Grass roots tier
The role of the local council as the first tier of local government is that of the local authority which is the nearest elected body to the electors, and today there is a trend for more and more decisions to be taken at a local level. As a result of this, the role of the local councillor is becoming increasingly important. The decisions taken by local authorities vitally affect the quality of life within their area, and the role of the local council is of critical concern to the community it represents. Whilst there are broad similarities between one local authority and another, each has its own way of doing things. This depends upon history, tradition, and the statutory powers and responsibilities they possess.
As a tier of government, local councils are elected bodies with discretionary powers and rights laid down by Parliament to represent their communities and provide services for them. Parishes vary greatly in size. The majority are very small (40% represent fewer than 500 people). In contrast, 8% of the councils (those over 5,000 in population) represent 49% of the population with a local council. Where the population of the parish is very small, there may be no parish council, but electors may still meet together as a Parish Meeting.
Roles and Powers
What makes up a parish council?
A parish council in England consists of such number of councillors as may be fixed from time to time, not being less than five. Where a parish has a relatively large population, or where the population is scattered over a wide area, or where one parish contains two or more sections with separate interests, it may be convenient to divide the parish into wards for the purpose of electing councillors.
A councillor is elected not only to represent his or her constituents but also to take decisions affecting the area of the council as a whole.
He or she has many different roles including corporate decision maker, corporate employer, policy formulator, representative on external bodies, citizens advocate and corporate protector of their parish and its environment.
While some small parishes appoint an unpaid volunteer as Clerk, most councils employ a salaried Clerk whose overall responsibility is to carry out the policy decisions of the Council.
The Clerk is the head of the council's administration and is the 'Proper Officer'. He or she is often the only employee and therefore also acts as the Responsible Financial Officer.
The Clerk ensures that the business of the council runs smoothly and efficiently and is conducted in accordance with the law. He or she also ensures that the council's financial transactions are properly authorised and recorded.
A local council must hold an annual meeting each year. In addition to the annual meeting, a local council in England must hold at least three other meetings each year. Meetings of a local council may take place within or outside its area. They cannot be held in premises licensed for the sale of intoxicating liquor unless there is no other suitable room available either free of charge or at a reasonable cost. Public notice of meetings has to be given (at least three clear days for Council Meetings). In addition, every member of the council is entitled to receive a summons specifying the business to be transacted at a council meeting. Only specific business included in the summons should be transacted at a council meeting. There are statutory provisions dealing with aspects of meetings, for example, quorum, manner of voting, and the recording of minutes. The public, including the press, are entitled to attend parish meetings under the Public Bodies (Admissions to Meetings) Act 1960.
Parish councillors are elected for a term of four years. Elections are held on the first Thursday in May. The next ordinary elections are scheduled for 2015. The right to vote at any local government election is dependent upon the person's name having been entered in the current register of local government electors which is published annually. In all cases, the ordinary election of parish councillors is conducted by means of nomination of candidates by two electors and, if necessary, a poll. A person (unless disqualified) is qualified to be elected to be a councillor if he/she is a British subject, a Commonwealth citizen or a citizen of the Irish Republic if on the relevant day he/she is 21 years of age or over and (1) is and continues to be a local elector for the parish, (2) has during the whole of the 12 months preceding that day occupied as owner or tenant any land or other premises in the parish, (3) his/her principal or only place of work during those 12 months has been in the parish, or he/she has during the whole of those 12 months resided in the parish or within three miles of it.
The Parish Meeting may only precept for expenditure relating to specific functions, powers and rights which have been conferred on it by legislation.
The main powers are set out in sections 9 and 13 and Part III of schedule 12 to the Local Government Act 1972 as amended ("the 1972 Act"). Unless indicated otherwise, references in this note to sections are references to sections in the 1972 Act and references to paragraphs are references to paragraphs in schedule 12 to the 1972 Act.
Section 39(2) of the Local Government Finance Act 1972 provides that a Parish Meeting is a precepting authority.