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All neighbourhoods should have a parish council to aid levelling up, says report

Words: Laura Edgar
Loughton, Stoke-on-Trent / RMC42, Shutterstock_1222777735

A centre-right think tank has recommended strengthening the quality of governance in town and parish councils to help communities and places to level up.

Onward says this will also help to revive local democracy.

Its report, Double Devo, found that places with town and parish councils statistically have more community-owned buildings, show higher rates of volunteering, and stronger networks of civic assets such as pubs and libraries.

However, 63 per cent of England is without hyperlocal governance. This means that residents’ nearest council is at district or unitary level. Onward believes that this creates wide divides in levels of democratic representation.

According to the report, people living in ‘red wall’ areas are less than half as likely to be covered by a local council as the rest of England – 21 per cent compared with 47 per cent. Industrial towns such as Blackpool, Stoke-on-Trent and Rochdale have no hyperlocal governance.

Measures in the forthcoming levelling-up white paper should be limited to combined authorities and county deals, but set out a “radical” expansion of neighbourhood control through town and parish councils.

Stratford and New Town ward, in the London Borough of Newham, doesn’t have a parish or town council. This means that one councillor represents more than 12,500 residents, says the report. By comparison, the village of Weeford in Staffordshire has one councillor for every 25 residents.

Using its Social Fabric Index, Onward found that areas with high levels of town and parish councils are more likely to have stronger communities than those without any hyperlocal councils for key measures of community strength.

Establishing town and parish councils in every area of England could help the government to deliver two levelling-up commitments: to empower local leaders and communities and to restore local pride. Onward says this could be achieved through three reforms:

  • Introduce an automatic ballot alongside council elections to ask people in every local area currently without a town or parish council whether they want to establish one, remove the ability of local authorities to overturn a decision in favour, and make the establishment of town and parish councils a condition of unitarisation.
  • Strengthen the quality of governance in town and parish councils by requiring that every town or parish council is two-thirds elected and ensuring that 25 per cent of revenue from the planned infrastructure levy goes to town and parish councils.
  • Deepen the role of neighbourhood councils by giving town and parish councils the ability to “pull down” responsibility for neighbourhood functions from the local authority if they believe that they could do a better job than the district or unitary council.

Jenevieve Treadwell, researcher at Onward and report author, said: “If we want to turn around the fortunes of Britain’s most left behind communities, we need to give them the institutions and tools to level themselves up.

“At the moment, nearly two-thirds of England has no town or parish council and therefore has one hand behind its back.

“This paper sets out how places can take back control – and how ministers can empower them to govern their own futures.”

Jackie Weaver, chair of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils and former clerk of Handforth Parish Council, has welcomed the report for “its acknowledgement of the strengths (and sometimes weaknesses) of the first tier of local government”.  

“Those of us that know and understand our parish and town councils can see first-hand the positive difference they can make in a community.  

“The challenge is sharing that knowledge so that we have wider spread, enhanced local democracy across the country.”

Image credit | RMC42, Shutterstock