3. The identities and interests of local communities
Parish councils have an important role to play in the development of their local communities and can contribute to the creation of successful wider communities. In 2010, the government stated its commitment to civil renewal, and empowering citizens to work with public bodies, including parish councils, to influence public decisions.
A parish council can be well placed to judge what is needed to build community cohesion, deal with specific issues which may be fundamental to how the community functions and clearly offers the opportunity to strengthen community engagement and participation.
A 2006 white paper underlined the government’s commitment to parish councils as an established and valued form of neighbourhood democracy with an important role to play in both rural, and increasingly urban, areas.
What is a parish council
A parish council is a local authority that makes decisions on behalf of the people in the parish and has an overall responsibility for the well-being of its local community. It is the level of government closest to the community, with the district authority above it in the hierarchy. As it is the authority closest to the people, parish councils are invariably the first place people will go with concerns or ideas. For this reason they are seen as a vital part of any community.
Its work falls into three main categories:
- representing the local community
- delivering services to meet local needs
- striving to improve quality of life in the parish
Parish councils usually meet once a month for the council meeting, to which members of the public are invited. Meetings may last two or three hours, depending on what’s on the list of items to discuss. Some councils may also have sub-committees to deal with specific subjects, such as planning matters, that meet in addition to the full parish council. In order for a parish council meeting to be quorate (having a sufficient number of councillors present to transact business) there must be a minimum one third of councillors, or three councillors in attendance, whichever is greater.
In 2010 the government published guidance for principal councils undertaking community governance reviews, which states –
“Where a community governance review is considering abolishing a parish council we would expect the review to consider what arrangements will be in place to engage with the communities in those areas once the parish council is abolished. An area or community forum can be set up by the principal council, or created by local residents to act as a mechanism to give communities a say on principal council matters or local issues. However, what sets parish councils apart from other kinds of governance is the fact that they are a democratically elected tier of local government, independent of other council tiers and budgets, and possess specific powers, which is an important distinction to make”.
The petition requesting the CGR quite specifically refers to the abolition of the parish council and not to the abolition of the parish itself. Therefore, if Dunchideock is to continue as a civil parish, it must have some form of governance in place as an alternative to a parish council. It must at the very least have a parish meeting, which will be considered as being the fundamental representative institution in the parish: a parish meeting for all the electors of the parish. Section 9 of the Local Government Act 1972 states:
"For every parish there shall be a parish meeting for the purpose of discussing parish affairs and exercising any functions conferred on such meetings by any enactment."
There are currently seven parishes within Teignbridge that do not have parish councils and have parish meetings. The largest parish meeting currently has 160 registered electors and the smallest has 74. These parishes are all functioning parish meetings with a Chairman and an online presence.
Parish meetings are local government bodies or public authorities for a number of statutory purposes. They are, for example, subject to the Human Rights Act 1998, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Equality Act 2010. A parish meeting may set a parish precept, although this power is limited to precepting only to cover expenditure on specific functions, powers and rights which have been conferred on it by legislation.
A parish meeting may also request that the district council confers the powers of a parish council on it under Section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972. This would allow the parish meeting to do any of those things that a parish council can do as specified in the Order.
The parish meeting must assemble annually between 1 March and 1 June each year and on at least one other occasion during the year if there is no separate parish council. For this and other purposes, the parish meeting will need a chairman. The chairman and the proper officer of the district council form the body corporate of the parish meeting and are known as “the parish trustees”. In a parish with no parish council, the chairman of the parish meeting should be elected annually. If a parish does not hold an annual meeting and it remains unable to attract a chairman or any participants, abolition of the parish itself may be considered so that it simply becomes an unparished area.
The government discourages the abolition of established parishes, but where a small civil parish is unable to function on its own, there is an expectation that other options will be sought before any steps are taken to abolish the parish. For example, the abolition of a number of small parishes and the creation of a larger parish covering the same area. It is the government’s view that it would be undesirable to see existing parishes abolished with the area becoming unparished and with no community governance arrangements in place.
Under what circumstances might a parish council be abolished?
The government expects to see a trend in the creation of parishes and parish councils, rather than their abolition, and believes it is doubtful that the abolition of a parish council could be justified as the most appropriate course of action in response to a particular contentious issue in the area, or decision of the parish council. It is important to point out that just because abolition of the parish council has been requested, there is no guarantee that a change will be made.
Public consultation is a very important part of a Community Governance Review and all views received will be taken into consideration. However, the government did conclude that there may be circumstances where abolition may be the most appropriate way forward, but this must be evidenced by the principal council as being justified.
For example, the principal council needs to find evidence that there is clear and sustained local support for such action. A factor taken into account by the government in deciding abolition cases before responsibility for this was handed to principal councils, was that local support for abolition needed to have been demonstrated over at least a period equivalent to two terms of office of the parish councillors (i.e. eight years), and that such support was sufficiently informed.
If the parish council is dissolved, Dunchideock will become a parish meeting. This will place onus for adhering to the relevant legislative requirements and responding to complaints and requests onto a single Chairman. There is also no guarantee that the parish council would ever be reinstated in its current form, should a request to reinstate it be received in the future. In such an instance another Community Governance Review would be held to, once again, consider all options.