourish?

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