History and 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 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 and the influence of the church was not easily diminished.
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, Duties and Responsibilities of Local Councils
The Local Government Act 1972 sets out many of the procedural duties of a local council but also provides a wide range of powers for it to choose to exercise if it wishes to do so. However, there is a huge raft of legislation relative to local councils that mainly provide powers to take positive action for their communities. Local councils are local authorities and they may only spend public money on projects or actions for which they have a Statutory Power (a reasonably comprehensive list can be found in the Good Councillors Guide) and they must comply with duties that are set out for them in legislation.
Small/Medium and Large Local Councils
The range of assets held by a local council will vary from council to council, with some councils 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 serve the community in other ways, such as creating a Neighbourhood Plan which will serve as statutory planning guidance or may arrange events such as summer fairs, bonfire nights, or Christmas celebrations. 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, multi-use games area, recreation grounds, community centres, war memorials, woodlands and open spaces, village greens, 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 may 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 separate Responsible Finance Officer and/or Deputy Town Clerk, Administration Assistant/Receptionist, Cemetery Administrator, Mayors Secretary, Planning Officer, and Events Manager. In a smaller council there may be just one officer, i.e. the Clerk, who works from home and deals with some of these responsibilities.
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. The Government is also taking a close interest on precept increases around the country and although the parish sector is not capped, ie councils can precept for as much as they need to run their authority and provide services, the Government will want to see that any precept increase(s) are justified. Councils must have a clearly defined budget that will withstand enquiry.
A local council can 'borrow' money (i.e. arrange a loan) for the purposes of exercising their powers, 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. Permission or sanction for the loan is given by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and application is made via YLCA in the first instance. When sanction is granted, a council can apply to any reputable source for the funds but most authorities use the Public Works Loans Board - https://www.dmo.gov.uk/responsibilities/local-authority-lending-pwlb/about-pwlb/
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 in the 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 but where the business is deemed to be confidential by the Council, it can also exclude members of the press and public for that particular item of business.
The role of a clerk to a local council
The role of a 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 councils range from small village councils where the clerk may only work a few hours per week from home, to large town Councils where the clerk would likely 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 councils may be a separate role. In addition to administrative skills a parish clerk and RFO will need financial management skills to be able to manage the council's budget, 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 a council's consideration for any contracted out works. The Clerk will need to be able to interpret legislation which applies to the parish sector, such as the Local Government Act 1972. A local council administers its business using public funds called the 'precept' (explained above) 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 and also imperative that a local council complies with the legislation that is set out for it.
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 responsibilities 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 is summoned to attend meetings of the council; this is a legal summons. 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 to the local council. 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, forward thinking and involved. All councils must be aware that they are an employer and therefore have a duty 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, it is the corporate body that is the council, that is responsible for the financial decisions made and implemented. A clerk is employed to advise and seek advice on behalf of the council to help ensure that councillors make informed 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 from YLCA to any council, large or small. Legislation allows for councils to pay for training and ongoing training for councillors is sound business management. Councils are advised to adopt a training policy for both councillors and council employees and to ensure that there is an annual budget to support this.
All councillors are expected to abide by their council's Code of Conduct. The responsibilities detailed in the Code 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 and integrity.
Parish councillors are normally elected for a term of four years. Elections are held on the first Thursday in May. 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 local 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 18 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.
Parish Meetings are found in both parishes that have a council and those that do not. Legislation for the convening and procedures of a parish meeting can be found in the Local Government Act 1972, Schedule 12. Parish meetings are not meetings of the local councils; the parish meeting is a meeting for all of the electors in the parish. YLCA has produced an advice note on parish meetings and this can be found below.