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An alarming number of parish councils and their representative bodies are unclear about their obligations to get on...
An alarming number of parish councils and their representative bodies are unclear about their obligations to get online, according to The Local Channel, the UK's first network of 10,000 free community websites. The confusion is caused by unclear government guidelines around its impending 2005 Implementing Electronic Government (IEG) deadline, to which all local authorities ??? which according to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 includes town and parish councils ??? must adhere.

The Local Channel has been approached by parish councillors who do not believe that the IEG programme is applicable to them. The Local Channel estimates that around 40 per cent* of parishes are not making any plans to meet the 2005 deadline, resulting in a serious flaw in government's overall e-strategy.

The National Association of Local Councils (NALC) and Local Government Association (LGA) are unable to clarify the situation. Both believe the IEG programme does not apply to town and parish councils, although NALC is advising town and parish councils to work actively on achieving the 2005 deadline. Recognising recent public sector IT failures, government is proposing to appoint a CIO to bring stronger IT leadership and strategic direction across departments.

'The government refers to local authorities as those who should implement the e-strategy,' says Patrick Abrahams, community director, The Local Channel. 'The Freedom of Information Act 2000 includes town and parish councils as local authorities, which means that town and parish councils are encompassed in the strategy. The government needs to clarify now exactly what is expected of parish councils and put an end to the confusion, which is at all levels of local government.'

* Estimate from verbal and written response received in four days to a mailing of over 10,000 parish councils.

Town and Parish Councils

Does the Government's 2005 online deadline include Town and Parish Councils?

What is the Government's 2005 deadlin e?

'Local authorities have a target of achieving 100% electronic service delivery (ESD) capability by 2005.' (This strategy was published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in partnership with the Local Government Association.)

What is the definition of local authority?

Quoted from The ODPM paper on The National Strategy for local e-government:

'By local government, we refer to English local authorities, including Fire Authorities and National Parks. Town and parish councils will have an important role to play, and we expect county and district councils to work productively with them. However, the responsibility for delivering local e-government ??? and access to the Local e-government resources ??? lies with the local authorities.'

In addition, parish, town and community councils are defined as Local Authorities under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which gives a general right of access to all types of recorded information held by public authorities. (Chapter 36, Schedule 1, Part 2.)

What relevance does the Freedom of Information Act have for parish and town councils?

Although the Act does not come fully into force until 1 January 2005, it places a duty on all local authorities to adopt and maintain a publication scheme, which must be approved by the Information Commissioner.

The purpose of the publication scheme is to ensure that a significant and growing amount of information is made available to citizens and organisations without the need for specific requests, and to encourage a culture of openness within local government.

Why do Town and Parish Councils need to embrace the internet?

'The Rural White Paper (November 2000) recognised the growing importance and potential of the Internet and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) as resources for local communities in general, and parish and town councils in particular. If these councils are to play the part envisaged for them in the Rural White Pa per, 'quality parishes', working in partnership with principal authorities and with each other, are expected to engage with ICT. As principal authorities and other agencies develop the use of the Internet and ICT for e-government and administrative activities, it is clearly a priority for town and parish councils to realise the potential of the Internet to influence and assist their work on behalf of their local communities.' (A report commissioned by the Countryside Agency written by Elisabeth Skinner, James Derounian and Laurie Howes from the School of Environment at the University of Gloucestershire)

The report concluded, 'if parish and town councils do not engage with the internet, they will rapidly fall behind in their prime duty ??? practical service to their local community'.

Why are parish and town councils so important to the Government's strategy?

There is over 80,000 town, parish and community councillors throughout England and Wales. These councillors, who serve electorates ranging from small rural communities to major towns, are all independently elected. The councils have powers to raise their own funds through council annual expenditure exceeds £200 million. Together, they can be identified as the nation's single most influential grouping of grassroots opinion-formers. Over 15 million people live in communities served by 9,500 community, parish and town councils nationally ??? this represents up to 25% of the population.

To see the government's commitment to Town and Parish Councils, it is implementing schemes such as 'The Quality Parish' and 'Best Value'.

The Quality Parish

''A Fair Deal For Rural England' published in November 2000 set out a number of measures to give local people the opportunity to become more involved in the development of their communities. The Government believes that parish and town councils, as the tier of government that is closest to local communities, have a central role to play in improving local quality of l ife. The White Paper proposed a number of initiatives including the new concept of a Quality Parish Council.

The paper recommends:

The development of Quality Status for parish and town councils which when met will enable these councils to be more active community leaders and be more closely involved in local service delivery.

To attain Quality Status councils will have to meet a number of standards including having a trained clerk and elected councillors.' (The Rural White Paper, 'Our Countryside: The Future.)

Alun Michael, minister of state for rural affairs and urban quality of life, said: 'Parish and town councils have a central role to play in fostering community involvement. The Quality initiative will allow local councils to give people a better deal on local services and a stronger voice in decisions affecting their lives. Successful applicants will earn an enhanced role and Quality status by proving that can pass straightforward tests. I encourage all vibrant parish and town councils to seek this new and important accolade.'

Best Value

'Best value presents great opportunities for parishes. It should ensure that principal councils listen to parish councils. It should provide opportunities for principal councils to delegate functions to parish councils. It should provide opportunities for partnership working between the different tiers of local government, and between local authorities and the voluntary and private sectors.' (Speech by Alan Whitehead12th November 2001.)

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