What is a Town or Parish Council?

It is a statutory local authority set up under the Local Government Act 1972. It operates in the area of a defined civil parish or group of parishes. In Cumbria there are three types of local authority – the County Council, the District or Borough Councils and the Town or Parish Councils. A Town Council has exactly the same powers as Parish Council – it is simply that the council has decided to take on the title ‘town’ as more appropriate. (In the following paragraphs references to a parish council apply to a town council as well).

Who is on the council?

The council is made up of councillors elected by the electors of the parish. Every year the council elects one of them to be the Chairman of the council (called the Mayor of a Town Council). The council has a paid officer who organises meetings and helps to carry out the council’s decisions – this officer is usually called the Clerk. The Clerk does not vote or make decisions; that is the role of the councillors.

What powers do Parish Councils have?

They have a wide range of powers (Powers and Duties) which essentially relate to local matters, such as looking after community buildings, open space, allotments, play areas, street lighting, bus shelters, car parks and much more. They also have the power to raise money through the council tax.

To whom are they accountable?

The electors of the parish. Elections to parish councils are held every four years. The council’s accounts are subject to scrutiny by the external auditor and but since the Standards Board for England was abolished, any alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct by individual councillors can be discussed initially with the Chairman of the Council to see if a resolution can be found, if not then the District or Borough Monitoring officers can be consulted.

Can I attend meetings of the council?

Yes, all meetings of the council and its committees must be open to the general public and the press, except in very exceptional circumstances. The time and place of meetings must be advertised beforehand – usually on the parish noticeboard. The Clerk will be able to give you details of forthcoming meetings.

Can I speak at the meeting?

You cannot speak while the normal business of the meeting is being conducted. However, it is good practice (which nearly all councils follow) to allow some time at the meeting when members of the public may address the council on an issue that concerns them. The Clerk will provide you with details about how this works in your council.

Can I see the minutes of council meetings and other papers?

Under the Freedom of Information Act 2010 you may see and have a copy of the ‘recorded’ information held by the council (unless it is classed as exempt information in the Act). This includes reports, minutes, correspondence and emails. The information has to be provided within 20 working days. There may be a photocopying charge.

How do I find out who the councillors are?

From the Clerk or on the Parish website. There is often a list on the parish noticeboard.

How do people get elected to the council?

Elections are held every four years and will usually coincide with a District Council election. Details of when elections are held can be found by clicking here. A Public Notice of a forthcoming election will be placed on noticeboards.

Sometimes the number of people who put their names forward for election equals or is less than the number of seats on the council. In these circumstances there is not a poll on election day and the people nominated are deemed elected. If the number deemed elected is less than the number of seats on the council, then the council is required to co-opt people onto the council to fill the vacancies.

If a seat on the council becomes vacant between normal elections then a special procedure has to be followed which can lead to an election or, more usually, the co-option of a new councillor. It is good practice for a council to advertise widely in the parish if it is seeking to make a co-option.

Do councillors have to declare any financial or other personal interests they have in a matter under discussion by the council?

Yes. All councillors have to abide by a Code of Conduct which sets out which interests have to be declared. They also have to enter relevant financial and other interests in a special Register that is open to inspection by members of the public. The council’s Clerk has a copy of the Code of Conduct and the Register or it can be inspected at the District Council’s offices.

What do I do if I have a complaint against the council?

First of all speak informally to the clerk or chairman to see if there is an easy way of resolving the matter. Failing that, write formally to the council (send the letter to the Clerk). Ask for a copy of the council’s complaints procedure. The council will consider your complaint at its next meeting.

Hopefully, this will lead to a resolution. If it does not, then the next steps will depend on the nature of the complaint. If you believe there has been a breach of the Code of Conduct you need to write to the Monitoring Officer at your District Council. If you believe there has been some other kind of financial or other impropriety you should initially discuss it with the District Council’s Monitoring Officer who will advise. Please note that the Local Government Ombudsman (who investigates maladministration) does not have any jurisdiction with respect to town and parish councils.

What powers do Parish Councils have with respect to planning applications?

Parish Councils are consulted by the relevant Planning Authority (which could be either the District/Borough Council, the National Park Authority or the County Council) on all planning applications. Any views expressed by the Parish Council will be taken into account by the Planning Authority before a decision is made, providing the points made are relevant to the determination of a planning application. The final decision is made by the Planning Authority, not the Parish Council.

Forming a Local Council

CALC believes that all communities, whether in a rural or an urban setting, can obtain real benefits from an active local council serving their interests. Some of the urban areas of Cumbria are currently unparished and therefore do not have a local council to represent the interests of the communities within them. A local council is democratically elected and therefore has a legitimacy to speak on behalf of its community and, in CALC’s view, this needs to be recognised in the way other public authorities conduct consultations on new policies and proposals.

Code of Conduct

All councillors have to abide by a Code of Conduct. The Code sets out general principles of conduct all councillors must follow as well as the disclosable pecuniary and other interests councillors have to declare. These interests are open for inspection by members of the public on the relevant district council website and on the parish council’s website, if they have one. You should contact your council’s clerk for a copy of your council’s adopted Code of Conduct

Good Practice for Local Councils

Town and parish councils (known as ‘local councils’) are part of local government in England and have many legal requirements to satisfy in their day to day business. In addition, years of experience have shown that there are certain ways of working which can be considered ‘good practice’. The Cumbria Association of Local Councils (CALC) has brought these legal requirements and some of the more important aspects of good practice together to form a guide of ‘recommended standards’ which it hopes all local councils in Cumbria will follow.

This Good Council Guide is a guide to CALC’s recommended standards. It explains what the standards are, why they are important and how they can be achieved. It seeks to help all councils become ‘good councils’.