Role of Local Councils
What is a Local Council ?
A Local Council is a parish, town, village, neighbourhood or community council. These councils are the first tier of Local Government and local councils were created by statute in 1894. Before then for many years, the affairs of the parishes had been administered by a vestry, or meeting of the village inhabitants. Usually the squire, the parson and the principal ratepayers dominated these meetings. Some became 'select vestries', and were only open to those to those people deemed 'suitable' to serve. In most parishes, especially the more rural ones this system worked well but in others it was virtually non-existent or very inefficient.
Due to a general movement towards greater 'democracy'; and a desire to break the power of the Church of England over the lives of nonconformists and non-believers, a Bill was promoted to create Parish Councils. After a difficult passage through parliament and many amendments, this Bill became an Act in 1894. Its effect was to transfer all non-ecclesiastical functions from the church to the elected Parish Councils. Some other functions were added, such as those relating to the burial of the dead.
The regulations under which the first Parish Councils operated were not very tight in the beginning and the influence of the church was not easily diminished. In fact in the early days the Chairman would usually be the Parson, in fact he would at times be co-opted on to the Parish Council if he had not been elected in order to take up the role.
There were many anomalies and difficulties encountered in the years between 1894 and 1972, when the present basic Local Government Act came into being. Now, local councils are closely regulated. The lines of responsibility are clearly laid down, there is generally much more openness and those people that local councils were formed to serve are fully aware of what is being done on their behalf and are encouraged to participate.
Powers and Responsibilities of Local (Parish) Councils
The Local Government Act, 1972, is the one most often referred to when describing the modern powers and responsibilities of local councils but it is by no means the only one. Local Councils have a wide range of powers available to them to serve their communities well. They may only spend public money on projects or actions for which they have a Statutory Power (a list of some relevant legislation is below)
Small/Medium and Large Local Councils
The range of assets held by a local council will vary from council to council, with some council's having no assets at all. Having no physical assets doesn't stop a local council from being pro-active in the community as they can be heavily involved in planning by creating a Neighbourhood Plan and may arrange a number of events such as summer fairs, bonfire nights, Christmas events etc. All local councils are the voice of the community they serve and may be a consultee for the purpose of consultations from the principal authority (the next tier of local government e.g. District Council with County Council above them or a unitary authority such as a Metropolitan Borough Council), central government or other organisations such as the local public transport authority.
A medium to larger size local council could have many assets which may include a range of facilities such as allotments, cemetery, play areas, trim trail, multi use games area, recreation grounds, community centre, war memorials, woodlands and open spaces, village green, bus shelters and benches. Some local councils have also taken on the local pub or village shop as a community asset to save it from closure.
A Parish Clerk in a Town Council maybe known as the Town Clerk and will line manage all other staff. The number of staff will depend on the size of council and the types of assets it holds but may include a Responsible Finance Officer and/or Deputy Town Clerk, Administration Assistant/Receptionist, Cemetery Administrator, Mayors Secretary, Planning Officer, and Events Manager based in the office (remember that a part time clerk to a small council will be expected to wear all these hats at some time if the council has the need) in addition to grounds maintenance staff ( if the council manages a football field, cricket field, recreation ground or park), cemetery maintenance staff and handyman.
Local Council Income
Local Councils are empowered to raise money for their activities through a tax, called the "precept", on the residents of the parish. This is collected on their behalf by the district council. It is then paid to the local council in two equal instalments (although arrangements for payment differ from area to area).
It is up to the local council how much it demands by way of 'Precept' but when setting the annual budget the council must take into account how much it intends to spend and on what. Councils must have a clearly defined budget that will withstand enquiry.
A local council can 'borrow' money (i.e. arrange a loan) up to a set limit, but permission must be sought first, it has to be for a defined purpose and proof has to be given that the loan can be repaid, with interest
Some Statutory Powers of Local (Parish ) Councils
Local Government Act 1972
Assume a function delegated by another authority
Ensure effective discharge of council functions
Employ someone to carry out council functions
Buy or lease land for the community
Publicise council and local authority functions
Raise money by precept (Council Tax)
Assume responsibility for a closed churchyard
Make representation at public enquiries
Acquire historical records
Sch.16 para 20
Comment upon planning applications
Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1953
Provide bus shelters
Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976
Provide or support recreational facilities
Open Spaces Act 1906
Acquire and manage any open space including valuable habitats.
Administer open space held in trust
Commons Act 1899
Manage common land
Public Health Act 1875
Acquire and manage land for a village green
Public Health Act 1961
Provide a boating lake
Public Health Act 1936
Maintain public toilets
Use a local water course to obtain water
Maintain a local water course
The Countryside Act 1958
Erect signs for a right of way
Highways Act 1980
Create a right of way
Maintain a right of way
Plant verges with trees shrubs and bulbs (with Highways Authority consent)
Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984
Take action to relieve traffic congestion
Parish Councils Act 1957
Provide roadside seats (with Highways Authority consent)
s.3 (see also LGA 1972 Sch14, para 34)
Provide lighting for footways and public places
Litter Act 1983
Provide litter bins
Smallholding and allotments Act 1908
Acquire land for common pasture
Local Government (Records) Act 1962
Make community records available to the public
Purchase records of local interest
Support local archives
National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949
Make agreement with English Nature to manage council-owned land as nature reserve.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981
Local authorities make management agreements with landowners
Environmental Protection Act 1990
Must keep own land free of litter and dog faeces
This list is by no means exhaustive there are many other Acts and Statutes which govern the activities of Local Councils.
A local council must hold an annual meeting each year. In addition to the annual meeting, a local council in England must hold at least three other meetings each year. Meetings of a local council may take place within or outside its area. They cannot be held in premises licensed for the sale of intoxicating liquor unless there is no other suitable room available either free of charge or at a reasonable cost. Public notice of meetings has to be given (at least three clear days for Council Meetings). In addition, every member of the council is entitled to receive a summons specifying the business to be transacted at a council meeting. Only specific business included in the summons should be transacted at a council meeting. There are statutory provisions dealing with aspects of meetings, for example, quorum, manner of voting, and the recording of minutes. The public, including the press, are entitled to attend parish meetings under the Public Bodies (Admissions to Meetings) Act 1960.
The role of a parish clerk to a local council
The role of a Parish Clerk covers a lot more than the official title suggests. Many people confuse the title as being linked with the Church which is no longer the case. The Parish Clerk is the proper officer (a legal title) of a local council which may be a Parish, Town, Community, Village or Neighbourhood Council. A local council is the first tier of local government. Local Council's range from small village council's where the clerk may only work a few hours per week from home to large Town Council's where the Clerk would be full time and probably manage a team of staff based in an office.
Typically, the Clerk of a small to medium council will also be the council's Responsible Finance Officer (RFO) which in larger council's maybe a separate role. In addition to administrative skills a Parish Clerk & RFO will need financial management skills to be able to manage the council's budget and prepare bank reconciliations and year end accounts for auditing. The Clerk will also manage any council assets on a day to day basis and prepare reports for council's consideration for any contracted out works. The Clerk will need to be able to interpret legislation which applies to local council's such as the Local Government Act 1972. A local council manages its business using public funds called the precept which is the local council's element of the council tax. It is therefore imperative that robust policies and procedures are in place for the transparent management of the council's affairs.
Role of a local councillor
Most people's impression of what a councillor does is that they just attend council meetings and nothing could be further from the truth. The duties and pleasure of being a local councillor are many and varied, however it is the ordinary day to day contact with local people in their own community that is the most important part of being a councillor.
A Local Councillor signs a Declaration of Acceptance of Office and thereby undertakes to observe an ethical Code of Conduct when dealing with matters on behalf of the community.
One of the most important tasks of a Local Councillor is listening to and understanding the views of people in their community. Many public bodies or organisations acknowledge this is the hardest information for them to capture and they in turn use the skills and local knowledge of the council for advice to assist and inform their services.
A councillor agrees to attend all meetings (reasonably possible) that he or she is summoned to. In a smaller council this may only require one meeting of full council a month (there are however a few small councils that still only meet once every two months). In medium and larger councils however, along with full council meetings, there are further committee meetings or working groups. Most meetings are held in the evening but some committees and group representation may be during the day. Some of these committees may include planning, finance and staffing, properties or policy. Where committees are used however the council usually consists of a larger number of councillors and therefore each councillor is only expected to serve on one or two committees.
Local Councils also need representation at other local government meetings or on local bodies/organisations and councillors may be asked to serve on certain groups or attend functions on behalf of the parish council. Councillors act as ambassadors for their community keeping everyone aware of local needs and concerns and reporting back on District/Unitary, County and regional changes.
Councillors represent the voice of their community as a whole, whilst being aware of and considerate to, specific minority needs.
In some larger councils there will be times when councillors are asked to attend civic functions as part of their duty to the community. This may entail
Remembrance Parades, civic dinners or attendance at public functions to name but a few.
Through all of these functions councillors will draw on their own skills and experiences and it is the sharing of these skills that makes a strong team. Local Councils provide a focus for the community to identify concerns and projects and endeavour to solve them locally themselves. Councillors working as a team will need to deal with employment issues, budgeting, asset management, staff management, project management or grant funding and probably lots more if they are creative and involved. All councils must be aware and owe a duty to their community to manage staff considerately, whether it is employing one parish clerk or a whole host of office and grounds' maintenance staff. Accounts must be kept and whilst the clerk (or Responsible Financial Officer) will be employed to carry out this duty, councillors together as a team are responsible for the financial decisions made and implemented. A clerk is employed to advise and seek advice on behalf of councillors to assist them in their decisions. Councillors are there to consider the information gathered and make a group decision on all matters. No individual councillor is responsible for any single decision. This is democracy at its best.
Training and support
Training is available to any council, large or small. Legislation allows for councils to pay for training and ongoing training for councillors is sound business management.
All councillors are expected to abide by their Council's code of conduct. The responsibilities detailed in the Code of Conduct are designed to protect councillors as well as the people they serve and give clear guidance so that councillors may undertake their duties with confidence.
A Typical Day in the life of a Parish Clerk/RFO (small to medium size council)
There is no such thing as a typical day!
Variety is the key word in the working life of a Clerk. To give an example of a Clerk/RFO's work, lets consider a week in the life of a part time clerk working around 20 hours a week (note this is in addition to the usual telephone calls, e-mails and post):
Monday – Finance Day - production of a finance report to the council including updating the receipts and payments schedules, bank reconciliation and budget monitor
Tuesday – Complete VAT return, update electoral register and do all filing then attend an evening planning committee meeting
Wednesday - walk around recreation ground and woods with handyman to agree work schedule for maintenance then type Planning committee minutes and submit comments on applications to the planning authority.
Thursday – Type council meeting agenda and start a grant application form to War Memorials Trust for a structural survey of the war memorial. Book councillors on training event (chase up replies).
Friday - meet contractor to discuss quote for trim trail and suitable location on recreation ground. Start a report to council on the feasibility of installing a trim trail including suggested locations, quotes and possible grant funders.
If the thought of mixing administrative and financial skills with a bit of contractor management, events management and allotments inspecting appeals to you then the role of a part time Clerk & RFO may be for you.
The Yorkshire Local Councils Association provides training for new clerks and the SLCC (Society of Local Council Clerks) runs a basic qualification for new clerks called the ILCM (Introduction to Local Council Management). The recognised qualification for a Parish Clerk is the CiLCA (Certificate in Local Council Administration) which follows on from the ILCM and is administered by the YLCA where Clerks will have a designated tutor and access to training days.
Only councils with a qualified clerk can apply for LCAS (the Local Councils Awards Scheme) which is the quality mark for local councils.
Parish councillors are elected for a term of four years. Elections are held on the first Thursday in May. The next ordinary elections are scheduled for 2015. The right to vote at any local government election is dependent upon the person's name having been entered in the current register of local government electors which is published annually. In all cases, the ordinary election of parish councillors is conducted by means of nomination of candidates by two electors and, if necessary, a poll. A person (unless disqualified) is qualified to be elected to be a councillor if he/she is a British subject, a Commonwealth citizen or a citizen of the Irish Republic if on the relevant day he/she is 21 years of age or over and (1) is and continues to be a local elector for the parish, (2) has during the whole of the 12 months preceding that day occupied as owner or tenant any land or other premises in the parish, (3) his/her principal or only place of work during those 12 months has been in the parish, or he/she has during the whole of those 12 months resided in the parish or within three miles of it.
The Parish Meeting may only precept for expenditure relating to specific functions, powers and rights which have been conferred on it by legislation.