The Government recently invited local authorities in Somerset, North Yorkshire and Cumbria to submit proposals for restructuring.
Restructuring can lead to the creation of larger local authorities, causing concerns they will be remote from the communities they serve.
One route to allaying this fear is to strengthen the role of parish and town councils, which cover much smaller areas. Previous restructuring processes, such as in Durham, Wiltshire and Cornwall in 2008-09, stressed the importance of working with parish and town councils to strengthen their role and their community voice.
But information about parish and town councils is not easy to find. This Insight gives an overview of where English parish and town councils are, their responsibilities and budgets.
New parish councils
Several dozen new parish councils have been created during the last 20 years. These include parishes in areas that have been restructured: St Austell (Cornwall), Salisbury (Wiltshire), Macclesfield (Cheshire East), Weymouth (Dorset).
But parishes have been created in other locations too. In some cases, this has happened in areas that, before 1974, had their own borough or district councils: Sutton Coldfield (Birmingham), Kidderminster (Worcestershire), Canvey Island (Essex); and also in areas that have previously been unparished, such as Queen’s Park (Westminster).
Larger areas have bigger budgets
Parish and town councils range hugely in population size. The council tax base (a rough measure of the number of properties in an area) varies from 37,101 in Sutton Coldfield Town Council to under 10 in 13 parishes.
Comparative data on budgets is not available, but larger town council budgets run to seven figures: for instance, Weymouth Town Council’s income in 2019-20 was just under £5 million.
Larger parish councils have substantial staff teams and budgets. They manage parks and open spaces, leisure facilities, footpaths and community facilities; whilst smaller ones do not.
Powers and functions
Most parish and town councils have very small budgets and don’t have the means to run public services. They typically focus on activities such as managing parks, car parks, footpaths, community centres, cemeteries, and other local amenities.
The largest may run more commercial operations such as leisure centres or museums. The only power available solely to parish councils is to obtain land for use as allotments.
More broadly, parish councils exercise a general consultative role on behalf of local people: for instance, they have statutory consultation rights on planning matters. At national level, they are represented by the National Association of Local Councils, and its county-level associations.
Where are England’s parish and town councils?
Although there are over 10,000 parish councils in England, their geographical coverage varies hugely. In rural counties, all or most of the area may be served by parish councils. In large cities and urban areas they are largely absent.
This means that despite their large numbers, only around 40% of the population of England is served by a parish council.
The pattern of representation is shown in the map below. 83 local authorities have no parish councils, and a further 37 have five or fewer. Most of these authorities lie in larger urban areas: Greater London, Liverpool, Greater Manchester, and the West Midlands. Many of the other authorities are small, densely-populated council areas like Cambridge, Middlesbrough, Lincoln, Plymouth, Barrow-in-Furness.
In other cases, the whole of a county area is covered by parish councils (‘parished’). Alternatively, most of a county may be parished, except for a few larger towns such as High Wycombe (Buckinghamshire) and Bexhill (East Sussex). Many such towns lost their district council in the major reorganisation of 1974, but no parish council was created to ‘replace’ them.
How do parish councils collect income?
Parish councils have the power to take a share of council tax bills (a precept) from their residents.
In 2020-21, parish council tax precepts ranged from £3.4 million (Weymouth) to £10 (Wharton, Cumbria). Collectively, however, parishes have access to considerable amounts of public money.
Total precept income across England in 2020-21 is estimated at £596.4 million. But like other local authorities, parishes are free not to set a precept and/or to seek income from other sources. Several hundred set no annual precept at all: some may have other lucrative sources of income, such as car parks.
Where to find information on parish and town councils
Data on parish and town councils is not collected in a single location. Much of this analysis is based on council tax data published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Details of councillors, candidates and other electoral data are available on district council websites. Parish council budgets and accounts are available on parish websites.
Economic and demographic data on parish areas is not available, as their boundaries do not coincide with census geographical divisions such as output areas (as used by the Office for National Statistics in calculating population estimates).
Parish and town councils: recent issues, House of Commons Library.
About the authors: Mark Sandford specialises in local government and Carl Baker specialises in health and geography statistics at the House of Commons Library.