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Blears sows seeds of new grass roots

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Are they the province of white middle-aged men or a dynamic way to engage people in political processes and create social cohesion? There are two divergent views on the worth of parish and town councils, writes Paul Donovan.

Very much in the second camp is communities secretary Hazel Blears who two weeks ago heralded a new era of “parish power”.

Speaking at the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) annual conference, she praised parishes as a force for local pride and empowerment. “Parish councils have an important contribution to make in reinvigorating local democracy they are often the most immediate form of representation, acting as a focal point for local debate and identity,” she said (LGC, 29 May).

“Parish councils can also be very effective at connecting with local people, and stoking enthusiasm for getting involved.”

As part of their modernisation, Ms Blears urged parish and town councils to use new powers to temporarily co-opt local specialists to advise them on their areas of expertise. Teachers could advise on schools and businessmen on finance.

Meanwhile, the wellbeing power, currently only available to principal local authorities, will also be extended to parishes. They will gain a freer rein to take decisions, as long as they are in their community’s interest and promote local wellbeing. They will find it easier, for instance, to support a community rail service or new initiatives to create jobs, funded through precepts on council tax.

Apolitical tendency

Parish councils generally tend to be fairly apolitical bodies, attracting people who want to volunteer and serve the community. Political division is not usually a visible feature of parish councils.

Some, though, disagree with the ‘small is beautiful’ view of parish council empowerment, arguing that they work against diversity and have become attractive to extreme groups like the British National Party (BNP) as a means to gain influence. And there is anecdotal evidence of the BNP petitioning for parish and town councils in areas where they feel there is an opportunity to promote their pernicious form of politics.

Sir Jeremy Beecham (Lab), vice chair of the Local Government Association, believes there is a danger of individual parish and town councils being dominated by far right or different ethnic groups.

“This could be divisive,” said Sir Jeremy, who sees the parish council concept as more applicable in a rural than urban setting. “In places like London there is population churn. The parish councils are more likely to succeed in areas with settled populations.”

John Findlay, chief executive of NALC, does not believe the threat of the BNP or any other group should be a reason not to have parish councils. He argues it is like shutting democracy down because you are unsure of the outcomes.

Andrew Jones, Local Government Information Unit policy officer, said he had never encountered bigotry of any kind with parish councils in rural areas. “Rural England is more diverse than the stereotype makes it out to be,” said Mr Jones, who pointed out that the present legislation included the need to promote social cohesion as part of the criteria for parish councils.

There certainly seems to be a growing need for some sort of representative body operating at the base level of local government. As principal councils get bigger through the creation of more unitary authorities, there is a danger of disconnection at the grass roots level. NALC believes parish councils can fill that gap.

Mr Findlay described relations between parish councils and county councils as good and those with districts the next smallest type of council as improving. A few principal authorities Bradford City MDC and Milton Keynes Council are prominent examples actively support the creation of new parishes.

Campbell Park Parish Council

One effective parish council that flies in the face of suggestions of BNP strongholds or being anti-diversity is Campbell Park Parish Council in Milton Keynes. The parish works with the Milton Keynes Equality Council to run showcase cultural events, so far featuring Hindus, Ghanaians, Poles, the Celtic fringe and Muslims. “We aim to get between 30 and 50 people along to each event. These people would tend to be the leaders of the different communities, so the aim would be that they take the message back and it cascades down,” said Bill Dawson, the parish’s manager and clerk.

The parish appears to have developed a good relationship with Milton Keynes Council, so there is consultation between the two on planning, fly tipping and other issues. “The relations are good. I’m not saying there are not some fall outs, but that happens everywhere,” said Mr Dawson.

Essex CC is a keen supporter of parish council expansion. Ian Hatton, Essex’s policy and programme manager, said it will work with parishes, for instance by match funding projects. “At Rowhedge there was some s106 land, so we came together to co-fund a community centre with the district council. We all pulled the stops out to deliver,” he said.

Mr Hatton also believes there could be a role for parishes in Essex’s plans to run post offices. He praised parish councillors’ motives: “These roles are not so political. A lot of parish councillors see their role as that of a volunteer, responsible for fixing pot holes, maintaining street lights and running the allotments.”

But not all local councils are so healthy. Yatton Parish Council in Somerset is struggling, with 14 members instead of the intended 21.

A series of disagreements and incidents of councillors reporting each other to the Standards Board has led to a number of resignations, including three in the past few weeks.

NALC’s Mr Findlay admitted that there are poor parish councils. “We do get some sleeping councils that could do with a shake-up. Usually, things change when dynamic people get involved and start making things happen. Then more people want to get involved,” he explained.

The NALC chief executive is keen to stress the accountable nature of local councils which do not receive funding from central government. “Anything that it is decided to develop, say like a shelter, is funded directly from the council tax,” said Mr Findlay. “So there is a good direct democratic tie between the community and parish councils.”

Parish and town councils are making something of a comeback, but whether they will really bring a new level of political engagement remains to be seen. Much, no doubt, will depend on how much genuine devolvement of power there is from upper levels of local government to the base.

Parish and town facts

  • There are 10,000 parish and town councils covering 90% of the country’s geographical area

  • Most serve populations of 5,000 or less

  • The largest town council in England is Weston-super-Mare, which serves 72,000

  • Local councils involve about 80,000 councillors

  • They employ about 25,000 staff and serve at least 15 million people, or about 30% of the population in England

  • 200 local councils have been created since 1997, 19 of them in the past year

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