Women in parish and town councils
Author: Amy Knox, project officer (gender), Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK (CPA UK)
On Wednesday evening, I was one of 150 women who joined the Parliament Project for the “Women in local (parish and town) council – What is it and can I do it?” workshop.
It was a truly electric, informative and inspiring session. We shared our hopes and aspirations for parish and town councils and heard from three phenomenal guests who encouraged us to “put on our big girl pants” and throw ourselves into our political journeys. Here’s what I learnt.
What they are...
Parish councils, town councils, sometimes called community councils - they’re all the same! They fall under the umbrella term of local council. This term is especially fitting because they all represent the first and most local tier of government, with the county and city authority being the second tier of government. The activities of local councils are super broad, ranging from the delivery of services such as allotments, the organisation and funding of community projects, to representing the local community to other public and governmental bodies.
If you think parish and town councils can’t make a difference, think again
It is precisely because parish and town councils are the most local representation of the democratic system that they can make a fundamental change in their communities. Compared to other tiers of government, they are more likely to understand the needs of their constituents and, therefore, more likely to contribute to the quality of life and community well-being that are suited to these needs.
While there are several things parish and town councils are legally obligated to do, there are few limits on what they can do. As ex-councillor Pam Barret told us during the workshop, the biggest challenge is ambition and bravery to design and implement the changes you want to see in your community. In other words, the sky is the limit. We can transform parish and town councils and make them fit for the 21st century and the communities they represent!
Local council politics only appeal to ‘white, old men’ because they are only made up of white, old men
With two-thirds of local councillors being white men over the age of 50, it was unsurprising to hear that the culture of ‘old boys clubs’ and bullish politics is often the reality in local council. Regarding women’s representation, the importance of taking up these spaces is not confined to a simple box-ticking exercise or a case of slotting into the status quo. We need women in local council because women can transform the local council's political culture!
Given their locality and embeddedness within their communities, parish and town councils are the easiest political level of any to feminise political culture by placing an emphasis on collaboration, empathy, care, togetherness, and community empowerment. It is these values which enable parisn and town councils to be a realm which can create and serve communities, enhance citizen involvement and engagement, and promote participatory and inclusive democracy. Sounds pretty empowering to me.
If you want to avoid an election campaign or party politics, parish and town councils are the place for you
In what has been a hugely divisive couple of years in British politics, the lack of party allegiances at parish and town councils is refreshing. Cllr Nukey Proctor’s experience of the parish and town council was one of being surrounded by like-minded people who are not advocating for party lines, only for the needs and betterment of their communities. What’s more, you may not even need to stand or run a campaign to take up the role of a councillor. It is not uncommon for elections to be uncontested or for members to be co-opted when the number of candidates is fewer than the number of seats available. Cllr Nukey described the interview process for co-option as similar to that of a job – all you have to do is sell yourself and why you would be an asset to the council.
As the clerk of a parish council, Jackie Weaver does in fact have authority
Sitting as a local councillor is one of many ways to get involved with parish and town councils. Each council also appoints a clerk, the principal advisor and the officer responsible for the administration of financial affairs. Basically, if Karen asks to speak to the parish and town council manager, as the clerk, you are the manager. The role of a clerk is equally essential and valuable as that of a councillor. According to Jackie, there is a national shortage of clerks at the parish and town council level. They are in high demand, so if you show interest in taking on the role in many cases, you will be successful!
Can I do it?
Yes. The key takeaway from the session was that women are more than capable of taking up roles in parish and town councils and doing it well. But we don’t visualise ourselves in these roles - because we don’t think they are meant for us, and we don’t believe we are ‘the best person for the job’. Here’s the thing. We don’t need to gain more skills to be elected as Local Councillors; we are already skilled. We don’t need to gain more experience; we are already experienced. What we need is a support network to be inspired and empowered. And sometimes, we must be asked to stand by incredible women already paving the way.
Elect Her is a tiny but mighty non-partisan organisation working to motivate, support and equip women in all their diversity to stand for elected office in all spheres of Government, providing them with the knowledge, confidence, and skills they need to do it. Join their movement of women entering politics to help achieve 51% women representation in all spheres of politics.
60% of local (parish and town) council elections are coming up in May 2023. Our Make A Change campaign can be used to help councillors run for election.