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Parish councils: an unlikely urban safety net

JK Rowling’s novel The Casual Vacancy depicted the parish council as a centre of bourgeois viciousness. But even in big cities, setting up a parish council could be one way for local communities at risk of losing their playgrounds and libraries to save local services.

Parish councils aren’t just for villages, and are nothing to do with churches. And with enough public support, new ones can be set up where they don’t already exist. Whereas larger authorities must hold a referendum if they want to increase council tax by more than 3.99%, parish and town councils do not, giving them considerable autonomy in raising money. So for communities wishing to protect spending on parks, youth centres and libraries, parish councils can be a safety net.

Cuts to local services mean that in many parishes across England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland have different arrangements) the precept – the extra council tax charged by parishes – is going up. Where district and other authorities can no longer afford to run services, parishes are picking up the tab. The BBC reported recently on rises, many in the north, of several hundred per cent spread over four years. Darley and Menwith parish council in Yorkshire has announced a one-off increase of 170% to fund a new sports pavilion roof.

Parishes collect just 1.7% of the £26bn raised through council tax overall, so even eye-watering percentages are peanuts compared with the budgets of bigger councils. The average precept in 2016/17 was £54.15 (just over £1 a week), the average rise 6%.

I was part of a group that set up a parish council in Queen’s Park, north-west London, a few years ago, and for the past year have chaired our council. Our neighbourhood of 12,000 people is still the only civil parish in the capital. Residents will see their precept rise by 4.5% this month – under 20p a month on the average bill – but this increase has enabled the community council to provide a grant to our youth centre, which lost all its Westminster City council funding last year.

Did we set up a parish council to plug such gaps? No. Youth services ought to be statutory, and council tax bills for Queen’s Park residents in band E properties are now £46 higher than elsewhere in our borough. The fact that cuts are forcing parish councils to step into shoes vacated by bigger councils is cause for regret, even rage.

But there is an upside. Precept income has also provided additional funds for our neighbourhood park, where a wildlife area locked for years is now open. We have held on to our summer festival and November fireworks, and are working with partners on a jobs advice project. Our parish council can’t fill all the holes created by cuts to frontline services since 2010. But it is better than nothing.

There is another role for parish councils. The world is widely acknowledged to be in a phase of “democratic recession” – a phrase coined by political scientist Larry Diamond – with the hopes of the Arab spring a distant memory and authoritarians on the rise from Turkey to the US. But at the grassroots level, in much of Britain, there is little to retreat from. Most people find the idea of putting themselves up for election to anything utterly foreign. Even the school curriculum is largely empty of politics. However, parishes – if promoted in imaginative ways, as they have been in places such as Frome, Somerset – can provide new ways into local democracy for people who might never get involved in party politics. Indeed, about half of England’s 10,000 parish councils are not party political.

I am not proposing parish councils as a cure-all. There are issues with any form of voluntarism: time is money, and only some people can afford to give it away (parish councillors’ allowances are tiny, and many are retired). But in our divided and individualistic society, the pooling of resources by people who want to do things together should be supported. Civil parishes offer a model of local organisation that is progressive because it is democratic. And if you believe in public spaces such as playgrounds, libraries and sports pitches, there is no better place to make the argument for them than on the ground.