Broken Community Governance: The End of The Parish Council | Antonio Calogero Piazza

Local politics is not attractive to many. Individuals go into local politics for reasons as varied as having a say in their community, trying to make a difference, or wanting to change local policies they do not agree with. The most common type of councillor you will meet is the parish councillor who together with others, makes up the parish council. The parish council is currently the level of local government closest to the community it represents, with district, county, and unitary authorities above it in hierarchy. Parish councils, despite their lower status in local government, bear much importance as elected corporate bodies with variable tax-raising powers, carrying out public activities over geopolitical areas known as civil parishes. A parish council may call itself a town council or city council, but they effectively have the same powers and duties regardless of the name. However, the fundamental distinction between a village, town, and city is its population, and with different populations there are varying tax bases – the total amount of properties in the parish that can be taxed by a taxing authority. This distinction has proven to be a complete game changer for parish councils in the last decade or two, with towns that were once small now growing significantly in population. Town councils now are more ambitious – council tax precepts in towns have increased dramatically, especially in areas where services have been delegated from district, county, and unitary councils. The villages, however, remain frozen in time due to their lower tax base. A town council could have a tax base in the thousands or even tens of thousands, whilst the smallest village could have only a few hundred taxable properties. A large town or city council may have a £2,000,000 budget at its disposal, whereas a village parish may have in excess of £10,000 but rarely over £500,000.

In my home town of Trowbridge, located in Wiltshire, a Band D resident will now contribute £200.10 towards Trowbridge Town Council each year. However, the surrounding village parishes will pay significantly less. Band D residents in Hilperton will pay the lowest at £14.28; North Bradley £20.44; Southwick £29.15; West Ashton £35.15; Staverton will pay the most at £38.84. The village parish residents will enjoy a much lower council tax precept rate in comparison to Wiltshire’s towns. Not only this, those living in luxury Band H properties in West Ashton will pay £70.30, whereas the poorest in Trowbridge living in a one-bedroom Band A flat will pay more at £133.40 a year. The key takeaway from this is that the poorest in many towns are forced to pay more than the richest in the villages. Many, including myself, would argue that this is a regressive form of taxation and divides communities economically across the country.

In my time as a unitary and parish councillor, a few councillors have challenged me on how I would solve the socio-economic disparity of council tax precepts locally. When I first became a councillor, I would naively ask that Trowbridge Town Council show some restraint in increasing the tax rate. However, having now served as a councillor for over two years, I feel at this point residents cannot rely on their councillors. If residents are at the mercy of councillors, then those councillors will take advantage of their residents. Before the May 2021 local elections, Trowbridge Town Council’s ruling political party chose to increase the precept by 1.5% in an attempt to cement themselves as economically literate and low-tax friendly. Once the election had been concluded and this ruling party had won, gaining more seats than previously held, they increased the tax rate by almost 20%. Before the electorate will have a chance to hold the ruling party to account for this deception, they will need to wait three-and-a-half years before being able to vote again. By that point, many will have forgotten that this ruling party was responsible for the tax increase; many more will not even know who was responsible, and the vast majority will not even vote at these local elections. The absence of the electorate at local government level is an abyss at the centre of our British democracy, one which we currently pretend is not there. Local democracy in England is a failure. There is no democratic accountability at this level.

At first, I thought that a potential solution would be for the Government to introduce a cap on the parish council tax rate for those councils with tax revenue of more than £500,000. I called for national government intervention to save local politics. As previously mentioned, the flexibility and autonomy without this cap allows the ruling party on the parish council to take advantage of the electorate. It allows them to exploit the parish system and deal damage when most convenient. It is worth pointing out that the Police Crime Commissioner in Wiltshire is capped, the Fire Authority is capped, and Wiltshire Council (corporate and social care) is capped. This is the case in England. All local government precepts are capped except for the parish precept. Everyone else – Unitary, Police etc – manages to constrain the local tax rise to 2-4% due to this cap. After five years of way-above inflation increases, the town council has plumped for 20% in the 2022-23 financial year. It is an unusual position that we find ourselves in to have an outlier. Initially, I thought that this issue was solely historic – parish council legislation had not caught up with the times and a modern parish council could not succeed due to past errors. However, I was wrong and discovered that national governments have been enablers in this oversight.

The General Power of Competence (GPC) was introduced by the Localism Act 2011 and took effect in February 2012. In simple terms, it gives councils the power to do anything an individual can do provided it is not prohibited by other legislation. These legislative powers apply to all principal councils (district, county and unitary councils etc). The GPC also applies to eligible parish and town councils. An eligible council is one which has resolved to adopt the GPC, with at least two thirds of its members being declared elected and the Clerk must hold an appropriate qualification, usually CiLCA. The parish council could save a local Post Office by purchasing its freehold and keeping its rent low. The parish council could borrow money to invest in a new community shop, creating a hub for the local community. If a town council wanted to buy a pub locally and run it, then it could do this too. It sounds great on paper. There is some inspiration here from European policy, as seen in Germany, where public money is used to keep valuable community assets going. The only problem is, many of these town councils are a law unto themselves. The ruling party of a town council will always put its interests first. This is not to say that parish councils cannot be a force for good in contemporary Britain, but political parties as collective entities have been bred, organised, and mouslded to compete for political offices. They will adapt to survive or die. The ruling party on Trowbridge Town Council adapted to survive. The alternative was to die and human beings are naturally inclined to fight to the death. The autonomy provided by this legislation, in combination with variable tax raising powers, is only amplified further by the fact that very few people vote at local elections. Essentially, we have a self-governing public body with very little accountability on a democratic level. Parish councils were never designed to be behemoths. They were meant to be  meek and modest, an opportunity for a small local community to voice their opinions.

Historically, parish councils have stood the test of time. Civil parish councils were formed in England under the Local Government Act 1894, at the time taking over a number of lesser powers. In this time, two Acts of Parliament have increased the general powers of parish councils and removed restraints. The Local Government Act 1972 made important reforms in development planning, giving parish councils the right to act as consulting bodies for planning applications. The GPC had still not been granted under this act however, and it was not until the Localism Act 2011 introduced under the Conservative-Liberal Coalition that parish councils were freed from the constraints of ultra vires. Parish councils under the GPC are no longer limited by their statutory powers, and this has worsened the issue with them having tax raising powers with next to no democratic accountability for their actions.

In this piece I have spoken much on adaptability over time, and I do believe the main reason why parish councils have survived is due to changing legislation. Professor Leon C. Megginson famously (or infamously) paraphrases Charles Darwin, stating: “it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.” The title of this article might be seen as ironic, as throughout this piece I have only argued how parish councils have evolved over a period of time and survived. Everyone could argue that there is no end in sight for parish councils, and they will continue to exist in England for decades more. Town boundaries will continue to expand, annexing parts of village parishes. As the population increases and more properties are built in towns due to existing infrastructure, the tax base in towns will continue to rise dramatically. District, county, and unitary bodies will continue with hand-me-down assets and services to town-council level. Town councils will grow to be more ambitious and continuously increase their tax rates to cope with pressures to deliver on services and projects. They will continue to exist and the Government may eventually, in decades to come, look at making them more accountable for their actions when they are forced to act.

However, I would like to end this article with a question for readers: you have a broom. You replace the brush and then you replace the handle. Is it still the same broom?

Photo owned by Author.

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