Maura McKeon is a Young Fabian and member of the contributing writer team. She tweets at @maurapoppins.
All views are Maura’s own and not that of Durham County Council.
An unassuming building sits at the edge of my estate in Bowburn, County Durham. Looking at it, there are no signs of the sleepless nights spent trying to keep it open. It houses the Bowburn Youth Project, one of our village’s most active and beloved community organisations. In 2016, with over one third of its central grant funding lost to austerity, Durham County Council was unable to maintain its universal youth provision, and clubs like Bowburn’s faced an uncertain future. Thankfully, the village had a last line of defence against austerity. Cassop-cum-Quarrington parish council, which covers Bowburn and its nearby villages, stepped in to plug the financial gap and keep the service going. The ‘youthie’ has gone from strength to strength since; it houses our community gym and offers special sessions for young mothers and teenagers not in education, employment or training. The club is now planning a programme against holiday hunger, and a mentoring scheme for older attendees. It is hard to imagine how this would have happened without Cassop-cum-Quarrington’s intervention, and they are not the only parish council to take on extra responsibilities in response to local authority cutbacks. When the leisure centre at nearby Coxhoe found itself under threat, their Parish Council raised its precept to cover the initial cost of maintaining it. The Active Life Centre is now thriving financially, and has attracted hundreds of thousands of pounds of external funding to the village. Cast aside your visions of Dibley and old men who say ‘no no no’ to everything, smaller councils can be our last line of defence against the Tory assault on our communities, but they are often sorely underutilised.
Despite the name, parish councils are secular authorities, covering areas called ‘civil parishes’. The smallest can serve hamlets of fewer than 100 people, the largest represents 70,000 people in Weston-Super-Mare. Councils covering a whole town can call themselves a town council, but they have the same powers and responsibilities as other parishes, just on a larger scale. Each parish council has a clerk to run it, which can include everything from financial responsibilities to organising minutes and buying shrubberies. Like any other council, they can employ officers to perform specific functions, such as community engagement and finance officers, and they can hire staff to undertake services like youth provision. As such, they are a key public-sector employer with duties of responsibility to their staff, and have the potential to play an important role in the broader Labour movement. Recently, Brandon and Byshottles Parish Council became the first to endorse the TUC’s Dying to Work campaign, with other local councils following suit.
Parish Councils have two powerful weapons; the first is their precept, a relatively small tax paid by residents according to property value, that funds the council’s operations. At the moment, Parish Councils have the right to increase their precept by whatever percentage they deem suitable, without holding a referendum. For reference, other levels of local government are capped at 2.99% maximum, with an extra 2% for adult social care. Sadly, time may be running out on this particular freedom, as the government plans to introduce the same caps for Parish Council precepts as they do for other forms of Council Tax. The second weapon is their right to undertake some of the services offered by higher tiers of local government. Parish councils have already taken on a range of responsibilities, from youth provision in Durham to libraries in Swindon and footpaths and roads in authorities across the country. The combination of financial flexibility and broad scope of power gives Parish Councils the potential not just to take on these responsibilities, but to tailor them more to their community’s needs and in turn make them more sustainable. This local knowledge is a Parish Council’s most important asset and it does not limit itself to services, it extends to the physical environment around them.
As part of their remit, Parish Councils are statutory consultees for planning applications, so whenever a planning application is submitted, they have the chance to respond on behalf of residents. Although a Parish Council’s support for or objection to an application does not guarantee the desired outcome, they can ensure that the application is considered democratically at a committee, which gives residents the opportunity to have their say in person and potentially change the outcome. Some Parish Councils have the authority to develop neighbourhood plans, deciding on issues such as settlement boundaries, building styles and protection of key environmental assets. Put simply, they help to decide where houses get built. Neighbourhood plans can become a factor in the outcome of planning applications, and are an effective vehicle for communities to shape the future of their physical environment. They do more than prohibit development in undesirable locations, a parish council can use theirs to encourage development and regeneration with the consent of residents.
Despite these benefits, many communities do not have a Parish Council. Currently, around one third of the country is served by Parish Councils, and until 2008 it was illegal to set up a parish council in a London borough (Queen’s Park became the first in 2014). For the remaining two-thirds of communities, they can take the initiative and campaign for representation at Parish level. If more than 7.5% of the electorate signs a petition in favour, the process can begin. Many Parish Council elections are uncontested, and some struggle to fill every seat. If a seat remains vacant, an interested resident can write to the clerk and ask to be considered for the position (‘co-opted’). Vacancies in Parish Councils can have long-term political repercussions at higher levels of government. If, say, a Parish Council in a Tory-dominated area has a vacancy, and a local Labour member is co-opted to fill it, the local party can use this as an opportunity to raise their profile and build a portfolio of achievements for use in future local government elections. Likewise, opposition parties can use the same tactic in Labour-dominated areas and threaten us in our heartland communities. Either way, Parish Councils have such potential that an unfilled vacancy is a wasted opportunity for local parties to either make their mark or be more ambitious in the services they deliver. They are also the ideal way for aspiring public servants to gain experience of putting their ideas into practice.
At a time when young people are finding their voice in our democracy, we are woefully underrepresented at all levels of government. If you have a vision for progressive change in your local community, if you want a taste of government in action, consider running for your Parish Council, or investigate the possibility of creating one. After eight years of Tory austerity unravelling the fabric of our society, our communities need as much hope and protection as we can give them.