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Parish Councils and Parish Councillors

Local councils are the first tier of governance and are the first point of contact for anyone concerned with a community issue. They are democratically elected local authorities and exist in England, Wales and Scotland. The term ‘local council’ is synonymous with ‘Parish council’, ‘town council’ and ‘community council’.

In England Parish councils were formed as part of the feudal system in the 11th century to oversee the welfare and civic duties of a town or village. Many Parish Councils are still in place today, particularly in rural communities and indeed new Parish Councils are still being formed.

Parish councils are often confused with Parochial Church Councils, which are concerned with the welfare of a particular religious community. Parish Councils are a civil body and are not linked to the church.

Local councils are made up of locally elected councillors. They are legally obliged to hold at least one meeting a year. Most meet on a more regular basis to discuss council business and in addition to this, any committees or sub-committees dealing with specific subjects will also have meetings. District councillors regularly attend Parish meetings to report back to the district on developments at Parish level. County, unitary and metropolitan councillors are also invited to attend Parish meetings when the Parish council feels it is appropriate, and they have a standing invitation to attend and report at the annual assembly.

Buxted Parish Council meet monthly (although there is no meeting in August – a historical artefact) – as well as holding the legally required annual assembly. All meetings of the Parish Council are open to the public although sections may be closed to look at confidential matters. The various committees of the Parish Council meet at other times and with different frequencies – some like the Properties committee or Footpaths committee meet on an ad hoc basis – other like the Finance and policy committee meet at least once a year to set the budget in this case – and others like Planning meet frequently – fortnightly – in order to meet the targets that Wealden District Council have to meet to deal with applications. Normally our District Councillors attend and our County Councillor has a regular slot on the Parish Council agenda to report of County Council matters. In addition there is a standing invitation for a representative of the Police to attend where it does not interfere with proper policing duties (!) and at the discretion of the Chairman members of the public are always welcome to speak/ask questions etc before the proper discussion of the Council progress. From time to time representatives of other organisations also attend and may present at the PC meeting.

Local Council Responsibilities

Local councils currently have a limited number of duties but they all impact directly on the community. The following are all under the remit of local councils (though Buxted does not necessarily do all these things – we do not for example have any public clocks as such – although we do ensure that the one in the Reading Room gets maintained!):

  • Allotments
  • Burial Grounds, Cemeteries, Churchyards and Crematoria
  • Bus Shelters
  • Bye-laws – the power to make bye-laws concerning: baths and washhouses (swimming pools), cycle parks, mortuaries and pleasure grounds
  • Clocks – public clocks can be provided and must be maintained
  • Community Centres, Conference Centres, Halls, Public Buildings
  • Drainage – of ditches and ponds
  • Entertainment and the Arts
  • Footpaths
  • General Spending – parish councils can spend a limited amount of money on anything they deem of benefit to the community that is not covered by the other specific responsibilities described in this list
  • Gifts – parish councils may accept gifts
  • Highways – lighting, parking places, right to enter into discussions about new roads and road widening, consent of parish council required for diversion or discontinuation of highway, traffic signs and other notices, tree planting and verge maintenance
  • Land – acquisition and sale of
  • Legal proceedings – power to prosecute and defend any legal proceedings in the interests of the community, power to take part in any public enquiry
  • Litter – provision of litter-bins and support for any anti-litter campaigns
  • Planning – parish councils must be notified of, and display for residents, any planning applications for the area. Any comments submitted to the planning authority by the parish council must be taken into account
  • Postal and Telecommunication Facilities – power to pay a public telecommunications operator any loss sustained in providing services in that area
  • Public conveniences – provision and maintenance of public toilets
  • Recreation – provision of recreation grounds, public walkways, pleasure grounds, open spaces, village greens, gymnasiums, playing fields, holiday camps and boating ponds
  • Rights of Way – footpath and bridleway maintenance
  • Seats (public)
  • Signs – danger signs, place names and bus stops signs
  • Tourism – financial contributions to any local tourist organisations allowed
  • Traffic Calming
  • War Memorials
  • Water Supply – power to utilise stream, well or spring water and to provide facilities for general use

Becoming a Parish Councillor

To qualify to be a parish councillor you must be:

  1. A British citizen, a citizen of this Irish Republic or a citizen of any member state of the European Union.
  2. Over 21 on the day that he or she is nominated as a candidate
  3. A registered local government elector
  4. Resident in the parish, or within 3 miles of the parish, or working full time in the parish for at least 12 months prior to the nomination or election day.

A person is disqualified from holding office as a parish or town councillor if:

  1. They hold a paid office, or other place of profit in the Council
  2. They have been declared bankrupt in the past five years and have not repaid their debts
  3. They have been convicted of a criminal offence and sentenced to more than 3 years imprisonment within the last five years
  4. They incur illegal expenditure (when acting as a councillor) of over £2,000, or are found guilty of using corrupt or illegal practices

All Parish Councillors are now obliged to sign a Code of Conduct declaration which is monitored by Wealden District Council Standards Committee and the Standards Board for England. It can be a bit daunting on first view but in reality it is sensible for anyone holding what at the end of the day is a form of public office – that MPs do not sign such a declaration has been a matter of some discussion! Further information can be provided.

The Role of the Parish Councillor

A councillor is a member of the council and is normally elected for a term of four years. People of any political or religious persuasion are eligible to become a councillor, although their personal views should not extend into their parish council work. They are elected to represent the interests of the local community as a whole and promote a harmonious local environment. The number of elected councillors depends on the size of the area. Councillors attend meetings of the full council and often participate in committees that deal with specific areas of council business. Which committee depends on the interests of each Councillor and the time that they can individually give. Councillors take collective decisions that form the policy of the council.

Some training is available for new councillors, and there are various handbooks that can be provided to new Councillors. A lot of the training is ‘on the job’ and common sense!

The Future of Local Councils

The Rural White Paper 2000 suggested that parish councils should be given more responsibilities in order to stimulate a greater interest in politics and democracy at the heart of our communities.

Subsequently, in June 2003 the Quality Town and Parish Council Scheme was launched.

The three main aims are;
1.To provide a benchmark of standards for Parish and town councils
2. Enable them to work more closely with partners in the delivery of services and
3. Enable them to more effectively represent their communities.

Quality councils may be in a better position to take on additional services and areas of responsibility from their principal authorities and can demonstrate to local communities that minimum standards have been met. Buxted like many local Parish Councils is considering the work to achieve Quality status while watching what that really means – at present it is not yet clear. Not being a Quality council does not affect the present activities of the Parish or the statutory duties of the Parish Council.

In order to achieve Quality status, Parish/town councils have to complete a number of tests. These test are split largely into seven categories:

1. Electoral Mandate

2. Qualifications of the Clerk

3. Council Meetings

4. Communication

5. Annual Reports

6. Accounts

7. Ethical Framework

The tests are designed to ensure that the town/Parish council is functioning as an effective, representative and active council. While Buxted meets many of the criteria and will be able to meet others one thing we need is to have a full quota of Councillors come the elections in Spring 2007. To do that we need a full Council now!

Have you time to be a Councillor?

It is possible to spend a lot of time on council work – but most people have jobs, families, hobbies and lives which all place demands on their precious time!

Generally speaking, the larger the number of electors, the larger a Council’s workload will be. Buxted’s workload is for sure increasing. To accommodate the commitments of people on the Council, the times of meetings vary, as do the venues, but most of the meetings are in the evening as this suits the majority. It is important to ensure that you can plan attendance at the various meetings – accommodating them into your normal domestic and work arrangements. Nevertheless, unless you take on responsibility as a Chairman or Vice-Chairman of a committee your workload as a ‘back-bencher’ on the Council should not involve more than one or two evenings a month – and potentially some time reviewing documents etc in preparation for meetings.

There are, of course, also other activities in which the Council may take an interest, and you may additionally be asked to take a share of the duties in representing the Council on external organisations, working parties or inputting to other initiatives – but the time you give is at the end of the day up to the individual – and new councillors are not expected to take the lions share of the work!

Do I know enough to put myself forward as a Councillor?

Never under-estimate your own abilities! Each councillor will have something to offer the Council but you will not be expected to take direct responsibility for running the Council on the first day you are elected. Your main qualifications are to care for the community and to be willing to learn. Knowledge, experience and confidence will soon follow.

This also applies to getting used to speaking in public. You will not be expected to make regular ‘keynote speeches’; much of your time will be spent in discussion. However, in full Council you may have a relatively larger audience of other Councillors and even if we are very lucky the occasional member of the public sitting in to observe the proceedings (as all meetings are open to the public). If it helps, do not be afraid to make advance notes on what you plan to say – many people do this.

Generally, new councillors are good news! They bring new ideas and fresh enthusiasm, and that has to be good for the Council and the community.

What makes a good Councillor?

There is no real answer to this – but for sure the ability to listen, to be open minded – to have convictions and stand by them, to want to make things better – but also to be prepared that what you may want may not always be what is good for the community or what your fellow Councillors may feel. At the end of the day the PC is a democracy and it tries its best to work as a team for the good of the community.