A parish council is a civil local authority found in England and is the first tier of local government. They are elected corporate bodies, have variable tax raising powers, and are responsible for areas known as civil parishes, serving in total 16 million people. A parish council serving a town may be called a town council, and a parish council serving a city is styled a city council; these bodies have the same powers, duties and status as a parish council.
Parish and town councils vary enormously in size, activities and circumstances, representing populations ranging from less than 100 (small rural hamlets) to up to 100,000 (Sutton Coldfield Town Council). Most of them are small: around 80% represent populations of less than 2,500; and two thirds spend under £25,000 per year.
There are 9,000 parish and town councils in England. Over 16 million people live in communities served by these local councils, which is around 25% of the population, and about 80,000 councillors serve on these councils. It is calculated £1 billion is invested in these communities every year.
Their activities fall into three main categories: representing the local community, delivering services to meet local needs, and improving quality of life and community well being.
Local councils can provide and maintain a variety of local services including allotments, bridleways, burial grounds, bus shelters, car parks, commons and open spaces, community transport schemes, community safety and crime reduction measures, events and festivals, footpaths, leisure and sports facilities, litter bins, public toilets, planning, street cleaning and lighting, tourism activities, traffic calming measures, village greens and youth projects. These existing powers were recently strengthened by powers contained in the Localism Act including the extension of the “General Power of Competence” to eligible local councils.
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 neighboring 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.
Parish councils are funded by levying a “precept” collected with the council tax paid by the residents of the parish. Parish councils have unpaid councillors who are elected to serve for four years, unless a casual vacancy arises which may be filled by a by-election or by co-option.
Powers and Duties
Parish councils have the power to tax their residents to support their operations and to carry out local projects. Although there is no limit to the amount that can be raised, the money can only be raised for a limited number of purposes, defined in the 1894 Act and subsequent legislation. The “General Power of Competence” is a power awarded in 2012 to eligible councils. The exercise of powers is at the discretion of the council, but they are legally obliged to exercise duties.
Duty to provide facilities
- Allotments – Duty to consider providing allotment gardens if demand unsatisfied.
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
- Provision and maintenance of recreation grounds, parks, children’s play areas, playing fields and swimming baths
- Provision and maintenance of cemeteries and crematoria
- Maintenance of closed churchyards
- Cleaning and drainage of ponds, watercourses and ditches
- Control of litter
- Provision and maintenance of public toilets
- Creation and maintenance of footpaths and bridleways
- Provision of cycle and motorcycle parking
- Acquisition and maintenance of rights of way
- Provision and maintenance of public clocks
- Maintenance of war memorials
- Encouragement of tourism
They may also provide the following, subject to the consent of the county council or unitary authority 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 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 exercise the following powers:
- Creation of a neighbourhood plan
- Guardianship of common land
- Withholding of consent to stop up unclassified highways and footpaths
- Consultation on appointment of governors of primary schools
- Appointing trustees of local charities
The central function of the Council, the making of local decisions and policy relevant to the public interest of the parish, is performed at the meetings of the Council. A Parish Council must hold an annual meeting and at least three other meetings in a year; however monthly meetings are the most common, and some larger councils have fortnightly meetings. An extraordinary meeting may be called at any time by the chairman or members, but due notice must be given.
A Council can form committees with delegated powers for specific purposes; however these must adhere to the protocols for public attendance, minute-taking and notice of meetings that apply to the main Council. A committee may form sub-committees. A Council can also appoint advisory groups which are exempt from these constraints to give flexibility, but these have no delegated powers and cannot make financial decisions. Such groups may contain members who are not councillors.
A Parish Council consists of the chairman and not fewer than five elected Parish councillors, and a quorum of the main council committee is at least one-third of the members, or three members, whichever is the greater. Every meeting is open to the public, who are encouraged to attend, except for those items where the Council formally resolves to exclude the public and press on the grounds that publicity would be prejudicial to the public interest. This would have to be due to the confidential nature of the business. This latter also applies to any sub-committee of the Parish Council.
Notice of meetings must be given at least three clear days before and be displayed in a “noticeable place” in the Parish, giving time, date and venue. A summons to attend the meeting is also issued, specifying the agenda, to every member of the Council. Items not on the agenda cannot be formally debated or resolved. Items brought up by the attendance of the general public or in correspondence can be discussed, but formal resolutions on these must be deferred to the next meeting so that due notice can be given.
The minutes of the meeting are taken by the clerk, and are ratified at the next meeting of the council. They must also be displayed in a noticeable place in the parish, and for many councils, they are now also displayed on the internet.
Procedures for the conduct of meetings are set out in Schedule 12 of the Local Government Act 1972, and where this is not overridden by legislation, by the standing orders of the Council. Most adopt the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) model standing orders.
Councillors are expected to adhere to the “Nolan principles” of conduct in public life.
The administration of the Council is managed by the Parish Clerk, who is a paid employee acting in a combined statutory role as secretary and treasurer of the council. They may be full-time or part-time, depending on the amount of council business, and large Parish Councils may require more than one official for these tasks, in which case they are a group led by the Clerk.
The necessary financial monitoring and reporting are the clerk’s responsibility, and in this role the clerk is known as the “Responsible Financial Officer” (RFO) of the Council. The clerk is also the “Proper Officer” of the Council. They “enact” (cause to happen) the decisions of the Council, and they receive official correspondence and issue correspondence on the instructions of the Council. The clerk also prepares agendas for meetings of the Council and its committees, gives notice of these to the Council members and the public, and records and publishes the minutes of these meetings. They are the formal point of contact with the public, and are a source of information for the public about the Council’s activities.
The clerk also provides procedural guidance for the Council itself, and ensures that statutory and other provisions governing or affecting the running of the Council are observed. Clerks are encouraged to have a formal qualification, such as the Certificate in Local Council Administration (CiLCA).
The Clerk may not be a member of the Council.
Elections and Membership
The term of office of a parish councillor is four years, and council seats are elected en bloc through First past the post system like some other UK elections by secret ballot. The legislation provides that the number of elected members of a parish council shall not be less than five. Larger parishes 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.[ Where the elections to a district council are delayed or cancelled (e.g due to its abolishment with the formation of a unitary council or a change from elections by thirds to the whole council), the term of a parish council may be extended to match the next elections to the new authority.
A candidate must be at least one of the following:
- A UK or Commonwealth citizen
- Citizen of the Republic of Ireland
- Citizen of another member state of the European Union
and candidates must state on their consent for nomination form their qualification for election, which must be at least one of the following:
- they are an elector of the parish
- during the whole of the last 12 months they have occupied, either as owner or tenant, land or other premises in the parish.
- their principal or only place of work is in the parish
- they live within 4.8 kilometres (3 miles) of the parish boundary
The chairman of the last council shall remain in office, even if not elected to the newly constituted council, until a new chairman is appointed at the first meeting of the new council.
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 power to co-opt 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. If there is not a quorum elected the district council must dissolve it and order fresh elections.
Where there are more candidates than vacancies, a poll must be held. Undivided parishes, or multi-member parish wards, hold elections under the bloc vote system.
If a vacancy occurs during the term of a parish council, it may be filled by either election or co-option. 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 co-option. The nomination qualifications required of a candidate for co-option are the same as for those for election.
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.
Civil parish councils were formed in England under the reforming Local Government Act 1894 to take over local oversight of civic duties in rural towns and villages. The act created two new types of local authority, parish councils and district councils, to rationalise the large number of bodies which existed for a variety of activities such as public health, secular burials, water supply and drainage. It also finally removed secular duties from the local Vestry committees and gave them to the new parish councils.
An idea of the scope of this huge re-organisation can be gained from the words of H H Fowler, President of the Local Government Board, who said in the parliamentary debate for the 1894 Act:
“62 counties, 302 Municipal Boroughs, 31 Improvement Act Districts, 688 Local Government Districts, 574 Rural Sanitary Districts, 58 Port Sanitary Districts, 2,302 School Board Districts … 1,052 Burial Board Districts, 648 Poor Law Unions, 13,775 Ecclesiastical Parishes, and nearly 15,000 Civil Parishes. The total number of Authorities which tax the English ratepayers is between 28,000 and 29,000. Not only are we exposed to this multiplicity of authority and this confusion of rating power, but the qualification, tenure, and mode of election of members of these Authorities differ in different cases.”
The government chose the civil parish as the basic unit of local government in rural areas. Each parish council’s area of responsibility was a geographical area known as a civil parish. The civil parishes were also grouped to form rural districts, which became the geographical areas of rural district councils. Civil geographical parishes continued to exist in urban districts, but did not have parish councils.
Whilst the bulk of the rationalised activities went to district councils, parish councils took over a number of lesser powers including all the secular activities of the parish Vestry committee; a system of local government based on ecclesiastical parishes that originated in the feudal system.
Two principal Acts of Parliament have increased the general powers of parish councils, and removed onerous constraints.
Local Government Act 1972
The Redcliffe-Maud Report led to the Local Government Act 1972, which dramatically re-organised local government with amalgamation of district councils, large-scale changes to county boundaries and creation of metropolitan areas. However, the parish council was retained as the “grass roots” tier of local democracy for rural areas. In addition, many small towns which had previously formed municipal boroughs or urban districts became “successor parishes” within larger districts. The Act also recognised the role of parish councils in development planning in their parish, and gave them the right to be informed and consulted on applications for such development. However, the original proposal to grant a general power of competence to councils was not carried through, and the doctrine of ultra vires remained. This meant that parish councils could not do anything outside their statutory powers.
Localism Act 2011
It was not until the Localism Act 2011 that parish councils were freed of the constraints of ultra vires which limited the activities of parish councils to only those things for which they had been given statutory powers, and were given a radical new power: to ‘do anything that individuals generally may do’ as long as that is not limited by some other Act. This is known as the “General Power of Competence” (GPC), and is available to “eligible” parish councils. An eligible council is one which has resolved to adopt the GPC, with at least two-thirds of its members being declared elected, rather than co-opted, and the Clerk must hold an appropriate qualification. However the precept may not be raised for purposes which rely only on the power of the GPC, and such funding must be obtained from other sources.
The Localism Act also introduced new rights and powers to allow local communities to shape new development by coming together to prepare neighbourhood plans. Neighbourhood planning can be taken forward by two types of body: town and parish councils or ‘neighbourhood forums’. Neighbourhood forums are community groups that are designated to take forward neighbourhood planning in areas without parishes. It is the role of the local planning authority to agree who should be the neighbourhood forum for the neighbourhood area.
Neighbourhood forums and parish councils can use new neighbourhood planning powers to establish general planning policies for the development and use of land in a neighbourhood. These are described legally as ‘neighbourhood development plans’. In an important change to the planning system, communities can use neighbourhood planning to permit the development they want to see – in full or in outline – without the need for planning applications. These are called ‘neighbourhood development orders’.