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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.