LGA Independent Group: Why do parish councils matter?
Author: Cllr Marianne Overton MBE, leader of the LGA Independent Group
At a time when developments in digital technology mean that it’s possible to connect with friends and family located thousands of miles away in mere seconds, the importance of nourishing a local community and connecting neighbours has never been more important.
In England, over 10,000 parish, town and village councils (first-tier authorities) represented by around 120,000 councillors give up their time to do exactly this. A similar story can be found in Scotland, with over 1,200 community councils, and Wales, with over 730 town and community councils, whereby councillors dedicate themselves to representing, organising and delivering for their community. These local councillors set out to bridge the gap between residents and larger councils and improve their local community through a multitude of ways - ranging from commenting on planning applications to organising events for the community.
The most compelling argument for the importance of first-tier authorities is their ability to provide a rapid, yet locally-led, response to national events. There is no better example which demonstrates this than seeing the responses of first-tier councils to support the community throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Immediately after the Country entered lockdown to stop the spread of the virus, first-tier authorities embarked on working to support the most vulnerable in their communities. From Freshford Parish Council’s quick action to match a register of volunteers to help residents with day-to-day tasks to Portbury Parish Council’s use of dedicated phone helplines to assist residents, first-tier authorities have the ability to react quickly to the unique needs of their communities and ultimately saved the lives of their most vulnerable residents.
Alongside the pandemic response, first-tier authorities have been at the heart of communities’ efforts to improve local wildlife and manage sustainable development - with increasing numbers declaring climate and ecological emergencies. In 2020, Hampshire County Council launched the Parish Pollinator Pledge to empower local parishes to undertake habitat surveys through the help of local volunteers and create an action plan for local nature recovery. Over in Glastonbury Town Council, the banning of herbicide use as a result of community campaigns led to the introduction of alternative methods of weed control. With the increasing recognition that only locally led solutions can tackle the unique context that is local communities, the close link with the voices of communities means that first-tier authorities are in a unique position to respond to these environmental challenges.
It is this direct link to local communities that first-tier councils have, which is perhaps their most valuable function and allows them to react to the needs of the community effectively. District and County Councils regularly work closely with parish councillors due to the ability of first-tier authorities to provide valuable feedback and information on the key issues and needs of residents, as this allows them to pinpoint the delivery of services and funding to the areas which need it most. Even large authorities such as Wiltshire Council place parish councillors at the heart of their approach to community improvement by inviting them to sit on board panels where they contribute towards decision-making in areas including health, local funding and highways. Ultimately, involving local community councillors in decisions strengthens the effectiveness of larger councils by including and empowering the voices of local communities.
The significance of having a mechanism for decision-making at the grassroots level has long been recognised as a cornerstone of democracy and is ultimately best delivered by our town, community, and parish councils. However, increasing numbers of “devolution deals” are dissolving councils in favour of larger unitary authorities. In May, eighteen local authorities were disbanded, losing some 500 councillors from local democracy. The larger areas served by each councillor make it harder for residents to develop a trusting relationship with a local councillor.
Legislation has tended to centralise power rather than devolve it. For example, the national stranglehold of planning. We need councillors to have the power to effect the changes that residents expect. First-tier councils have an increasing role in engaging with these new unitary authorities. The devolution agenda being pursued by this government needs to recognise the importance of grassroots decision-making and adequately fund first-tier authorities to allow them to support their communities effectively.
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