The implications of the post-COVID-19 and Brexit worlds for England’s parish and town councils — view from the town hall and beyond
AUTHOR: DR GORDON MORRIS, HONORARY RESEARCH ASSOCIATE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF EXETER
The implications of the post-COVID-19 and Brexit worlds for England’s town councils were explored in a recent paper by the writer. An online survey supported by telephone interviews elicited approximately 25,000 words of carefully considered opinions and suggestions from 123 councillors and 21 clerks from 78 councils (including the academics and policy professionals who contributed, 156 participants in all). The following is a snapshot of the findings.
Opinions varied (of course!), but most respondents want their councils to have a greater role in local policy development and implementation. A minority, however, have concerns, some strongly expressed, about council capacities (e.g. money, staff, the fact that most councillors are volunteers, the wherewithal to take on additional responsibilities) and staff/councillor competency.
There was doubt whether any of the desired devolutions of powers/responsibilities would, or, indeed, should, happen.
Putting scepticism to one side, there is broad agreement as to the policy areas that respondents believe town councils could usefully address, given resources and powers. These include planning, local transport, car parks/parking, social housing, economic development/regeneration.
When asked to list the topics that respondents believe will have to be addressed post-COVID-19, the emphasis was very much on “the local” (e.g. businesses, “high street”, open spaces, public toilets, young/old people, food/vulnerable people, rural economy). In a related question asking what councils would need before they could take on additional responsibilities, respondents listed, inter alia, training (the need to comply with the Nolan Principles were mentioned), improved governance, removal of S137 limits, changes to the process (e.g. a mix of elected and appointed councillors, a limit on the number terms before re-election is required, no party affiliation, meeting times to suit working/younger people).
I suspect the above selections will surprise no one. They are familiar with longstanding interests/concerns and, interestingly, were common to most respondents, irrespective of location, political party, or local government structure.
In relation to the “Brexit effect” on councils, 51 respondents think the impact will be minimal, 38 that it will be bad, six that it will be beneficial, while 54 are unclear/uncertain. The polarised nature of the debate is reflected in the comments made (politely!) by participants, with the majority view being one of uncertainty.
Although difficult to summarise the views of so many people, there appears to be no expectation of significant change given the centralised nature of the English government (the potential of the General Power of Competence is acknowledged, as are its limitations). Nevertheless, there is a desire for councils to do more, a belief that it would be good for local democracy, and recognition that some towns are already doing a lot.
It seems that change is needed and wanted, but no one knows how to bring it about.