Despite being the first tier of government in England, Parish Councils are the least democratic of all tiers, writes Joanie Willett. She explains why that is and argues that a big part of the solution lies in employing new communication strategies in order to effectively engage a broader demographic.
When we talk about British politics, there is a tendency to imagine the workings of Westminster. If we want to include a more regional dimension, then we might recall the English devolution agenda which gives a little more administrative control to cities and principal authorities, often with an accompanying Mayor. We might also think about our somewhat textured assortment of local government – Local Authorities supported by borough councils, and Unitary Authorities. But there is an additional layer of government, which in the hierarchical way in which British politics is imagined, is frequently overlooked by academic studies. Parish councils (which includes town councils) operate on a community basis, varying in size from representing a community of fewer than a hundred people, to Sutton Coldfield with over 75,000.
The National Association of Local Councils, which represents Parish Councils describes them as ‘the first tier of local government’. This reflects how parish councils are the closest tier of government to citizens, and therefore the most accessible. It is much easier and more straightforward to make changes to the communities within which we live and work in order to better accommodate our needs, than to a remote, distant, and relatively inaccessible national politics.
In recognition of the need for a vibrant local democracy, the The Localism Act 2011 seeks to decentralise administrative power from the state towards localities, empowering communities to enable them to make better responses to community problems, and over the course of the past few years Parish Councils have found themselves taking on many more responsibilities, including for libraries and public toilets.
The Localism agenda is to be welcomed. Vibrant communities with strong levels of civic participation are good for localities, good for the individuals that make up communities, and carry benefits for the much wider body politic; in turn, these effects improve life satisfaction, health, and individual and collective efficacy. Many of these effects congregate around Robert Putnam’s version of social capital, whereby strong civic participation helps to develop networks that bind communities together and connect communities with other communities. Strong civic inclusion can have the ancillary effect of supporting well developed local economies, with a wealth of material connecting the social capital of civic participation to regional economic development. Finally, strong civic participation by a broad range of actors improves legitimacy and, importantly, perception of the legitimacy of political decisions.
There are many different kinds of political participation. Some are informal, whereby local, public, private, and voluntary groups and individuals seek some kind of change in their communities; and some are more formal, involving standing for election, voting, campaigning for a candidate or political party. Both types are important, but if the formal structures of parish councils are to be as vibrant as they need to be, then engagement with formal political participation is also vital.
This is where British politics has a problem. In the May 2015 elections, only 20% of eligible Parishes contested their vacancies. In some cases, applications to become a Parish Councillor are so low that vacancies left by retiring councillors go unfilled. In some instances, Parish Councils are very comfortable with this, because it means that they are able to avoid the expense of an election. From one perspective, avoiding an election is an efficient way of managing local citizens’ Council Tax, but from the position of maintaining a vibrant and open local politics, this situation is a disaster.
Clearly, we are facing a crisis of community-based formal politics, at just the moment when the Localism agenda seeks to encourage and support Parish Councils to do more. Indeed, measures have recently been implemented to counter some practices which specifically tried to avoid holding elections. This is to be welcomed, but an important part of the question is to ask why so few people want to become Parish Councillors in the first instance.
In a recent University of Exeter study with Cornwall Council, we were told some interesting stories. On the one hand, Parish Councils had excellent brand recognition, as most of the 33 persons interviewed knew broadly what they were, and thought that Councillors enjoy their role. On the other hand, very few people knew what they do. This was not helped by a general perception that Parish Councillors tended to be of a particular, older, retired type of demographic group. As a consequence, this means that younger people in particular felt that councils did not represent their needs, or were not accessible.
It’s very common for people to claim that they are not able to play a role in community politics because they lack the time. But when we dug deeper, we found that there was much more to non-involvement than a lack of time. Instead, we often found stories of conflict One participant told us that she had previously been a councillor, but disagreement over the use of community resources for young people had created so much discord that she had become isolated and had felt that she had no option other than to move house to a different locality. Another participant told us that since she had to live and work in her village, the inevitable conflicts that she foresaw with the existing councillors would be detrimental to her livelihood and lifestyle. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle – a lack of diversity on Parish Councils means that community issues are approached from a narrow set of perspectives and possible solutions, which then amplifies the perception that Parish Councils are less relevant to the lives of many citizens.
Part of the problem lies in communication. Frequently, we were told about how communities and Parish Councils were both trying really hard to communicate with each other, but found it difficult to do so effectively. Sometimes, the ways that Parish Councils disseminate information is very different to how members of the community would like to receive it. Sometimes, Councils can be very wary of the kinds of response that they will get from the community when they manage to find ways of opening up a multi-way dialogue. This could have really damaging effects for Councils, and we heard stories about how less-than-effective use of communication meant that positive actions could easily be misconstrued, creating negative narratives.
So what can be done? One of the key factors that emerged from this research, is that people do want to be involved in their communities, and they do want to help to make positive change. But they also need to feel that this is an effective and productive use of their time. We suggest that one way of widening participation, and exploring new ways of communicating effectively, would be for councils to work with younger people – including those under the age of 18 – to explore ways of communicating across generational divides. This might include exploring ways of using social media and new technologies such as mobile phone applications.
Parish Councils have an enormous potential for helping to create vibrant communities, where individuals can share information and get involved in shaping the places they live in. They are the most accessible point of democratic engagement in the UK, and therefore are vital for reinvigorating our representative democracy. Now, we need to make sure that they are able to reach that potential.
Note: the above draws on the author’s published work (with Joe Cruxon) in British Politics.
Joanie Willett is Lecturer in Environmental Politics at the University of Exeter.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).
Thanks for the article – I agree with your comments about diversity and the unrepresentative nature of parish councils. This discourages many people who would make a great contribution from applying or staying as members.
How can this be changed?
Retaining the General Power of Competence is a powerful motivator for Town & Parish Councio’s to encourage elections processes to fill casual vacancies. It requires two-thirds of the Members to either have been elected or stood for election.
I’m intrigued by this piece, partly because it doesn’t reference any of the work being done by NALC on the topic of diversity in local councils and partly because it’s so reliant on anecdotes cherry picked form research work done for a report that isn’t linked to from the article.
I as also baffled by the reference to uncontested parishes in the 2015 elections. I get it if that’s the date of Cornwall’s local elections, and that the figure is for Cornwall, but not all counties had their all out elections in 2015 – so where is the data from?
There is some evidence, albeit incomplete, that suggests that parish councils may be more diverse (for instance in terms of LGBT participation) than the populations they serve. There is also some evidence that they may be at least as diverse as comparable upper tier councils, and that the figures for ethnic diversity are skewed by the facts that parishes are not common in the most ethnically diverse pats of England such as metropolitan areas.
As a Town Clerk I think there’s a need for a debate – I’m just worried that starting the debate on the basis of anecdote and weak evidence isn’t the best way forward.
Whilst being aware that NALC has been working on the diversity agenda I have not seen much in the way of outputs and as a parish councillor I have to say that my experiences have not been positive in terms of embracing new ideas, encouraging discussions and making best use of available talents. Only by understanding the communities being served – and there are many – and truly engaging with them can parish councillors create meaningful plans which are relevant to those communities. A debate is essential however who will lead on this?
This article resonates so well with my experiences of parish councils. Change will only happen if it is truly embraced.
Worth taking a close look at Scottish Community Councils where matters are more worrying. They cannot levy a rate. They await a subvention from Counties who are undercutting them with Area Development partnerships and the rest.
Worth noting that too few Parish Councils are willing to use their local rates to achieve much … but Portland in Dorset was a wildly intriguing example two years back going for a 1000% increase .. it had to back down but the attitude was spot on.
My own Parish Council hates elections. They co-opt new members from a list of hopefuls, which makes them self-selecting. As far as I know at least one committee Chairman has never been challenged at an election and routinely takes up here post unopposed.
I agree wholeheartedly that Parish Councils are in crisis, but it is not a democratic deficit that is the root of the problem, it is lack of resources. Money, expertise and time are in very short supply at a time when the Localism Act has brought greater opportunity, higher expectations and tighter regulation.
Local councils are funded entirely by the precept paid by residents. There is no financial or material support from central government, political parties or outside organisations. Councillors are not paid and In many cases all the work is done by the councillors themselves. It is no surprise that older and retired people are more likely to be able and willing to take on the job.
There is a strong feeling that Parish Councils are being used as a means of cutting costs by a government that does not understand how they work.
I am a Parish Councillor in a small Lincolnshire village. A Facebook or Twitter account would certainly improve communication but we don’t have the time to moderate it and respond to postings, nor the funds to employ someone to do it.
Great article Joanie – parish councils have a lot to offer providing they are grounded in community and NOT politics – by the way I’m an ex town clerk and a now a Parish Clerk and have spent 40 years in local government