In recognition of the fact that ‘one size does not fit all’, the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) has established not only a Larger Councils Committee but also a Smaller Councils Committee. However, there is no universal or even widely-recognised definition of ‘smaller council’, whether based on measures of parish population, electorate size, annual financial turnover, fixed assets, number of members, internal substructure or level of activity. It is easier to focus on some general descriptive characteristics. When seen in the context of the wider local councils’ sector, smaller councils tend to:
- have smaller annual budgets
- employ fewer (or, sometimes, no) staff
- serve more-rural and other sparsely populated communities
- operate with simple systems, basic internal structures and procedures.
Historically, few smaller councils have attempted to deliver a significant range of services but times are changing – and rapidly. The Localism Act made it possible for the devolution of more powers from principal authorities and now, in addition to ‘the power of well being’, Councils have the general power of competence. This means that, regardless of size, they are not limited to activities expressly defined by legislation, but are permitted to do any activity an individual can legally do – be it run a shop, a pub or local transport.
Principal authorities – whose tax-raising powers are capped – are delivering less services and maintaining less local assets than they formerly did. They are looking towards Local Councils to take over many of these responsibilities. This is one thing for the Town Councils – which already have a larger staff base and significant precepting income – but quite another for smaller councils, most of which have one employee, a part time clerk, or perhaps a clerk and lengthsman.
For small Parish Councils, wanting to see important local services and/or much valued local buildings, parks and open spaces preserved, it is requiring a massive step up – in aspirations, staff capacity, precepts and volunteer time. And it is all happening over a short period of time. Added to which, they are required to meet the same legal requirements on a range of issues from transparency to data protection that much larger councils are required to meet.
Challenging times indeed – but smaller councils are pulling out the stops to rise to the challenges and NALC’s Smaller Councils Committee is doing what it can to enable the constituency it represents to function as well as possible and to thrive. It is doing this by:
- Producing a range of guidance, good practice material and model documents specifically for small councils
- Actively tracking and attempting to influence the rural issues agenda – both through its own lobbying and in concert with partners such as via the Rural Coalition
- Monitoring, advising and influencing NALC’s decision-making and services
The Smaller Councils Committee meets formally four times a year but also works virtually on a series of work streams. The current chairman is Councillor David Francis from Northumberland. Contact the committee through Claire FitzGerald at NALC.