New Localism on the march
1 July, 2005

Anna Randle, Head of Policy, NLGN
Local Council Review

Town and parish councils could be forgiven for feeling like the poor cousin of their larger local government relations. Dependent upon the goodwill of counties and unitaries to enable them to play a direct role in delivering services, they are often too small, too diverse and too local to hit the radar of central or local government thinking. Traditionally, it might be fair to say that parish and town councils have suffered from something of an image problem, most memorably captured by Andrew Marr’s comment that new powers for parishes to tackle anti-social behaviour raised images of blue-rinse ladies running around armed with ASBOs in search of naughty teenagers.

Over the last year however, this has begun to radically change and this most local tier of governance has found itself firmly at the front of Labour’s modernising agenda for local government and communities. New Localism, the idea that services, decisions and budgets should be devolved to the most local level possible, has become pivotal to government thinking about the best way to deliver services and engage local citizens. The ‘neighbourhoods’ agenda is the new game in town, and suddenly town and parish councils are being held up as beacons of citizen engagement and local service delivery.

New Localism implies different behaviour from central government by requiring government to give up powers and responsibilities to councils. Yet it also requires a different approach by councils: a willingness to devolve downwards, work with existing lower tiers, possibly create new area-based structures of their own, and facilitate the creation of new tiers of local governance. With the aim of engaging citizens in new ways, a range of options for local governance structures at the neighbourhood level – below the unitary or district council, and possibly ranging in size from one to several wards – are being considered.

These structures range from the consultative at one end of the spectrum, to more radical models which potentially offer citizens direct influence or control over services and assets, new levers over service agencies and powers to raise taxes to tackle local issues. They also include powers to issue ASBOs and take other direct action. Government has clearly stated its desire to create menus of options from which councils and citizens will choose new arrangements which are locally appropriate.

While such flexibility in the proposals has been welcomed by many in local government, signalling central government’s willingness not to impose a one size fits all model of local governance, there are some who have felt the discussion to be rather unfocused and vague because of a lack of clarity about what the new models might actually look like. What is clear is that existing local governance structures in the form of parish and town councils represent many of the elements under consideration for neighbourhood governance.

So what is it that the Government has identified in the parish model which it is keen to see replicated elsewhere? Firstly, town and parish councils have already undergone something of a renaissance in recent years, proving both their ability and willingness to deliver real local outcomes. The introduction of the Quality Parishes scheme has led to improvements in the capacity of parishes, and provided guarantees to other stakeholders about their performance. In addition, 150 new parish and town councils have been created in the last five years, and in a development away from the rural ‘Vicar of Dibley’ image, many of these have been in urban areas.

Town and parish councils, by virtue of their very local nature and the likelihood that they exist in areas of strong cultural and geographic identity, are very often extremely closely linked into their communities – providing vehicles for engagement. They have proved in many cases that they have the capacity to take on the delivery of local services from willing tiers of local government above them, often achieving more responsiveness to local needs and preferences than possible at a higher spatial level. Many of them also raise precepts on council tax for higher levels of local service, demonstrating that citizens will both accept such precepts, and that services can improve as a result.

For existing parish and town councils, the ongoing development of New Localism creates many opportunities. Tiers of local government above them are going to be required to demonstrate that they are prepared to engage and work at more local levels, devolving where possible. Parish and town councils may also be held up as examples of good practice from which other councils, central government and new local structures can learn in the development of the new neighbourhoods agenda. Although not about universal parishing, there seems a strong possibility that this agenda will see the creation of more parishes, particularly in urban areas; and particularly London, where the ban on parishes is to be lifted. It is also possible that a range of new governance arrangements at neighbourhood level might over time develop into institutions which more closely resemble parishes, or are formally constituted as such.

So it seems that the traditional role and image of parish and town councils is set to become cutting edge policy for citizen engagement and empowerment as the principles of New Localism develop into policy and practice across the full range of rural and urban areas in England. Andrew Marr and the Vicar of Dibley scriptwriters just may have to think again.