What is a Parish Council?
Parish Councils are the tier of local government closest to their electorate and best placed to serve local communities. They are local authorities created by statute and can only act where there is an express power or duty.
In law a Parish Council is a single corporate body and decisions taken are the responsibility of the council as a whole. A council is responsible for the services it provides, it establishes policies and decides how money will be raised and spent for the whole community. As a corporate body, the council can work in partnership with other organisations in its area.
A council can comprise of individual councillors representing smaller communities (wards or different villages) all of which may have different interests and its duty is to serve them all. A council will always attempt to make balanced, informed decisions, where it has statutory powers and duties to act, based on the differing needs of the whole community.
When certain criteria are met Parish Councils are eligible to use the General Power of Competence. This power gives them the opportunity to do anything that individuals generally may do’ (Localism Act 2011 sections 1 -8, specifically s1(1))
Parish Councils have the power to raise money through the local council tax. This gives them a degree of autonomy and continuity which may not be available to other community organisations.
While many councils meet monthly, council must hold at least 4 meetings a year, one of which must be the Annual Meeting of the Council (held in May).
Parish Councils are an essential part of the structure of local democracy and have a vital role in acting on behalf of the communities they represent. They:
- Give views, on behalf of the community, on planning applications and other proposals that affect the parish.
- Alert relevant authorities to problems that arise or work that needs to be undertaken.
- Help the other tiers of local government keep in touch with their local communities.
Powers and Duties
Parish Councils have a wide range of powers but very few duties.
A duty is an activity that must be carried out (Mandatory) e.g. Parish Councils must appoint a chairman and a clerk.
Statutory powers, granted by Parliament give parish councils the choice or opportunity to take action and are therefore discretionary.
The powers which have been vested in Parish Councils by Acts of Parliament are summarised below as a guide to Councillors and others. Each description is brief and is intended to be a general indication. It is not a complete list of every single power and duty.
Like all powers given to public bodies the powers of local councils are defined in detail in legislation and these details may include a requirement to obtain the consent of another body (for example the approval of the County Council to the provision of a car park).
Parish Councils must exercise their powers also subject to the provisions of the general law (for example planning permission is necessary for a sports pavilion).
Roles and Responsibilities
Each Parish Council is made up of individual Councillors who contribute to the work of the whole Council. Parish Councils are employers. The Parish Clerk works for and with the Council to action its decisions. Councils must protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and other people who might be affected by their business. They are responsible for spending public money lawfully and achieving the best value for money. Written rules of the Council are known as Standing Orders, they confirm internal administration procedures, procurement, and procedural matters for meetings.
The Clerk is the proper officer of the Council in law and ensures that the Council conducts its business lawfully. They are employed by the Council. The Clerk prepares informative agendas for meetings of the Council, this may be done in consultation with the Chair, the minutes of such meetings are completed by the Clerk. The Clerk will advise and give clear guidance to the Parish Councillors on local policy matters, ethical and procedural matters before decisions are reached. The Clerk is not answerable to any individual Councillor, not even the Chair and cannot be managed by individual Councillors. In larger Councils the Clerk may have the added responsibilities of supervising and managing other staff. The Clerk cannot be a Councillor at the same Council. The day to day work of a Clerk could include handling face to face or telephone queries about the Council, managing the Councils website, handling complaints, actions arising from meetings and purchasing basic office supplies.
The Chair is in a position of authority, responsible for ensuring that effective and lawful decisions are taken at meetings of the Council, this includes formally presiding at the meeting and maintaining order at meetings. In law, the Council must appoint a Chair, this is done as the first business of the May meeting each year, the Annual General Meeting. The Chair serves the role for a twelve month period. The Chair has no power to make decisions without the resolution of the Council. The Chair will often be the public face of the Council and will represent the Council at official events. They may be asked to speak on behalf of the Council and, in such circumstances, should only express the agreed views of the Council and not their personal views. Some Councils appoint a Vice-Chair but this is optional.
All Councillors are elected by the electors of the Parish every four years. For a vacancy there may be an election or a Councillor may be co-opted onto the Parish Council by a majority vote. Any persons over eighteen who is a citizen of the UK, the EU or the Commonwealth can be a Councillor if they are an elector in, work in, live in or live within a three miles area of the Parish. The primary purpose of a Councillor is to represent the views of all residents within the Parish, and they must adhere to the Seven Principles of Public Life which ensures transparency and accountability, these principles would be outlined in the Councils Code of Conduct. Councillors will often take personal responsibility for a specific project or advise in a specialist area in order to improve the effectiveness of the Council. The day-to-day work of a Councillor may include going to meetings of local organisations, going to meetings of bodies that affect the wider community, such as the police, the Highways Authority and schools and bringing parishioners concerns to the attention of the Council. Councillors must always remember that they represent the Council as a corporate body.
Responsible Financial Officer
The RFO advises the Council and makes sure that the Council complies with the Account and Audit Regulations. The RFO carries out all the statutory functions, ensuring the implementation of, and compliance with the Council’s Financial Regulations. The Financial Regulations are the ‘Standing Orders’ of the Council that control its financial affairs. The RFO ensures that there are procedures in place to record all financial transactions, income, and expenditure together with assets and liabilities. They are responsible for the production of the Council’s year end accounts and the relevant Annual Return as required by law, and provide a proper opportunity during the year for the exercise of electors’ rights in accordance with the law. The RFO is usually the Clerk in smaller councils, whilst in larger councils it can be a separate post and officer.