It is time to level up town and parish councils

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AUTHOR: JENEVIEVE TREADWELL, RESEARCHER AT ONWARD


Up and down the country, councillors and clerks are working with their communities to protect and improve the places they live. But they are doing so with one hand tied behind their back, with fewer powers and resources than other forms of local government. This system undercuts the impressive work that town and parish councils already do to help their communities take ownership of their place. It is time that we recognised their potential and gave them the powers and resources to take back control.

When the local shop closes or the community centre falls into disrepair it can feel as if our neighbourhoods are drifting out of our control. In Meden Vale, part of Warsop parish in Nottinghamshire, this feeling was all too real. The community had already lost its village hall and was at risk of losing its only pub to new housing development. The threat of closure spurred locals to mount a campaign against the development. Luckily, they did not have to do it alone. Their parish councillor stepped in to help register the pub as an Asset of Community Value (ACV) and has since worked with his community to bring the pub into community hands.  But this is the exception, not the rule because the town and parish councils’ power is inherently limited.

This is partly about money. Of course, parish and town councils can raise money through the local precept, an additional levy on top of council tax that raised nearly £600 million last year. But the small sums of money this generates are rarely enough for the town and parish councils to lead genuinely transformative regeneration in their area. In our recent report, Double Devo, we recommended that town and parish councils that had set a vision for the community through a neighbourhood plan should have access to more significant funding. This would come through the planned Infrastructure Levy, which if enacted would have raised £7 billion in 2019 alone. If the current voluntary share of the Community Infrastructure Levy for town and parish councils was made compulsory for the new Infrastructure Levy,  town and parish councils would receive an additional £175,000 a year. That is a substantial amount of money that could resource new community facilities or be used to upgrade the built environment.

But it is about more than money too: it is about power. Even if a town or parish council has the resources to ambitions it is not certain that they have the right powers to carry them forward. The 2011 Localism Act brought with it a whole host of powers for local government, including the General Power of Competence (GPC), allowing councils to act as individuals. Upper tiers of local government now had this power implicitly, but if town and parish councils want GPC rights their clerks are required to take on additional training and their council elections have a two-thirds contested quota.

This asymmetry puts councils on town and parish councils on the back foot and pushes responsibility up to higher tiers of government. To prevent town and parish councils from being sidelined we recommend that GPC rights should be extended down to town and parish councils on the same terms as the rest of local government. This is not revolutionary but a necessary step if local leaders are genuinely going to help their areas to level up.

With the right resources and tools to take ownership of their place, the responsibilities of town and parish councils can be increased in a sustainable way. So, moving forward, communities have the allies they deserve and need to take back control of their place. 

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