SOCIAL FABRIC

Double Devo: Extending Town and Parish Councils

The case for empowering neighbourhoods as well as regions
Jenevieve Treadwell, Will Tanner, Luke Stanley, Fjolla Krasniqi
November 12, 2021
Double Devo: Extending Town and Parish Councils
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We believe every community should have the right to create its own hyper-local governance, with many more powers devolved to all town, parish and community councils. Rebuilding the UK's social fabric must start with giving people more power and control over what happens in their communities, and that's what these policy changes would do.

Lord O’Shaughnessy, Chairman of the Social Fabric programme

Levelling up must expand neighbourhood control through town and parish councils

The Government’s planned reforms to “empower local leaders and communities” and “restore civic pride” in the forthcoming Levelling Up White Paper should not be limited to metro mayors and county deals, but also include a radical expansion of neighbourhood control through town and parish councils.

Our Social Fabric Index shows that local authorities with full town and parish coverage score significantly higher than local authorities without any hyperlocal councils for key measures of community strength.

For example, fully parished local authorities have, on average, over five times as many community assets as fully unparished areas, as well as 38% higher rates of volunteering and group membership, and 34% higher rates of charitable giving, as measured by our Social Fabric Index.

Uneven hyperlocal governance

At present, nearly two-thirds of England (63%) is not covered by a town or parish council, meaning that residents’ nearest authority is at district or unitary level, creating wide divides in levels of democratic representation. For example, in Stratford and New Town ward of the London Borough of Newham, where there is no town or parish council, there are more than 12,500 residents for every councillor. This compares to just 25 residents per parish councillor in the village of Weeford in Staffordshire.

People living in Red Wall are less than half as likely to have a parishas the rest of England. Across all local authorities in the Red Wall, just over one-fifth (21%) of people have a town or parish council, compared to almost half (47%) across the rest of England. This is partly a function of urbanity, given many post-industrial towns have either low levels of town and parish coverage, such as Wigan (3.2%), Hartlepool (8.7%), and Darlington (14.7%), or no parish at all, as in Blackpool, Stoke-on-Trent, and Rochdale.

Levelling up through town and parish councils

Rolling out town and parish councils across the whole of England and entrusting them with greater responsibilities could help deliver on two of the Government’s keystone Levelling Up commitments: empowering local leaders and communities and restoring local pride.

To achieve this, we recommend three key reforms:

  1. Let the people decide, by introducing an automatic ballot alongside local elections to ask people in every local area currently without a town or parish council whether they want to establish one, remove the ability of local authorities to overturn a decision in favour, and make the establishment of town and parish councils a condition of unitarisation.
  2. Strengthen the quality of governance in town and parish councils, by requiring that every town or parish council is two-thirds elected and ensuring that 25% of revenue from the planned Infrastructure Levy goes to town and parish councils.
  3. Deepen the role of neighbourhood councils, by giving them the ability to  “pull down” responsibility for neighbourhood functions from the local authority if they believe they could do a better job than the district or unitary authority.

Uneven hyperlocal governance

At present, nearly two-thirds of England (63%) is not covered by a town or parish council, meaning that residents’ nearest authority is at district or unitary level, creating wide divides in levels of democratic representation. For example, in Stratford and New Town ward of the London Borough of Newham, where there is no town or parish council, there are more than 12,500 residents for every councillor. This compares to just 25 residents per parish councillor in the village of Weeford in Staffordshire.

People living in Red Wall are less than half as likely to have a parishas the rest of England. Across all local authorities in the Red Wall, just over one-fifth (21%) of people have a town or parish council, compared to almost half (47%) across the rest of England. This is partly a function of urbanity, given many post-industrial towns have either low levels of town and parish coverage, such as Wigan (3.2%), Hartlepool (8.7%), and Darlington (14.7%), or no parish at all, as in Blackpool, Stoke-on-Trent, and Rochdale.

Levelling up through town and parish councils

Rolling out town and parish councils across the whole of England and entrusting them with greater responsibilities could help deliver on two of the Government’s keystone Levelling Up commitments: empowering local leaders and communities and restoring local pride.

To achieve this, we recommend three key reforms:

  1. Let the people decide, by introducing an automatic ballot alongside local elections to ask people in every local area currently without a town or parish council whether they want to establish one, remove the ability of local authorities to overturn a decision in favour, and make the establishment of town and parish councils a condition of unitarisation.
  2. Strengthen the quality of governance in town and parish councils, by requiring that every town or parish council is two-thirds elected and ensuring that 25% of revenue from the planned Infrastructure Levy goes to town and parish councils.
  3. Deepen the role of neighbourhood councils, by giving them the ability to  “pull down” responsibility for neighbourhood functions from the local authority if they believe they could do a better job than the district or unitary authority.

While there have been over 270 new local councils created since the Localism Act was passed in 2011, these have frequently been the result of wider changes – such as unitarisation or local government restructuring – rather than communities successfully forcing a principal authority to cede control, as in Queen’s Park.

There have also been a number of high profile examples where parish councils have been proposed by local communities and then subsequently rejected after the Community Governance Review, as happened in Tower Hamlets in 2019. This suggests that it could still be made considerably easier for local communities to adopt a town or parish council in England, to work with principal authorities and, in some cases, draw down powers from them on key decisions that affect local people’s lives.

Jenevieve Treadwell, Researcher at Onward and report author, said:

“If we want to turn around the fortunes of Britain’s most left behind communities, we need to give them the institutions and tools to level themselves up.

“At the moment, nearly two thirds of England has no town or parish council and therefore has one hand behind its back.

“This paper sets out how places can take back control – and how ministers can empower them to govern their own futures.”

Support for the report

The report is backed by a coalition of Conservative MPs representing communities across the country, including Mark Jenkinson MP, Miriam Cates MP, Paul Maynard MP, Shaun Bailey MP, Siobhan Baillie MP and Anthony Mangnall MP, as well as experts on local government, including Power to Change, the National Association of Local Councils, and Jackie Weaver, the former clerk of Handforth Parish Council.

Mark Jenkinson MP, the Member of Parliament for Workington, said:

“As the former chairman of Seaton Parish Council, I know firsthand the important role that these councils play in bringing communities together and giving local people a voice.

“Workington is one of the few areas in the Red Wall that is lucky enough to have strong levels of parish councils. The recommendations in this report will help ensure that everyone else across the North and the Midlands can benefit from these councils.”

Siobhan Baillie MP, the Member of Parliament for Stroud, said:

“Our local town and parish councils are so plugged into their neighbourhoods, they are often the first to spot problems. It makes sense to strengthen and expand the quality of this level of governance as they are already largely trusted by the public.”

Jackie Weaver, chair of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, said:

“I welcome this report for its acknowledgement of the strengths (and sometimes weaknesses) of the first tier of local government.  

“Those of us that know and understand our parish and town councils can see first hand the positive difference they can make in a community.  

“The challenge is sharing that knowledge so that we have wider spread, enhanced local democracy across the country.”

Cllr Sue Baxter, chair, National Association of Local Councils, said:

“I strongly welcome this excellent and timely report by Onward as it rightly recognises the important part that England’s 10,000 local (parish and town) councils play in providing local leadership and place shaping to build strong, thriving and resilient communities.

“And as the report rightly argues, there is currently a huge opportunity to build on the growing role of our most local level of governance to help the country and our communities tackle the significant challenges we all face.

“Which is why I would urge the government to use the opportunity of the forthcoming levelling up and recovery white paper to take forward many of the proposals in this report and empower local councils to level up and rebuild our communities.”

Vidhya Alakeson, CEO of Power to Change, said:

“A growing body of evidence from Onward and others, means it’s now irrefutable that successful regeneration is driven by local people. 

“If government is serious about levelling up the country it must respond by devolving power and funding to local communities. Greater local governance through parish and town councils is one way to achieve this, potentially creating new Community Improvement Districts. 

“Local people must decide what mechanism works best for them but what is clear, is that a top down, Westminster-led approach to levelling-up is likely to fall short of the government’s ambitions.”

Lord O’Shaughnessy, former Government Minister and Chair of Onward’s Social Fabric programme, said:

“As a highly centralised country, the national government and even local councils can feel distant and detached from the lives of ordinary people. Even where parish and town councils already exist they have very limited powers, despite often being best placed to resolve local issues. 

“Our proposals tackle this deficit head on. We believe every community should have the right to create its own hyper-local governance, with many more powers devolved to all town, parish and community councils. 

“In return we want to see a higher level of truly democratic involvement, with more councillors being elected rather than appointed. Rebuilding the UK’s social fabric must start with giving people more power and control over what happens in their communities, and that’s what these policy changes would do.”

Will Tanner, Director of Onward, said:

“The evidence is clear that town and parish councils have a demonstrable impact on the strength of local communities and the prosperity of local communities. 

“But just two fifths of England benefits from this form of local governance, and many of the most deprived communities still rely on distant district councils or unitary government to fix their problems. 

“A simple way for Ministers to level up would be to extend town and parish councils throughout England, and deepen their powers to allow local people to take greater ownership of their destiny.”

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