BBC BLOGS - Mark Easton's UK
« Previous | Main | Next »

Power to the parish

Mark Easton | 16:24 UK time, Monday, 13 December 2010

It has been described to me as "a terrifying leap in the dark". Buried within the arcane text of the Localism Bill [667KB PDF] is a change which would effectively hand over hundreds of millions of pounds from English local authorities to rural parish councils and new ward-based councils in urban areas. Instead of being limited to maintaining the war memorial, civic clock or public conveniences, parishes and wards would suddenly be given real power backed up by real money.

Mother with two children at war memorial


Some see the change as a real commitment to localism, others as a recipe for disaster. If it goes ahead as planned, it may well amount to the biggest change to grass-roots politics in England since universal suffrage.

The parish council has its origins in the ancient Saxon and Norman villages of feudal England. Since 1894, when they were recognised in statute, grass-roots politics has been conducted in draughty English village halls. But for almost as long the parish council has been ridiculed as a refuge for the do-gooder, the self-serving and the strange.

But now neighbourhoods are to be given a "meaningful proportion" of what's called the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) to spend on their local area. Sources at the Department for Communities and Local Government estimate that CIL is worth hundreds of millions of pounds a year and parish/ward councils could get "up to 50%" of that.

Community Infrastructure Levy - The Bill will require local authorities to allocate a proportion of Community Infrastructure Levy revenues back to the neighbourhood from which it was raised. This will allow those most directly affected by development to benefit from it.  

Decentralisation Minister Greg Clark told the BBC today:

"They'll get tens of thousands, sometimes even hundreds of thousands of pounds a year coming into their communities for them to spend on a community centre, play facilities for children, perhaps to refurbish some of the local roads and local facilities under their direct control - very locally."


Currently, if a local authority gives permission for a private development it demands a Community Infrastructure Levy in return. So, say Tesco wants to build a new superstore, they might well have to agree to fund some capital project like a school or a new traffic system as well as handing over a cash lump sum before they get the green light. Under the government's plans, local people living near the development would get a sizeable chunk of that levy.

As well as money, parishes and wards will have a lot more influence. They will be encouraged to devise a neighbourhood plan to determine what development is allowed in their community subject to a referendum.

They might take over the running of some council services - parks, post offices or ponds. And local authorities will be required to consult the parish/ward representatives on new housing schemes which affect their neighbourhood.

There would be an expectation that if a local authority benefits from the New Homes Bonus (central government agrees to match council tax from new homes for six years) some of that money should be earmarked for the community.

Giving power to the people has a popular ring to it. But what power and to which people? There are some who are concerned that grass-roots localism might translate as dangerous amateurism.

The details are yet to be thrashed out but the government appears committed to pumping new life into the parish and ward. In the end it comes down to how much we trust local people to use their new powers wisely and well.

Update 0914, Tuesday 14 December: Some correspondents seem convinced that the committee portrayed in the Vicar of Dibley clip I used on my TV news reports on this story last night is not a parish council but a parochial church council. I am happy to put their minds at rest. The opening episode of the series sees the character David Horton calling "this meeting of Dibley Parish Council" to order and he is described on the programme's website as '"Chairman of the Parish Council". The fact that the vicar sits on the (fictional) committee does not exclude the council from discussing matters beyond the church. If viewers felt the portrayal was inaccurate or unfair, I suggest their grievance is with the Vicar of Dibley and not me.



or register to comment.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.