Town and parish councils – a framework for releasing potential

Enabling parish and town councils to play a stronger role in local place-shaping must start with creating the conditions for constructive dialogue, writes Tony Blake.

A new framework to help local authorities develop their relationships with parish and town (local) councils has been published by the LGA. Local service delivery and place-shaping: A framework to support parish and town councils is the product of research commissioned by the association and delivered by Shared Intelligence.

This interest in town and parish councils reflects the extent to which their role and influence has grown over the last 15 years. Over 270 new local councils have been created in this period and the Localism Act 2011 gave them a power of general competence, albeit with limits on when it can be exercised. Creation of new unitary councils has often been associated with ambitious programmes of devolution or delegation of assets and services to local councils, as in Cornwall, Wiltshire and Durham.

Most recently, active parish and town councils have been at the forefront of driving community action during the Covid-19 pandemic. For many principal authorities, building on this, as part of sustainable service re-design, will need to be part of the local recovery response.

Yet engagement of parish and town councils remains patchy. Some principal authorities are reluctant to work proactively with them, their reluctance shaped by examples of negotiations that have failed, or by concerns about over-reliance on one or two enthusiastic individuals.

The framework aims to guide principal authorities who are interested in supporting parish and town councils to play an increased role in local service delivery and place-shaping.

This is not easy. There is huge variety in the nature of parish and town councils in England. Many are small, with a part-time clerk and have little in common with the largest and most active town councils. Some town councils are involved in town centre management, running leisure facilities, and are proactive with social impact initiatives. Others are much more limited and focus on a range of very local amenities, such as litter bins, public seats and their duty to provide allotments. Then there is the variety in terms of the number and coverage of parish and town councils. Some large county or unitary areas may have several hundred; some districts have just a handful; and some have substantial “unparished” areas, and much of the country has none.

At their best, however, and whatever the scale of their activity, town and parish councils bring:

  • A close knowledge of the needs of their communities, with ability to tailor activity accordingly.
  • An ability to mobilise their communities, co-ordinating and harnessing individuals and groups to address local priorities.
  • Action that is backed by an ability to raise money locally through a precept.

A key finding from our research for the LGA is that harnessing these strengths starts with creating the conditions for fruitful dialogue between principal and parish and town councils. Successful engagement will only result from trust and understanding. We recommend, as a starting point, that principal authorities should create an action focused statement of intent as a way of framing conversations with individual parish or town councils. Are there particular services, such as highways or grounds maintenance that are priorities? Or are they interested in transformational localism with an emphasis on securing outcomes in health and wellbeing? This needs to be developed sensitively, as a pragmatic indication of scope, ambition and the art of the possible. Ideally it should be developed with the parish and town councils locally, involving their local association.

The statement of intent is the catalyst for dialogue. It needs to be associated with several supporting features. These include:

  • A willingness to invest. While delegating and devolving services and assets to town or parish councils can be used as part of a strategy to deliver with increasing resource pressures, it does require investment. Our research highlighted the importance of grants or access to revenue, for example from local car parks. Often these can be offered on a tapering basis, as a way to support transition.
  • Capacity support. For example, in order to encourage parish and town councils to take on highway repairs, Devon County Council offers public liability cover for the work, as well as training, guidance and risk assessments.
  • A corporate front door. There is a clear link between successful engagement with town and parish councils and having senior staff providing a corporate front door to local council partners. This provides accountability and a route to discuss creative ideas.

There is one final thought. Most examples we found of effective engagement came either from unitary authorities, or districts or counties working individually with parish and town councils. There is surely an opportunity here for more cross-tier involvement. A previous report produced by Shared Intelligence for the LGA, The Drivers of Collaboration, highlighted how better county – district collaboration could be improved through a mobilising topic or initiative in focusing on outcomes for people, places and communities. An issue such as the climate emergency or rural isolation may prove to be a powerful force for dialogue across all three tiers of council together.

The potential is certainly there for more parish and town councils to be an integral part of vibrant communities, along with voluntary and other community sector organisations. Making this a reality will require a consistent and patient focus from their partners in the principal council sector.

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