What is a Parish Council?
A Parish Council is a corporate body – a legal entity separate from that of its individual members. Its decisions are the responsibility of the whole body. In 1894 an Act of Parliament created the civil parish, separating it from the church after its long history of delivering local services such as care for the poor, maintenance of roads and collecting taxes. Parish councils have been granted powers by Parliament including the important authority to raise money through taxation (the precept) and a range of powers to spend public money.
The Parish Council is an elected body in the first tier of local government. Other tiers, known as principal authorities, have many legal duties to deliver services such as education, housing, town and country planning, environmental health and social services.
The law gives local councils choice in activities to undertake; but surprisingly there are very few duties – activities that they must carry out in delivering services to local people.
Exceptions are that a council must:
- provide allotments if the council considers that there is demand for them from local residents and it is reasonable to do so;
- comply with its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Data Protection Act 1998;
- comply with employment law;
- consider the impact of their decisions on reducing crime and disorder in their area;
- have regard to the protection of biodiversity in carrying out their functions;
- decide whether to adopt a churchyard when it is closed, if asked to do so by the Parochial Church Council.
The parish council also has a duty to ensure that all the rules for the administration of the council are followed. They must:
- appoint a chairman of the council;
- appoint officers as appropriate for carrying out its functions;
- appoint a responsible financial officer (RFO) to manage the council’s financial affairs;
- appoint an independent and competent internal auditor;
- hold a minimum number of four meetings per year, one of which must be the Annual Meeting of the Council.
These rules are set out in law to guide the council and together these rules make up the standing orders as formally agreed by the council.
What does a parish council do?
Planning, highways, traffic, community safety, housing, street lighting, allotments, cemeteries, playing fields, community centres, litter, war memorials, seats and shelters, rights of way – these are some of the main issues that concern parish councils.
The Government is encouraging local councils to deliver more services and play a greater part in their communities. For example a parish council could provide or give financial support for:
- pond clearing
- redecorating the community centre
- a teenagers’ drop-in club
- a summer festival
- equipment for a children’s activity group
- transport to hospital
About the people
A Parish Council Chairperson has the role of team leader for council meetings. In all other respects the Chairperson is a member of the Council.
The Chairperson is elected at the Annual Meeting of the Council to be in charge during council meetings for one year; this is an office created by legislation commanding respect. They have a duty to ensure that council meetings run smoothly, that all business is properly considered and all councillors who wish to speak can do so. They have few special powers. For instance, it is unlawful for a council to delegate decision making to any individual councillor and the chairman is no different. However, when a vote is tied, the chairman may use a second, or casting vote.
It is good practice for the chairman to refer to the clerk for advice.
No person can act as a Parish Councillor until they have signed a formal declaration of acceptance of their office. The declaration of acceptance of office includes an agreement to observe the current code of conduct adopted by the council.
In addition to the obligations arising from a council’s code of conduct, members have a responsibility to:
- attend meetings when summoned to do so; the notice to attend a council meeting is, in law, a summons;
- consider, in advance of the meeting, the agenda and any related documents;
- take part in meetings and consider all the relevant facts and issues on matters which require a decision;
- take part in voting, and respect decisions made by the majority of those present and voting;
- ensure, with other councillors, that the council is properly managed;
- represent the whole electorate.
The Parish Clerk
The clerk is also a vital team member. The clerk provides advice and administrative support, and takes action to implement council decisions. The clerk may have to act as a project manager, personnel director, public relations officer and finance manager. The clerk is not a secretary and is answerable only to the council as a whole. The clerk is the proper officer of the council in law.
Legally councils can delegate decisions to clerks because they are trusted professional officers whose objectivity allows them to act for the council.
Where councillors, clerk and chairman work together as a team they combine knowledge and skills to deliver real benefits to the community they serve. Good working relationships, mutual respect and an understanding of their different roles are vital.
About the meetings
Council meetings are important; this is where Councillors play their part as decision makers. The chairman is in charge of the meeting, and the clerk supports the council as it discusses business. The meeting is the council team in action.
Council meetings are formal events, not social occasions. They have a clear purpose – to make decisions – and are not just forums for debate. Furthermore, they are public events; the press and public have a right to observe how the council operates.
The council makes its decisions in council, committee and sub-committee meetings. Council and committee meetings must all be advertised and open to the press and public. The council should decide on a schedule of meetings for the year.
- Council meetings are meetings of the full council. All councillors are expected to attend.
- Committee meetings bring together a smaller number of councillors to concentrate on a specific function of the council and share the workload. Winford Parish Council does not operate a full committee system but there are a number of informal working groups that can advise the full council.
The Code of Conduct
Briefly, the Code of Conduct adopted by a parish council includes provisions that are mandatory by regulations. So a Parish Councillor must:
- treat others with respect;
- comply with equality legislation;
- not bully or intimidate anyone;
- not disclose confidential information;
- not bring the council into disrepute by their conduct;
- not use their position or the council’s resources for improper purposes.
A full copy of the code of conduct adopted by Winford Parish Council can be found on the statutory document pages.
Thanks to Bramley Parish Council for compiling this information