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.
Before 1894, for many years, the affairs of the parishes had been administered by a vestry, or meeting of the village inhabitants. Inevitably these meetings were dominated by the squire, the parson and the principal ratepayers and some became ‘select vestries’ only open to those people deemed ‘suitable’ to serve. In many parishes, particularly rural ones, the system worked perfectly well, in others it was virtually non-existent or very inefficient.
For a variety of reasons, including a general movement towards greater ‘democracy’; and a desire to break the power of the Church of England over the lives of nonconformists and non-believers, a Bill was promoted to create Parish Councils. After a difficult passage through parliament and many amendments, this Bill became an Act in 1894. Its effect was to transfer all non ecclesiastical functions from the church to the elected Parish Councils. Some other functions were added, such as those relating to the burial of the dead, which had, many years before, been vested in Burial Boards, an early form of QUANGO.
The regulations under which the first Parish Councils operated were not very tight at that stage and the influence of the church was not so easily diminished.
There were many anomalies and difficulties encountered in the years between 1894 and 1972, when the present basic Local Government Act came into being.
Much has changed since 1894, despite the impression given by the” The Vicar of Dibley” TV series. Parish Councils are closely regulated and the amount of administrative bureaucracy and red tape has increased exponentially in the past few years, with an accompanying rise in costs of audit and insurance. On the other hand, with lines of responsibility more clearly drawn, there now appears to be no general animosity towards the church and some villages still have the parson on the Parish Council. That is, if s/he has the time to spare, because the church has also changed considerably, with greatly enlarged parishes, few curates and the same problem with red tape and mountains of post.
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. The timing of the election cycle is usually linked to that of the election of a district councillor for the ward containing the parish.
Powers and Responsibilities of Parish Councils
The Local Government Act, LGA 1972, is the one most often referred to when describing the modern powers and responsibilities of Parish Councils but it is augmented by many earlier and later Acts, such as The Criminal Justice and Public Order, Act 1994, which, on the face of it, would not appear to relate to Parish Councils but which gave them a long needed ability to pay for measures to combat crime and the fear of crime in villages. Parish Councils may only spend public money on projects or actions for which they have a Statutory Power. Breaking this rule is likely to result in a PC’s accounts being refused by the auditor and, possibly, the individual councillors being required to repay the money illegally expended. For those of an enquiring nature, a list of the legislation conferring some of these powers appears at the end of this section.
There is still, as there was in 1894, only one power which the Parish Council must consider using and that is to provide allotments for the labouring poor, if asked for them. All other powers are voluntary – the Parish Council is not obliged to exercise them and indeed the majority would find it difficult to raise enough money to exercise them all on a permanent basis.
Parish Councils are empowered to raise money for their activities through a tax (the “precept”) on the Parish residents which is collected on their behalf by the City Council, as an addition to the City and County Council Tax. This is then paid to the Parish Council in two equal instalments.
Borrowing is allowed, up to a prescribed limit and with permission, but this is of limited help to a small parish because, of course, the loan (plus interest) has to be repaid from slim resources.
Grants may be obtained for specific purposes from various sources, not least the Borough Council. Very few, if any of these, can be used for maintenance or general administration purposes.
Limited fund raising can be done but this is so hedged about by restrictions that, in the main, it is hardly worthwhile for a very small council.
Some Statutory Powers of Parish Councils
Although the Local Government Act 1972 is the main identifier of the “powers” of a Parish Council, numerous other Acts also bestow “powers” on the Parish.
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
They may also provide the following subject to the consent of the county council of the area in which they lie:
- 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 city 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
There are many other Acts and Statutes which govern the activities of Parish Councils and these are being added to every few months. It is quite a job to keep up with them and that is why this Council has subscribed to membership of Essex Association of Local Councils (NALC). Training and conferences is now an essential tool of the trade.
Freedom of Information
We as a Parish Council will respond to requests within 20 working days and for a request to be valid under the FOIA it must be in writing. Any letter or email asking for information is a request for recorded information under the Act.