What is a Local (Parish) Council?
Parish councils are the first tier of local government and were created by statute in 1894. Previously, for many years, parish affairs had been administered by a vestry, or meeting of the village inhabitants. Usually the squire, the parson and the principal ratepayers dominated these meetings. Some became “select vestries” and were only open to those to those people deemed “suitable” to serve.
Due to a general movement towards greater democracy and a desire to break the power of the Church of England over the lives of Nonconformists and nonbelievers, a Bill was promoted to create parish councils. After a difficult passage through Parliament and many amendments, this Bill became an Act in 1894. Its effect was to transfer all non-ecclesiastical functions from the Church to the parish councils. Some other functions were added, such as those relating to the burial of the dead.
The regulations under which the first parish councils operated were not very tight in the beginning and the influence of the Church was not easily diminished. In fact in the early days the Chairman would usually be the parson and would at times be co-opted on to the parish council if he had not been elected in order to take up the role.
There were many anomalies and difficulties encountered in the years between 1894 and 1972, when the present Local Government Act came into being. Nowadays, local councils are closely regulated. The lines of responsibility are clearly laid down, there is generally much more openness, and those people that local councils were formed to serve are fully aware of what is being done on their behalf and are in fact encouraged to participate.
Powers and Responsibilities of Local (Parish) Councils
The Local Government Act 1972 is the one most often referred to when describing the modern powers and responsibilities of local councils but it is by no means the only one. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 gives them the ability to pay for measures to combat crime and the fear of crime in the parish.
Local councils may only spend public money on projects or actions for which they have a statutory power. If this rule is not adhered to, the auditor has the right to “fail” the accounts and each of the councillors could be required to repay the money illegally spent.
As in 1894 there is still only one power that a local council must consider using, if requested, and that is to provide allotments. All other powers are voluntary.
Local (Parish) Council Income
Local Councils are empowered to raise money for their activities through a tax, called the “precept”, on the residents of the parish. This is collected on their behalf by the principal authority, in our case Leeds City Council, in addition to the normal council tax collected. It is then paid to the local council in two equal instalments.
It is up to the local council how much it demands by way of precept but when setting the annual budget the council must take into account how much it intends to spend and on what. Councils must have a clearly defined budget that will withstand enquiry.
A local council can “borrow” money (i.e. arrange a loan) up to a set limit, but permission must be sought first, it has to be for a defined purpose, and proof has to be given that the loan plus interest can be repaid.
Grants can also be obtained from various sources, including the higher levels of local government but these are usually for specific projects and are therefore no good for general administration and maintenance purposes.