Local government has struggled with the concept of localism for far longer than most of us might think. It has not just been the clarion call of localism from the Coalition Government since 2010 and the subsequence Localism Act that posed some pretty serious questions about the structure of our local democratic processes. The issue of connectivity between the citizen and the ‘agent of the state’ has been under academic scrutiny for a long time.
It might come as a surprise that for many town and parish councils, 2014 marks a century or more of continuous (very) local government but this seems to be passing many by. Quite a few are in fact older and came into being after the fondly remembered 1894 Local Government Act. For many town and parish councils this was a formality that was based on the feudal system from as early as the 8th century, creating local administrative units that, it could be argued, present one of the longest histories of a system of local administration to be found anywhere in the world.
So Cinderella has been amongst us for a while now, quietly getting on with the allotments, rubbish bins and dog poo; but as she has been kept so far below stairs, few of us have ever really noticed her presence.
Indeed, today it is not what we know about town and parish councils that is interesting but (with respect to Donald Rumsfeld and his known unknowns) it is perhaps what we don’t know that is interesting and might be a matter of some concern to those of us who take our local democracy seriously.
So can anyone out there answer the following questions?
- How many town and parish councils are there and how many are active?
There is data which suggests that we have quite a few in England and Wales – only a few in Wales. Looking at the data from the National Audit Office we can see that the gross precept levied by town and parish councils is around £400m, not an inconsiderable sum. These data are aggregated from what higher tier billing councils levy on communities, but this total hides the fact that a proportion of local councils below the higher tier are moribund and some act in a somewhat unofficial capacity. We also don’t know the range of budgets across local council size and scope. Rather worrying as no real research has been undertaken in this area since 1981!
- How many town and parish councillors do we have?
Again, it is near impossible to arrive at anything like an accurate figure. We know that in some cases we have data from where elections take place but many town and parish councillors enter office without facing an election. Uncontested elections are often a feature of government at this level and it is worth reflecting that even though those who do sit on such councils are exposed to the same level of legal responsibility as those who are elected to principal councils, many sneak through without facing the ballot box.
There is also some slightly worrying anecdotal evidence that some well-meaning local citizens sit alongside parish and town councillors as they have local knowledge and enthusiasm for local issues, seemingly all but formal parish and town councillors. But it might be best not to dwell too much on this. To complicate matters further we might be surprised to find that sitting on our local town or parish council are formally elected councillors from higher tier councils and indeed in some parts of the country ‘triple hatted’ councillors can be found – sitting on the county, district and paris council. Great if you have the energy and commitment to do so, but there are instances where they could be representing different political parties or more usually be politically aligned and supported at one level and by independent at another.
- How do town and parish councils set, agree and monitor priorities for spending?
Good question – as successive approaches to monitoring and controlling the spending mechanisms for local government have come and gone in recent years, Cinderella has managed to escape much in the way of control mechanisms for her role as the most local form of democratic unit. Thankfully most town and parish councils are working to some kind of plan and although the purse strings are tighter than perhaps they have ever been, most town and parish councils are keeping the wolf from the door – just.
A key responsibility of all town and parish councils is to hold an annual parish meeting. The intention here is to engage the local community in such a way as to set the agenda for the forthcoming financial year and help the parish council to focus on the priorities that local communities wish to see addressed. In some case this clearly works well, but again we have no global data or broad understanding of how this works. In some places where higher tier or principal councils are well engaged with this process it does have some meaning and purpose, but many parish councils often find that only a handful of people turn up, sometimes out of a sense of duty or even as an opportunity to tell the parish council how poorly the NHS is run or their objection to some foreign policy activity that central government is undertaking (and don’t laugh, as the anecdotal evidence strongly supports this).
- What do higher tier and principal councils actually think about town and parish councils?
Another question that is near impossible to answer beyond the clear frustration that many seem to feel about their mere existence. In fairness, a growing number of county and district councils are coming around to thinking that better connectivity with parish councils is an essential way forward. As councils are rethinking where their assets lie they find that where parishes has worked hard to maintain local open spaces, play areas and other facilities they can play a really significant role in supporting policies in healthy lifestyles, wellbeing and even education.
- What capacity do town and parish councils have to deal with an expanding agenda and increasing levels of public expectation?
Now perhaps this is the killer question. Are we seeing a forced interdependence forming between principal councils and town and parish councils or is there real mileage in rethinking Cinderella and giving her a makeover? To characterise all parish councils as amateurish is really to do them a disservice and is patently wrong. NALC, the National Association of Local Councils, may not be the most prominent of bodies but in recent years it has done sterling work in supporting town and parish councils through changing times, and has done more than most appreciate in professionalising and lifting the status of the parish clerk from that of a part time administrator to one of a key professional who handles complexity and ensures that parish councillors can give their best.
Despite this, we can see that many parish councils are struggling to absorb a wide range of challenges – from playing their part in ensuring that large scale residential developments are in keeping with local needs and expectations to developing new forms of local services to fill gaps left by unavoidable reductions in services from county and district councils.
So where does this leave us? To ensure that we understand exactly what the new 21st century Cinderella will need to wear to the ball, we need to be clear about what the supporting research agenda should contain. This autumn NALC and INLOGOV, together with the University of Gloucestershire, will be inviting a number of key players together to begin to map out the gap of the last thirty years of Cinderella being locked below the stairs.
Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV, and sits on a rural Parish Council in Warwickshire. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.