LGA Liberal Democrat Group: Why do parish councils matter?
Author: Cllr Joe Harris, leader of the LGA Liberal Democrat Group
In the complex web of local governance in England, one of the most vital and often overlooked institutions is the humble parish or town council.
At the grassroots level, town and parish councils play a crucial role in local democracy, serving as the voice of the community and acting as a conduit between residents and higher levels of government.
I know this from experience, having served as a town councillor for 8 years on Cirencester Town Council, including two years as the mayor. For the past four years, I’ve served as the leader of the Cotswold District Council, where we have nearly 100 parishes in our patch.
I’ve identified six key areas where I believe parish and town councils excel.
- Close proximity to the community: The May seem obvious, but town and parish councils are unique in their close proximity to the communities they serve. They often have their finger on the pulse of local issues, concerns, and aspirations, allowing them to address specific needs more effectively. Being composed of elected representatives who live within the community, parish councils have an intimate understanding of local dynamics, making them well-equipped to make informed decisions and represent the interests of residents.
- Local decision-making: Parish councils empower local communities by involving them in decision-making processes. More often than not, they provide a platform for residents to have their voices heard, express their opinions, and contribute to shaping the future of their area. From determining local policies to influencing infrastructure development and environmental initiatives, parish councils enable community members to actively participate in decisions that directly impact their daily lives.
- Strengthening community cohesion: Parish councils play a vital role in fostering a sense of community cohesion. They organise local events, support community initiatives, and act as a focal point for engagement and collaboration. By encouraging social interaction and a shared sense of belonging, parish councils help build stronger, more resilient communities. Just look at how the parish council often led during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure no one was left isolated. They also work to preserve local heritage, promote cultural activities, and celebrate the unique identity of their area, enhancing community pride and cohesion.
- Local service provision: Parish councils often oversee essential services locally. These services can include maintaining parks and recreational facilities, managing community halls and libraries, or supporting local sports clubs and organisations. By taking charge of these services, parish councils ensure that the needs and preferences of their community are met efficiently and in a manner that aligns with local priorities. While principal authorities have felt the effects of the government’s spending axe over the past decade, town and parish councils have stepped up to the plate to provide services where district, country and unitary councils no longer can. I’m certain that there will be more of this over the coming years when the government’s so-called fairer funding review finally happens.
- Environmental stewardship: In an era of growing environmental consciousness, parish councils have an increasingly important role in environmental stewardship. It’s great to see that many that have declared climate and ecological emergencies. They can spearhead initiatives such as tree planting programs, sustainable waste management and promoting biodiversity in green spaces. By focusing on local sustainability, parish councils contribute to a greener future while inspiring residents to take responsibility for their environment.
- Holding higher authorities accountable: Parish councils act as a bridge between residents and higher levels of government, providing a valuable mechanism for accountability. While parish councils need to be careful that they don’t end up as a quasi-scrutiny committee for other local authorities, they can raise concerns, advocate for community interests, and ensure that local issues are brought to the attention of other authorities. Through effective communication and collaboration, parish councils hold power accountable, ultimately striving for better representation and decision-making at all levels. While parish councils may often be overlooked in discussions of governance, their significance cannot be overstated.
I’m proud to lead the Liberal Democrats in local government and proud that my party recognises the importance of the town and parish sector. ALDC, which supports Lib Dem councillors and campaigners, has recently started training and providing support for town and parish councillors.
Parish and town councils serve as the democratic backbone of local communities, empowering residents and ensuring their voices are heard. From decision-making and community engagement to service provision and environmental stewardship, parish councils play a pivotal role in fostering vibrant, cohesive, and thriving communities. It is essential to recognise their importance and support their efforts as they continue to shape the future of local governance for the betterment of all.
The following blog post is for informational purposes only and should not be considered professional or legal advice. The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Association of Local Councils. Any links to external sources included in this blog post are provided for convenience and do not constitute endorsement or approval of those websites' content, products, services, or policies. Therefore, readers should use discretion and judgment when applying the information to their circumstances. Finally, this blog post may be updated or revised without notice.