Parish and town councils are the smallest tier of governance in England, operating below ‘principal authorities’ (county, district and unitary councils). They manage local amenities such as village halls, footpaths, parks and cemeteries, and larger town councils may operate larger facilities such as leisure centres.

Government interest in parish and town councils

The Levelling Up White Paper, published in February 2022, announced a “review of neighbourhood governance in England”. This is in the context of a proposed Strategy for Community Spaces and Relationships, broadening the use of the Community Infrastructure Levy, and ideas such as ‘community covenants’ and a new approach to ‘community partnership’.

The Government’s review is to include how parish and town councils could be quicker and easier to establish. This follows similar initiatives during the early 2010s (see the Library briefing Parish and town councils: recent issues), which reflect the popularity of parish and town councils in Government thinking throughout that period. ‘Hyper-local democracy’ has also attracted attention in early 2022 from the national media and think-tanks. Parish and town councils can enable smaller villages or towns to exercise democratic control over public spaces and amenities in line with community needs.

Where are parish and town councils?

Parish and town councils cover some 91% of the geography of England, but only around 36% of the population. This is because, while most rural areas in England are entirely ‘parished’ – they have parish and town councils – many urban areas do not and are therefore said to be ‘unparished’.

The interactive map below shows parished and unparished areas in England. Areas with green shading are parished, and zooming in will show the parish name and the local authority they are in. Orange areas are unparished, and purple areas are unparished but have “charter trustees” which maintain the town or city charter in the absence of a parish or town council.

Most areas in England that have no (or very few) parish or town councils fall into one of the following categories:

  • Areas within Greater London and the adjoining urban area. Queen’s Park, in Westminster City Council, is the only parish council in the Greater London area. Similarly, many local authority district councils adjoining London, such as Epsom & Ewell, Thurrock, Runnymede and Watford, have no parish councils.
  • The major urban areas of England. The wider urban areas around Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, and Newcastle (for instance) have very few parish councils.
  • Small, tightly-bounded urban councils. Many smaller council areas that are entirely urban in character have no parish councils within their boundaries. Examples include Norwich, Derby, Hull, Reading, Blackpool, Hastings and Stoke.
  • Unparished ‘gaps’ within largely parished areas. Principally these are larger towns surrounded by rural areas. Examples include Great Yarmouth, Spalding, Rugby, High Wycombe, Coalville, and Chester-le-Street.

Why are there gaps?

There are several reasons why particular areas may not have a parish or town council:

  • The area may have had a county borough council or urban district council before the comprehensive reorganisation of 1974, and no ‘successor council’ has been established since. In this case, often most of the surrounding county area will be parished, but a small number of gaps might exist;
  • In many smaller urban council areas, no councils have been created under the relevant principal council. A few such areas created short-lived ‘neighbourhood councils’ in the 1970s. In the former London County Council area (inner London), the only parish council that has ever existed is Queen’s Park Community Council, established in 2014;
  • Parish councils have existed in the past but have been abolished in wider reforms. This was the norm, for instance, when new county boroughs were extended to reflect expanding urban areas in the first half of the 20th century;
  • A parish council has existed, but has been abolished, leaving the area unparished. It’s rare that they are abolished, but examples in recent decades include Letchworth (North Hertfordshire), Southsea (Portsmouth), Byfleet (Woking) and Lickey End (Bromsgrove).

New councils for urban areas?

A small number of new parish and town councils are established each year via local community governance reviews. Sometimes this happens when county and district councils are restructured into unitary authorities. For instance, new town councils were established as part of restructuring processes in Cornwall, Shropshire and Northumberland (2008-09) and Dorset and Northamptonshire (2021).

The fact that most unparished areas in England are urban means that, if the Levelling Up White Paper were to lead to any substantial growth in the numbers of parish and town councils, that would mostly occur in urban areas.

New parish councils in urban areas might be distinct in character from most existing parish councils. For instance, they would likely cover comparatively large populations and therefore manage larger budgets. This in turn may mean they deliver a broader range of services than small parish councils.

They might also have substantial staff teams, while a smaller parish council may solely employ a full-time or part-time clerk. Existing town councils in larger towns often feature councillors representing political parties, whereas smaller, rural parish councils rarely do so.

In addition, if parish councils are established within an urban authority, the boundaries between the different communities they covered would need to be agreed upon. There are no legal requirements for parish council areas to follow historical boundaries, or council ward boundaries. This is a potentially emotive subject, and it may be difficult to define boundaries that are acceptable to the local community. Concerns over boundaries were one issue that led Tower Hamlets to reject the proposal for a Spitalfields and Banglatown Town Council in 2019.

About the author: Mark Sandford is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in local government and devolution in England.

Photo by Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash

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