Town and parish (local) councils can be an integral part of vibrant communities, along with voluntary and other community sector organisations. However, harnessing this potential is difficult. Town and parish councils have a wide range of powers, but limited duties. They also vary greatly. Size, capacity and appetite are different from local council to local council. Many parishes are small, with a part-time clerk and have little in common with the largest and most active town councils. This means that the roles they undertake reflect their local appetite and capacity. Even in neighbouring parishes, individual councils may choose very different roles.
Principal councils (district, county, unitary etc) also vary in their approach to working with parish and town councils. Some have been very proactive in working with the local council sector to build ambitious programmes of delegation and devolution. Others have less enthusiasm, sometimes shaped by examples of negotiations that have failed, or by concerns about capacity.
At their best, and whatever the scale of their activity, town and parish councils bring:
- a close knowledge of the needs of their communities, with ability to tailor activity accordingly
- an ability to mobilise their communities, coordinating and harnessing individuals and groups to address local priorities
- action that is backed by an ability to raise money locally through a precept.
A key finding of this work is that successful deeper engagement of town and parish councils cannot be imposed by a principal council
Local action must involve leadership from both principal and local councils and will evolve through experience.
This document sets out a framework to guide principal councils who are interested in supporting parish and town councils to play an increased role in local service delivery and place-shaping. It focuses on three areas:
- Building trust - the underlying principles, shared commitments and ongoing dialogue. The key components are:
- a clear statement of intent, ideally co-produced with the town and parish councils in the area, about the purpose, scope and mechanisms for delegation or devolution to the ultra-local level
- scoping and listening, to build an understanding of the town and parish councils in the area
- providing clear information and technical detail about current services or assets as part of a negotiation
- provision of material support, or funding, to ensure sustainability.
- An implementation toolkit – practical approaches and material for how devolution/responsibility shifts will be achieved. This includes:
- a clear process to manage expectations and set a road-map
- clarity about legal or contractual mechanisms for delegation or devolution arrangements
- forms and criteria to ensure transparency
- capacity building – a set of considerations to help local councils build their capacity for success.
- Other enabling factors for supporting a context of partnership. These cover:
- collaboration between counties, districts and town and parish councils in “three tier” areas
- the concept of parish clusters.
This framework has been built from insights from members and practitioners in both the principal and local council sectors and is supported by a selection of case studies to illustrate how it can be applied in practice.
However, the framework must be applied with realism. The diversity of aspiration among both principal and town and parish councils means that it is not realistic to expect a ‘big bang’ of empowerment. A consistent theme of the research undertaken for this project is that success rely on dialogue; patient building on achievements and learning from experience; and careful balancing of policy and softer political and personal relationships. Local action must involve leadership from both principal and local councils and will evolve through experience.
This document presents a framework for principal councils looking to support parish and town (local) councils to play an increased role in local service delivery and place-shaping. While it is aimed at principal councils, the research has also been steered by interviews and discussion with representatives of the local council sector.
Shared Intelligence was commissioned to create this framework by the Local Government Association’s (LGA) People and Places Board which represents non-metropolitan areas in England. As a result, the research for this framework has focused specifically on the non-metropolitan experience. Many of the concepts in the framework should nevertheless be relevant to urban councils which have town or parish councils in their areas.
The document includes some reflections about factors that may need to change in national policy to make this framework successful.
Why the focus on town and parish councils?
The potential of parish and town councils to contribute to vibrant and successful local and community governance has grown noticeably in the last decade. The Localism Act 2011, which created a power of general competence for parish and town councils that meet set criteria is one important factor in that. It also created the concept of neighbourhood planning and rights for communities to bid to take on responsibility for assets and services from principal local authorities. Over 270 new parish or town councils have been created in the last 15 years. A further indicator of increased activity is the growth in parish precepts which have risen by more than 50 per cent among English parishes from 2014/15 to 2020/21, an increase of £207 million. The creation of some large unitary councils has also been a factor in promoting creative thinking about their role, but activity has not been confined to single tier areas.
Over the last decade, and as part of their approach to delivering with reducing resources, many principal councils have sought to delegate or devolve assets and services to town and parish councils. Cost saving will remain an important context factor for principal councils, but, as this work reflects, it is also an increasing motivation for redesigning local delivery of services in a way that empowers town or parish councils and ensures residents receive efficient and effective services. At its best, this is highly empowering, enabling communities to exercise fine control of factors that affect the wellbeing and appearance of their places.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further shown the importance of communities for harnessing local action and there are many examples from right across the country where parish and town councils have been prime movers in this work, acting with other community and voluntary sector organisations. This sits alongside work to maintain the very local infrastructure that sustains people in their communities, such as green space and local libraries.
It is also clear that existing systemic challenges, such as promoting inclusive growth or tackling social isolation have been made more acute by the pandemic. With deepening financial strains, harnessing continuing community action, as part of sustainable service design, will need to be part of the local recovery response.
This all fits into a context where, in summer 2020, ministers had set out that levelling up and economic recovery would involve strengthening of local institutions, including town and parish councils. After several more months of the pandemic, and two further national lockdowns, ministers’ priorities will be with promoting economic recovery. However, the factors that were linked to the parish and town council empowerment statements are likely to remain part of the response, particularly encouraging local action without increasing costs to the taxpayer.
The role of town and parish councils today
A major difficulty in devising a framework for principal councils to work with town and parish councils is defining what they do. They have discretionary legal powers and rights to take action. This means that some of the most active town and parish councils have taken on wide ranging responsibilities from town centre management to running leisure centres and are proactive with social impact initiatives. Others are much more limited and focus on a range of very local amenities, such as litter bins, public seats, their duty to provide allotments, and representing the views of their communities, especially in the planning process.
The National Association of Local Council’s (NALC) Devo+ report (2017) cites a Local Government Chronicle 2016 survey about what town and parish councils provide, would like to provide and have the capacity to provide. This establishes that the most widespread functions concern the provision of recreation, public seats, litter bins, small community grants, bus shelters and allotments. The survey also highlighted a list of services that many would aspire to deliver. The top five were listed as: activities for older people; economic growth and business support; highways; traffic calming measures; and youth services and activities. This aspirational list points to an increasing interest in place-shaping and using the local delivery roles that they have to influence outcomes for their communities.
Place-shaping is also a consistent theme of the engagement we have undertaken with the town and parish council sector. It can apply at different scales:
- In Saxilby with Ingleby in Lincolnshire, the parish council receives some support from the district council for emptying bins and litter picking; and from the county council for amenity grass cutting. The parish team is able to be more responsive and can remove fly-tipping quickly. The amenity grass cutting means the parish can ensure consistency in cutting and timing with the work it undertakes through its own grounds team to cut other grass areas around the village, helping it to meet it vision of being ‘an area that is attractive for people to live, work, and visit.’ The county council also provides some funding for the parish council to operate a community library.
- Dunstable Town Council runs several services under contract from Central Bedfordshire Council, including a community football centre, numerous amenity and high profile town centre bedding areas, as well as older people focused community services. This enables a tight focus on the needs of the town. It has developed several income generating activities and a third of its operations are supported through non precept sources.
- In Audlem in Cheshire East, the parish council has supported a local charity, Audlem and District Community Action, which was set up ten years ago to provide locally based welfare support to vulnerable and socially isolated adults. This promotes social inclusion, community participation and independence; and part of its work is to support carers with respite and mutual assistance. Its role increased during the COVID-19 lockdowns and it now works with five parishes as well as other local public services. The parish involvement helps to provide governance and practical grant application support and roots its work firmly in the community.
- The Hertfordshire Association of Parish and Town Councils is working on the role for parish councils in assisting with shaping and driving the very local offer from cross-agency wellbeing teams that can promote prevention.
There are various documents which capture the role of local councils. These include:
- The National Improvement Strategy for Parish and Town Councils identified five themes of parish and town council activity, and recognises that individual councils may choose to fulfil one or all of these roles:
- service deliverer – using their range of discretionary powers in areas from local transport to local economy
- culture creator – creating opportunities for local people to come together and participate in cultural, community-focused, and recreational activities
- place shaper – whether through neighbourhood planning or in maintaining local land and property
- builder of community resilience – for example by facilitating community participation in action on local issues
- community leadership – exploiting their representative mandate.
- Documents from county associations that draw a distinction between roles that are delivered on the basis of ‘partial’ or ‘full’ engagement and with or without “accountability”. This points to the different mechanisms through which town and parish councils can take on their different roles.
- Recent business cases for unitary local government. For example, the single county unitary cases for Somerset and North Yorkshire show a menu of assets and services that could be devolved or developed as roles for town and parish councils. The list from the 2020 One Somerset case for a single county unitary council is reproduced in Appendix II. This provides a possible list of areas where the role of local councils may develop. It is not exhaustive but covers a range of classic town and parish council roles and more complex delivery and place-shaping drawn from both county and district functions, such as local town economic development; local green transport schemes; community libraries; social housing liaison and monitoring; wider health and wellbeing support; and enforcement of environmental health matters.
For the purposes of this framework, we consider that there is a spectrum of the potential nature of local council activity. This tries to blend the outcome focused themes from the National Improvement Strategy with the concept of the extent of engagement from the county association documents. The table below identifies five broad categories of activity and indicates some potential roles that sit within them.
|Influence and respond
- Comment on planning applications.
- Representing the town or parish at area boards.
- Influence service levels of principal authority contracts that affect their areas (eg grass cutting).
- Neighbourhood planning.
- Affordable housing.
- Running local events.
- Encouraging local commercial activity eg pop up cafes at community events or seasonally.
- Vision for local parks, land and buildings.
- Community shops.
- Community centres.
- Co-ordinating volunteers.
- Support to community action (as in COVID-19 pandemic) and community support.
- Befriending services.
- Grant and fundraising eg to support libraries
- Economic development, including job clubs
- Climate change initiatives.
- Youth projects.
- Community libraries.
- Grounds maintenance.
- Sports facilities.
- Minor highways functions (eg footpaths, signs and verges, cleansing).
- Car park provision and management.
- Leisure and arts centres.
- Bus shelters.
- Cemeteries and church yards.
- Community centres.
- Litter bins/litter picking.
- Parks/open space.
- Play areas.
- Public conveniences.
- Tourist information centres.
This illustrates that there are multiple ways through which town and parish councils can support and release the capabilities of their communities. Delivering services and having responsibility or accountability for assets can have a very important role to play in supporting that work, but parish and town councils can be active without needing to be involved in taking on devolved delivery roles.
An understanding of the spectrum of what town and parish councils may take on, and the range of ways of achieving this, is fundamental to effective local council engagement. This creates a context for creative discussion allowing consideration of how to obtain the best value for money as well as improving outcomes for local people. However, the sheer range also illustrates a central problem for a principal council – how to allow creative discussion to take place, but while keeping this within manageable parameters for its own capacity and priority objectives. This is delicate balancing act. The framework here aims to serve as a practical guide to some of the key considerations.
The need for a framework
Town and parish (local) councils can be an integral part of vibrant communities, along with voluntary and other community sector organisations. However, harnessing this potential at scale is difficult. Town and parish councils have powers, but very limited duties. This means that everything is affected by local variables and even in neighbouring parishes, individual councils may choose very different roles.
Central to this is the huge variety in the town and parish council sector. Size, capacity and appetite vary from local council to local council. Many are small, with a part-time clerk and have little in common with the largest and most active town councils. One indicator is that 67 per cent of the 10,000 local councils in England have a precept of £25,000 or lower while 66 have a precept of more than £1 million. The median precept is £11,683 and the mean is £61,751. Reflecting the spectrum of activity described in the previous chapter, a neat universal view of what town and parish councils do, or should do, does not exist.
The way in which principal councils engage with town and parish councils is also highly varied. Approaches to localism continue to evolve in response to different drivers, including financial, political and priorities about place-focus and community engagement. Structural diversity is also a factor here. In two tier areas, many counties have engaged town and parish councils in delivery of libraries and minor highway maintenance and improvement and will see a growing role for them in assisting in preventative functions that can reduce the burden on social care. For many districts, the emphasis has been on giving town and parish councils responsibility for local assets and a role in a range of services including leisure, parking and tourist provision. Ambitious towns and parishes in ‘three tier’ areas will need to work with both their county and district councils.
A further point is that town and parish councils do not exist everywhere - about 30 per cent of the English population live in areas with town or parish councils, with much less coverage in metropolitan areas. Many unitary councils are seen as leaders in delegating or devolving to their parish councils. It is notable that examples such as Cornwall and Wiltshire are fully parished, and in Northumberland eight new town or parish councils were created in parallel with the transition to the new unitary council, and almost doubled the ‘parished’ population of the county.
Many areas have delivered service improvements for residents through programmes of working together to find the right level for delivery or asset management. However, in many other areas, principal councils are more reticent about working with town and parish councils, or extending their role beyond the large town councils:
- There is resistance to arrangements that are likely to lead to a patchwork of provision. One interviewee said: “We don’t have universal coverage of town and parish councils, so it’s difficult to apply a consistent method. The issue is economy of scale.”
- There is concern about transferring responsibilities with the risks of retaining accountability.
- There are also issues of perception of the capacity of small or medium local councils, or a fear of creating alternative power bases on larger town councils.
- Fears that delivery in small parishes relies on a very small number of key individuals, and providing a risk to continuity of delivery. One interviewee told us: “Even if they look well managed, there are too many single points of failure”.
- Concern at the high incidence of uncontested seats in parish elections, with resulting questions about how representative the most local tier of local government is.
- Concern that increasing parish precepts creates a burden of ‘double taxation’ for the residents in an area that takes on responsibilities from a principal council and has to raise tax revenue locally to pay for it.
The research for this project has also identified frustrations among town and parish councils:
- Frustration about examples where principal councils were unable to provide clear financial or contract information about current services that were devolution candidates.
- A concern that principal councils do not always recognise the diversity of the sector and where a flexible approach (for example in relation to retention of car park income, or freehold asset transfer) would enable a strong town or parish council to deliver outcome benefits.
- Concern that financial pressures on principal councils mean that many can no longer invest in the resources needed to engage with town and parish councils and find the most creative approaches.
We have, however, identified many examples of very effective joint working. At their best, and whatever the scale of their activity, it is clear that local councils bring:
- a close knowledge of the needs of their communities, with ability to tailor activity accordingly, particularly for quality of life services
- an ability to mobilise their communities, coordinating and harnessing individuals and groups to address local priorities
- action that is backed by an ability to raise money locally through a precept.
There is great potential here and for many principal councils there is great interest in investing in relationships with town and parish councils. They can be part of an approach to dealing with financial pressures, while also supporting a focus on the different needs of places and of engagement with communities. The idea of a framework is to identify the elements of practice that contribute to enabling town and parish councils to fulfil their potential. It aims to be realistic, however. A consistent theme of the research undertaken for this project is that success relies on dialogue; patient building on achievements and learning from experience; and careful balancing of policy and softer political and personal relationships. The diversity of aspiration among both principal and town and parish councils means that it is not realistic to expect a ‘big bang’ of empowerment. However, where there is an interest in encouraging parish and town councils to play an increased role in local service delivery and place-shaping, this framework aims to set out the practical steps that can support it.
This framework aims to set out a practical set of actions and considerations for a principal council that is considering working more closely with its town and parish (local) council sector. It is written with an understanding that just as appetite varies in the local council sector, so principal councils vary in their appetite to transfer responsibility to local councils. However, for those that are considering pushing this agenda further:
- It aims to address some of the barriers – how to engage such a disparate sector; work with them effectively and build capacity.
- It takes a broad view of the role of local councils. Some of the detail focuses on complex aspects, such as asset or service transfer, but recognises there is a multiplicity of ways to work with local councils, from place-shaping to active devolution.
- It draws on experience and highlights some in case studies, but its content will need to be adapted to local context.
- It provides some examples illustrating the time and costs that may be involved.
The framework’s principal components are shown in the diagram below.
The underlying principles, shared commitments and ongoing dialogue.
How devolution/responsibility shifts will be achieved?
Other enabling factors
Supporting a context of partnership
The underlying principles, shared commitments and ongoing dialogue.
- Intent: What do you want to achieve?
- Scoping and listening: Understanding the variation in the local council sector.
- Information: Providing clear information
- Material support: Support for sustainable arrangements
Discussions with leaders and practitioners have repeatedly highlighted that it is open dialogue between principal and local councils which provides the foundation for effective engagement, whether that is about transfer of assets or services, or encouraging highly local interventions on social or environmental problems. This dialogue needs to take place in a context of mutual trust. Trust cannot be designed, but good building blocks include:
- Having mechanisms for trust based long-term dialogue between the principal and the local council sectors in the area. If they do not exist, consider establishing regular local council forums or involving the local council sector in meetings of local strategic partners.
- Jointly build clear joint working principles with the local council sector. One approach is to create a charter. This will commonly cover some of the basic principles of how these different members of the local government family work together. The charter concept is familiar and was discussed in the LGA and NALC’s 2013 publication Modelling Devolution.
However, ultimately, it is successful action and outcomes that will sustain progress and engage more local councils. It is therefore important that the building blocks of trust are designed in an action focused way. There are two aspects here that are important for principal councils to consider as part of the way that they frame the agenda: intent and how they listen to local councils.
Fruitful dialogue requires clear messages about what concrete actions or changes can be contemplated. From the point of view of a principal council, this first requires it to have a clear understanding of whether delegation/devolution to local councils will be a core operating principle of the principal council or a looser aspiration. Understanding this purpose should shape the approach and the structures, processes and investment put in place to support it. Different responses are possible, for example, depending on the desired balance of savings, localism, key outcomes, or unlocking resource at ultra-local level.
Three indicative possible approaches and their implications are shown below.
|Service led delegation/devolution
- Clear outcomes sough (eg for health and wellbeing)
- Programme style: range of pilots; review; roll out more widely.
- Dedicated resource eg localism team to co-ordinate cross council response
- Community governance review for unparished areas.
- Also working with other community groups.
- Common when a new council is created.
- Targeted scope eg highways, public realm assets, but emphasis on achieving economy of scale.
- Service/property/legal led.
- Focus of activity when large contracts renewed.
- Efficiency an important focus.
- Focus on key locations and on town councils, as well as community groups in target areas.
- May emphasise key local assets and buildings.
- Can help make real actions on targets such as net zero carbon.
- Case by case response to initiative from smaller town and parishes.
These are illustrative approaches and principal councils will need to develop one that fits with their own aspirations, understanding of the local council sector’s capability and their own resources and capacity to manage the process. Other factors that affect this include type of principal council and extent to which the area is parished. A large unitary council, with ability to look across all service areas, is most likely to see benefit in the localism transformation approach and this has been a focus of the unitary councils created in 2009 and subsequently. A place led approach may work for a district council that is not fully parished and wishes to focus on key locations.
We recommend that this approach is developed into a published statement of intent, as a way of framing conversations with individual parish or town councils. The evidence from the qualitative research for this project is that it is the conversations that make a difference, but they need to be catalysed. It is important to say that the process of developing the statement is also a key opportunity to engage the local council sector and build joint ownership. A statement of intent is a helpful guideline and joint development mitigates the risk of it being seen as the principal council imposing its view.
A statement of intent can embrace charter type principles but should be an action-focused document. For a principal council, it sets a context for realistic discussions to match where it can devote capacity to processing them and can reflect economy of scale considerations. For local councils, a clear statement of intent will help to manage expectations and signal a direction of travel against which an individual local council can set its own vision.
What should a statement of intent cover?
- Purpose – objectives of greater delegation or devolution to town and parish councils and setting this in the context of local strategies and partnerships.
- The wider localism context – how other groups (voluntary or community sector) may be engaged.
- An indication of the areas or core area of focus:
- Whether predominantly one service area or multiple.
- The range of potential mechanisms of delivery.
- The spectrum of relationships envisaged – for example, from collaborative place-shaping to full devolution or asset transfer, but with frankness about the current emphasis. Managing expectations means being clear about what is not on offer.
- Principles about funding: for example, tapering support, ongoing support, continuity of grants, retention of income; the potential of package approaches to balance costs and income opportunities.
- How the principal council will provide support.
- Examples of short case studies to bring the concepts to life.
Cornwall Council: this was stated as part of the then county council’s 2007 bid for unitary status and identified potential to delegate environmental services, but also aspects of community development, small affordable housing projects and support to their influencing role in planning, licensing and highways decisions. Details have evolved and later documents have described different potential levels of town and parish council role (from influence and joint delivery through to devolution); assessment criteria; and an approach to standards assurance. The council’s 2020 strategy document Localism in Cornwall - The Power of Community describes four core principles for a localist approach, applying to town and parish councils and to wider community and voluntary groups. These are re-enforced with a description of how the council will support them and measure success.
Milton Keynes Council: has published a document: Working Together: An Approach to Devolution of Assets (Facilities) and Services. This sets out the potential benefits of devolving assets and services to local communities and parish and town councils, noting both local ownership and financial aspects. It describes the learning from previous programmes and the scope for the focus of the current programme. It is a practical document, which also sets out a range of possible mechanisms for asset and service devolution; criteria for considering applications; and some successful local case studies.
Wyre Forest District Council: has a published Localism Strategy. This sets out a context of building on five years of work with town and parish councils and other local organisations, supporting them to take ownership of assets or services. It sets out the principles that will be used in guiding a negotiation and the extent and nature of financial support that may be available. It also lists the delegation and devolution arrangements currently in place with town and parish councils and other local organisations.
Engaging individual local councils
The statement of intent idea is an inherently technocratic concept. It cannot alone create action. This will only come from engagement. For areas with many parish or town councils (some large unitary councils have more than 200 and several districts have more than 100) this is challenging. The difficulty of working with so many individual local councils was cited as a barrier to town and parish council engagement by some of our interviewees. With this in mind, we suggest two components to engagement – scoping and listening – which should be followed in tandem.
A principal council will want to take a view about where to focus its outreach to the local council sector. Size may be a factor here – a large town council, with a large tax base has far more levers to build the income and capacity to take on more responsibility than a small parish council with a few hundred electors, five members and a part-time clerk. Some large town councils charge precepts that are higher than their district council’s share of a band D council tax bill, and are clearly very different from small parishes. However, size is not the only determining factor and there are examples of small parishes that have taken on responsibilities to fit a vision for their area. For example, Sheviock Parish Council in Cornwall has a tax base of 335 and has completed a devolution arrangement where it has taken on responsibility for a range of assets around Portwrinkle Harbour.
We recommend using a range of indicators pragmatically. For example:
- In a service led approach, key considerations may include priority engagement with outlying parishes because those are the ones which involve the greatest travel time (and hence delivery cost) for grounds maintenance teams.
- In a localism led approach, identifying areas where there is a priority need to improve outcomes, perhaps in areas such as rural isolation.
- In a place-based approach, thinking through the indicators of potential. For example, locations that are attractive to tourists may offer potential to discuss how the local council can use assets creatively to bring in more commercial activity. In a place-based approach, with an emphasis on mutually beneficial asset transfer, it may mean focusing on those areas where assets are located.
A key message we have heard is the need to ‘follow the energy’. No amount of careful scoping or segmenting on the basis of data and desk analysis will produce a true picture of where there is interest in taking on new responsibilities. This means that principal councils do need to invest in how they connect with the local council sector and their communities:
- Where they have been established, local area forums and networks are helpful in providing a line of communication for all local councils, whether large or small, to raise issues of local importance, and to highlightheir ambitions, to the principal council.
- Helping members with community empowerment, ensuring they understand the spectrum of potential roles and mechanisms, so they can help to channel local energy. Creating consensus between town or parish councillors, ward councillors and principal council leading members is a crucial component of successful engagement.
- Creating a corporate front door for town and parish councils to discuss opportunities or raise concerns. This is a consistent message from the principal councils that have been most active in promoting the role of their town and parish councils. More detail in the next chapter.
One of the sensitivities in this agenda is the concern that devolution or delegation will mean giving local councils an ultimatum – that either they take on a service or an asset or it will close. We fully accept that what is now an increasingly strained financial context may require difficult choices of this nature. However, wherever possible, early structured scoping and listening should aim to facilitate identification of areas of mutual potential. It is needed in order to create the conditions for purposeful dialogue.
Provision of information
Several of our interviewees from the town and parish council sector highlighted the difficulty of gaining information about assets or services that they were considering taking on from principal councils.
This is a problematic area. There are several examples of policies and charters that commit principal councils to providing transparent information. However, in practice it is often difficult to disaggregate detail about the true costs that will be relevant for town and parish councils. For example:
- Do grounds maintenance costs include travel time or just time spent?
- Isolating costs of an individual building in a wider complex.
- Isolating costs that are bundled into a contract.
Principal councils should commit to providing as much information as possible, and assistance in interpretation of it, but this is an area that in some cases will remain as a risk.
This is a key message. Reaching a sustainable arrangement where a service or asset is taken on by a parish or town council often involves the provision of some support. In many cases principal councils will offer dowries or grants to assist a local council in taking on services or assets. Examples include:
- libraries – ongoing provision of access to book stock and county IT support to community run libraries
- time limited grants, for example for a five-year period, or grants which taper off over time
- capital grants to assist in renovating an asset to enable better use or to make it fit for current environmental expectations and requirements.
One approach is for principal councils to negotiate delegation or devolution packages with town or parish councils. This can be a means to create an arrangement which collectively is revenue neutral – for example passing on the ability to retain car park revenues alongside transfer of an asset is a means for providing a revenue stream that can offset the costs that a town or parish council may incur as a result of the transfer.
Toolkit for developing and implementing the framework
How devolution/responsibility shifts will be achieved?
Process: Managing expectation about what is needed.
Forms: Structured provision of information
Mechanisms: Type of agreement used
Approval criteria: Transparency about the considerations
Capacity building: Creating the infrastructure for success
One of the messages from our qualitative research is that a balance is needed between consistency of process and flexibility in agreeing a devolution arrangement with a town or parish council. There is no single toolkit but we highlight some approaches and materials that principal councils should consider developing, or adapting, in order to support efficient discussions and to manage expectations. This is most relevant for the service and asset parts of the spectrum of activity described in the table of activities set out above. In many cases, principal councils’ community asset transfer policies (established under the Localism Act 2011) will provide a strong starting point and it is a matter of adapting or extending them to the anticipated scenarios with town and parish (local) councils; and then in communicating with the sector about it.
For the purposes of managing expectations, it is helpful to set out a process. Some national resources exist to help with this – for example, Locality has produced a range of guidance notes, funded by the then Department of Communities and Local Government under the MyCommunity programme, which help to set out the legal requirements of Community Asset Transfer. But in addition, what is needed to facilitate dialogue locally are simple explanations of the main stages. For example, it is helpful to set out steps such as:
- expression of interest and associated decisions and timescales
- full business case creation and approval (both principal and local council)
- political decision
- proceed to head of terms and transfer.
One problem we have heard of is effort being spent in negotiation but failing at a late stage on relatively minor details – such as whether a principal council can provide grounds maintenance equipment. This is a risk for both parties, but a clear process with accompanying documents, moving through stages with more detail being added, provides some mitigation, aiming to highlight potential stumbling blocks as early as possible.
As the noted in the table setting out five categories of activity, service delivery and asset management aspects of town and parish (local) council roles can take place through different types of arrangement with different levels of responsibility or accountability. The arrangement chosen will depend on a range of factors, including policy and appetite but also where powers and duties reside between principal council and local council. Detailed analysis of this is beyond the scope of this framework, and legal and/or expert property management advice should be sought. However, some high-level observations are offered about the range of possibilities.
Some of the main options are shown below.
- Joint delivery, or topping up −parish and town councils may choose to enhance an existing service provided by the principal council by funding additional work or fundraising on behalf of it. This could take the form of contributions to a principal council run community library, encouraging community participation with support/sponsorship; coordinating volunteers or purchasing additional grounds maintenance services through an existing principal council contract.
- Service delivery delegation
- In the case of a discretionary service this is likely to be a service delegation agreement which the principal council will monitor to ensure the terms of the contract are met. Such arrangements may be used, for example, in the case of community library provision, or running sports facilities under delegated authority form the principal council.
- In the case of a statutory service, monitoring is likely to be tighter and the principal council will be able to terminate if the statutory responsibilities are not being met. This may be used, for example, in the case of minor highways functions, where accountability remains with the principal council.
In both cases, contracts could detail arrangements for funding – for example whether the town or parish can retain income; and any funding from the principal council; and the term of the agreement.
Note in some cases agency agreements may be used – sometimes as a way of enabling a parish to carry out a function for which it does not have a power.
- Leasehold transfer of assets. This may be made with or without funding.
- Full transfer of assets. Transfer of the freehold of land or assets.
Many principal councils have forms that they use to capture expressions of interest and applications from town or parish councils who are interested in taking on services or assets. These are closely linked to the community asset transfer process.
Links to example application forms
Forms are no substitute for dialogue and ideally no application should be a surprise to a principal council. However, the discipline of the questions they require addressing helps to focus attention on to the practical considerations that need to be addressed. The use of an initial expression of interest form is a good way to create early engagement and ultimately to avoid nugatory work.
Again, it is helpful for managing expectations to be clear what criteria need to be satisfied for a devolution or delegation arrangement to go ahead, from the point of view of the principal council. Common features we have found include the following:
Value for money.
Revenue neutrality is often stated as a criterion and this guides decisions about the extent of any ongoing or tapering financial support that accompanies a delegation or transfer arrangement. This can also be used creatively to package up different components – for example allowing a parish council to keep car park revenue to offset taking on other roles that have a cost implication.
Business case for both local and principal council
Ensuring that there is a business case for both the principal and local council involved is a helpful step for checking on the sustainability of the proposal.
Ensuring that service quality is at a minimum maintained, but ideally enhanced by a new arrangement. Do both parties see outcome benefits from the proposal?
Does the proposal have local support (especially if there are precept implications)?
Does an application demonstrate capacity to deliver on a sustained basis, and to meet any monitoring standards?
This includes the impact on the principal authority’s service provision – what impact does it have on economy of scale of existing contracts?
Equality, diversity and community cohesion
Evidence the project will
meet all the relevant requirements of the Equality Act 2010 and assist in promoting community cohesion.
This is a guide to criteria only. Assessment criteria have been set out in Cornwall (specific to town and parish council work) and by several principal councils as part of their community asset transfer processes. An important message is that criteria should allow for flexibility in the design of agreements, potentially enabling a package of different services and arrangements as a way to achieve the best outcomes form local people.
One of the barriers to greater delegation and devolution to town and parish councils is the question of capacity. The Local Government Chronicle special report from 2016 clearly shows a gap between the aspirations of local councils and their perception of their own capacity to deliver. From the principal council point of view, our interviews highlighted concerns about local councils and ‘single points of failure’. In essence this is a concern that a small organisation may rely on the enthusiasm of key individuals, or that delivery may rely on a small number of individuals. If they move away, cease to be involved with the town or parish (local) council or become sick, there is a risk to continuity of service.
For individual cases of service or asset transfer, an assessment about risks and mitigations about continuity of service will need to be taken on a case-by-case basis and can be part of the assessment criteria.
However, the local council sector has made a strong effort in the last decade to promote standards. The Local Council Award Scheme provides a framework of peer assessed accreditation for individual councils to they meet standards set by the sector, and to set the conditions for continued improvement. In October 2020, 743 town or parish councils had achieved or were listed as working towards one of the three levels (Foundation, Quality and Quality Gold).
Town or parish council clerks and other officers can also work towards several bespoke qualifications at different levels, from Introduction to Local Council Administration (ILCA), through the Certificate in Local Council Administration (CLICA), and beyond to Community Governance qualifications. The scheme is administered by the Society of Local Council Clerks and the CILCA qualification is at level 3 of the National Qualifications Framework. Having a CILCA qualified clerk helps a town or parish council to gain the power of general competence and contributes to a Quality or Quality Gold Award level.
The sector also has an independently chaired Improvement and Development Board, which was established in 2013. It oversees and steers the award and qualifications programmes and involves stakeholders from across the sector, and from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) and the LGA in shaping an overall improvement approach for town and parish councils.
There are a number of county associations across England, generally representing all local councils within a principal council area. These bodies act as representatives for their membership and for local councils within the area and support their local councils through the provision and implementation of assistance and guidance.
However, beyond this any move to a greater drive to engagement of local councils does need consideration of local arrangements for capacity building and how the local council sector and principal council sector can work together on this. Exactly how it is provided will depend on local circumstances and available resources. We recommend that it is developed in close liaison with the local county association of local councils who normally itself offers training and other resources. It is helpful to build a shared understanding of the capacity that needs to be built and why. Examples we have heard include:
- Highways – Devon County Council run a scheme to support town and parish councils which provide highway repair services within their area on behalf of the county council. Devon helps to facilitate their involvement by providing public liability cover for the work, as well as training, guidance and risk assessments for councils partaking in the scheme.
- Social value – support with how to demonstrate social value when making grant applications.
- Engagement and communication – guidance on how to engage with local people, including on issues such as the rationale for proposed precept increases.
- Advice and clear information about the process and implications of staff transfers.
Single point of contact
Increasingly transferring responsibilities to town and parish councils will involve multiple principal council teams and packages of agreements. The interviews we have undertaken have highlighted the importance in this context of a single point of contact, or gateway team, into principal council. This has a number of positive impacts:
- it can provide signposting to responsible officers in the council
- it is important for accountability – a gatekeeper for the overall principles and ways of working agreed to support the overall policy
- outreach. A single point of contact can help to negotiate a cross-cutting arrangement that meets the approval criteria. It is this role that provides the practical work to bring principles and statements of intent to life.
A message we have heard from county associations is that financial strains in principal councils have led to reduction or loss in localism officers, which in turn has reduced the capacity to engage with the local council sector.
Change management in the principal council
Particularly in the case of a localism transformation approach, a principal council will need to consider how it undertakes change management in its own organisation to create a culture that supports its vision of working with town and parish (local) councils. This includes:
- ensuring established middle managers learn how to work with a developing culture of engagement or delegation/devolution to local councils
- promoting the message to all service areas, including the legal and property teams who will have a central role to play
- large principal councils that have adopted a localism transformation approach have established senior level boards to provide strategic direction, set policy and oversee the programme.
Other issues to consider
Other enabling factors
Supporting a context of partnership
|County - district collaboration
Working together across all the tiers
Town and parish cluster arrangements
Collaboration between counties and districts
We have not found an example of a detailed action focused statement of intent for delegation or devolution to town and parish (local) councils owned by all the principal councils in a two-tier area. This may reflect the practical difficultly of agreeing a common approach across different councils with different responsibilities. However, counties and districts do work together in agreeing details of individual delegation or devolution schemes (for example where they both own land in close proximity). There is also an example of a principles-based charter from Warwickshire which is agreed between the county council, county association and all the parished districts.
Joint working is helpful for allowing dialogue to flow beyond service delivery and into creative place-shaping/community activation, and joint work undertaken during the COVID-19 pandemic may provide a platform. However, it is important to be realistic and focus energies where they are likely to be most fruitfully deployed and this may be on a case-by-case basis. Such an approach would be consistent with one of the findings of a previous LGA report examining the drivers of collaboration between the county and district tiers of local government. This noted that effective collaboration need not involve every district in a county area and that there is often a case for adopting different arrangements in different parts of a county. The same report noted the importance of a mobilising topic or initiative in focusing on outcomes for people, places and communities. An issue such as the climate emergency or rural isolation may prove to be a powerful force for dialogue across all three tiers of council together.
Parish and town clusters or hubs and spokes
One potential solution to the question of capacity and critical mass in local councils is to encourage them to work in clusters. Several principal councils encourage it through their parish charters (for example Bath and North East Somerset) or with statements on their websites (for example, West Berkshire, which refers to the potential role of clusters in community interest companies). There are some examples of parishes coming together around contracts, for example:
- Stewkley Parish Council in Buckinghamshire. Building on a devolved grass cutting scheme, the parish council set up a company, Stewkley Enterprise Agency, to deliver the contract through employing young people and other residents as ‘part time mowers’. It then used resources through a government programme, Our Place, to promote the Stewkley model to five other parishes, known as the Stewkley cluster.
- In Hampshire, the county council has distributed small amounts of funding to parish clusters to support shared parish lengthsman schemes to carry out straightforward highways maintenance tasks requested by a parish council.
However, a constant message from our engagement with stakeholders is that clustering is difficult. It is clear that many parishes are determinedly sovereign and are often reluctant to enter into arrangements with neighbours. We have also heard concerns about the lack of clarity about the legal framework that governs the ability of town and parish councils to enter into clustering arrangements or joint committees. A practical suggestion is to link the drawdown of budgets delegated to area boards to parish cluster arrangements. There is some experience of this in Cornwall. This can be a helpful early step in building trust and collaboration.
The role of town and parish councils in very local service delivery and place-shaping is one that is developing and has great potential. However, the pattern is highly uneven and in some areas principal and local councils have yet to find the most productive way to engage. The huge variation in the town and parish council sector, where the largest town councils really have very little in common with the smallest rural parishes, exacerbates this uneven pattern. It is further complicated by variation in the principal council sector – while many two-tier areas have entered into delegation and devolution arrangements with towns and parishes, it is in unitary areas where the most activity has been seen.
The framework presented in this document aims to describe some building block actions that can be taken to encourage engagement and to allow this to take place in as transparent and open a context as possible. It will need tailoring to local context and priorities. However, some key messages emerge:
- Dialogue. Fruitful action results from active dialogue and this needs to involve members and officers. The components of this framework are best seen as representing actions that can be taken to create a platform for discussion and engagement. Delegated or devolved arrangements cannot be imposed by a principal council. Local action must involve leadership from both principal and local councils and will evolve through experience.
- Investment. The case studies that follow aim to share some experience about the level of resource that is needed to make delegation and devolution arrangements succeed. While delegating and devolving services and assets to town or parish councils can be used as part of a strategy to deliver with increasing resource pressures, it does require investment. This may be financial (such as grants or other payments associated with asset transfers) and in staff time. There is a clear link between successful engagement with town and parish councils and having community development teams and senior staff providing a corporate front door to local council partners.
- Flexibility. Policies set direction but should be expected to change. Success relies on finding agreement between different sets of members – town or parish council members; ward councillors and council leadership, as well as between officers. These softer criteria require flexible and creative thinking.
- Patience. The LGA and NALC’s joint publication Modelling devolution uses the expression ‘evolution not revolution’ in describing one of several lessons about the experience of devolving more responsibility to local councils. This message remains relevant. Experience builds up over time and good experiences can be used to sell concepts to more town or parish councils. It is unrealistic to expect change to happen quickly.
Carrying out this work has highlighted the great potential of the role of town and parish councils in delivering services closely tailored to the needs of communities. The framework offers some practical steps for encouraging more delegation and devolution to the most local level of local government.
However, successful application of the framework will ultimately depend on the appetite of individual town or parish councils and principal councils to explore devolution options.
There are a number of factors that would need to be addressed to promote wide take up:
- Legal framework. We heard that one barrier to delegation or devolution to town and parish councils is whether all parties consider that they have the legal power to carry out particular functions. Given that the power of general competence only applies to towns or parishes that meet certain criteria, many potential activities rely on interpretation of powers provided in very old statutes. We recommend that the LGA and NALC maintain a log of cases of ambiguity so that they can work with Government to find opportunities to address these if suitably related legislative opportunities arise, or through private members’ bills.
- Election of parish and town council members. The high number of uncontested seats creates a negative perception of the local council sector among some principal council members. Particularly in the context of the trend for rising precepts, parish and town councils need to be encouraged to work with their communities to encourage local people to present themselves for election. As the most local rung of local democracy, town and parish councils can also be a gateway into representative democracy for councillors. Encouraging more contesting of elections should also be used as a means to encourage younger and more diverse representation.
- Clustering. This is an area of unfulfilled potential. Some guidance was jointly produced by the Commission for Rural Communities and NALC in 2009. It would be helpful for this to be updated; to provide recent examples of successful clusters or joint committees; and to highlight whether any change is needed to the legal basis for joint working between parishes.
It is also important to recognise factors that sustain successful work. Town and parish councils’ ability to set precepts is part of this. There are concerns about ‘double taxation, and some principal councils actively design transfer schemes with packages to avoid this. However, a clear message we heard was that any move to cap precepts would ‘kill off localism’.
Diversity of size and aspiration is a strength in enabling parish and town councils to respond closely to the needs of their communities. However, it does not encourage the consolidation of town and parish councils as a level of local governance that can consistently take on assets, services or wider place-shaping roles. With the local council sector’s current structures, asymmetry in provision is an inevitable result of any drive to promote more involvement of town and parish councils. Addressing this would need change to the structure of town and parish councils. First, with very large numbers of parishes in several principal council areas, detailed dialogue of the sort that we know is essential will be very resource intensive and effectively places a ceiling on the extent and pace of delegation and devolution. Secondly, smaller parish councils will always be limited in potential by the size of their tax base, particularly given the practical difficulty of clustering. Finally, for principal councils that are partially parished, there is the further barrier to devolution of concerns about economy of scale. Any serious attempt to promote a more consistent role of town and parish councils would need to be associated with consideration of structural change in the sector – evening up the size and capacity variations.
Milton Keynes Council
A cooperative council working to deliver stronger, more sustainable local communities through devolution
Number of parishes
Total parish precept levied (2021/21)
Per cent of population covered by parishes
48 (Town or Parish Councils or Parish meetings)
Milton Keynes developed a toolkit to support Community Asset Transfer in 2012, following the implementation of the Localism Act 2011. After a period of community engagement, and the transfer of five pilot assets, the toolkit was adopted by the council and used to support transfer of some assets to parish councils within Milton Keynes.
Between 2016 and 2018, in response to budget pressures, the council discussed with the town and parish councils whether they would be interested in taking over landscape and grounds maintenance services in their areas. Six parish and town (local) councils had previously taken on devolved landscaping services in 2014 prior to the council putting landscape and grounds maintenance services out to tender at that time. Building on this, and in consultation with the town and parish council sector locally, a framework was developed to outline the potential for wider devolution of services. This framework was adopted by the council in 2018, initially to sit alongside the Community Asset Transfer programme, and subsequently, in 2019, rolled together into a single asset transfer and service devolution programme for working with town and parish councils.
The toolkit for this combined programme: Working Together: An Approach to Devolution of Assets (Facilities) and Services supports ambitious local councils in approaching Milton Keynes council and asking for the devolution of assets or services.
The programme is currently focused on supporting town and parish councils with the devolution of the following types of asset:
- Amenity Land
- Play Areas
- Public Toilets
- Parks and Open Spaces
- Footway Lighting
- Bus Shelters
- Litter Bins
- Grit Bins
These transfers are, in many cases, freehold transfers from the principal council. To date, Milton Keynes Council has transferred the freehold to 35 assets. Up to around 2015, many of these were smaller assets, such as small pieces of land, but as confidence in the devolution has grown, several town and parish councils have taken on larger assets, including a leisure centre.
This programme focussed at first on devolution of landscaping and ground maintenance, with six parishes taking this on in 2014, and a further six in 2020. Generally, these examples of service devolution have required the development of a services contract between the two bodies, detailing the requirements and any funding. There is an opportunity for different contract and contract monitoring approaches being taken depending on whether a service is statutory (and Milton Keynes Council remains accountable) or a discretionary service. As current large-scale contracts with commercial providers to operate services on behalf of Milton Keynes come to an end, there will be the potential for further opportunities for devolution of services.
There are occasions where an asset or service cannot be devolved, such as where there is the potential for redevelopment; the service being a part of a wider council contract; or issues around land, either historically, or where adjoining land is not being transferred. However, in general, the council will work with town and parish councils on a case-by-case basis.
There have been significant benefits from the transfer of assets from Milton Keynes Council, to the town or parish councils and to the community. These benefits include both value for money for Milton Keynes Council, and a number of beneficial outcomes for communities.
Value for money
Overall, there have been a number of savings generated from the transfer of assets through the devolution programme.
While the specific savings from individual transfers have often been small, such as the transfer of the Frank Moran Centre to West Bletchley Council, which saves £2,294 per year, there are some devolved assets which have generated larger savings. These include Stony Stratford Library, transferred to the town council, which saves Milton Keynes Council £27,500 per annum. Similarly, Medbourne Pavilion, transferred to Shenley Church End Parish Council generates £36,000 in revenue savings.
In terms of the overall cumulative savings achieved as a result of the programme up to February 2021, Milton Keynes generated total revenue savings (without accounting for programme costs) of £359,728 per annum. This is likely to grow, as more savings are generated through further devolution.
The programme itself generated a number of costs, which total £228,442. At the end of 2016, there were legal costs of around £1,474 per transfer and property costs of around £4,084 per transfer. By 2021 these had fallen considerably as a result of experience and the shift in the types of assets being devolved, with legal costs per transfer significantly reduced. There are a number of other costs associated with the transfers; however, as the programme has matured these have, in many cases, reduced. For example, the programme’s direct staffing costs were £86,999 in 2013, but dropped to £23,884 in 2016. Since then, there have been no extra direct staff costs. This change has been as a result of efficiencies in the programme, and the change in focus towards devolving open land, as many assets were devolved earlier in the process.
The council estimates that the total annual revenue benefit from the programme up to February 2021 to be £132,286.
Outcomes for community
The programme has aimed to create local delivery of services and management of assets that meet the wider needs of local communities. The programme has been of significant benefit to local communities in Milton Keynes, with the local provision of services and assets helping to prevent the closure of assets that would otherwise be under increasing cost pressure. This programme has been successful in ensuring that town and parish councils have a sustainable base from which to operate the service or asset.
Furthermore, there have been a number of other beneficial outcomes. As local councils have begun to run assets and services, there have been cases of investment, maintenance and upgrades that Milton Keynes would not have been able to provide otherwise. This is particularly relevant in the cases of Stony Stratford Library and Medbourne Pavilion, both of which have had work carried out in improvements, turning the library into a ‘knowledge hub’, while the pavilion has seen resurfacing of the hall floors, a revamping of the kitchen and repairs and redecoration.
Neil Hanley, Milton Keynes Council, [email protected]
Chippenham Town Council and Wiltshire Council
Working with the principal council to gain control essential assets and service for the benefit of a local area
Population of parish
Over 40,000 (urban area population: 45,620)
Chippenham Town Council has 24 councillors representing eight wards and a resident base of over 40,000 people, making it the largest in Wiltshire. As an active town council, Chippenham has been ambitious in pursuing the devolution of assets and services from the principal authority, which have important historic and place significance for the town. This includes Monkton Park, the large park in the centre of the town. To this end, in 2018, the council established a Working Party and a ‘Basket of Opportunity’ to help commence devolution negotiations with Wiltshire Council.
On 1 June 2019, a finalised package of services and assets was transferred from Wiltshire Council to Chippenham. The package involved the devolution of the grounds maintenance and street scene services; responsibility over amenity land hard areas and assets; and the management of the Friday and Saturday market. Alongside this, several freehold assets were devolved from the principal council to Chippenham Town Council including Neeld Hall, the Fifteenth century Yelde Hall, Monkton Park, several play areas and Patterdown Allotments. There was no transfer of funding from Wiltshire Council as part of this package, however, Chippenham was asked to make a financial contribution of £350,000 per annum to Wiltshire Council in lieu of a novated contract with IdVerde. This arrangement commenced in June 2019 and was set to continue until June 2020, or until the contract expired. Although, in the end, the requested contribution from CTC was waived.
Value for money
Chippenham’s long-term aspiration of improving the quality of town life, as well as responding to budget pressures and the costs brought on by COVID-19, has necessitated precept rises as the council has taken on more responsibilities. This has, at various points necessitated larger rises in town council precept, including a rise of 37.5 per cent, or £65 per Band D equivalent household in 2018/19 to prepare for the incoming devolution. More recently, Chippenham has committed to rises of 3.20 per cent for the 2021/22 year, bringing the total precept income from £3,236,261 in 2020-21 to £3,406,852 in 2021-22. For a Band D household, this now means a precept of £270.44 per annum. The council has also increased its spending by circa £500,000 per year specifically around the road sweeping service, where it has purchased additional equipment including a 17-tonne road sweeper, a smaller precinct type sweeper, pickup trucks and ride on mowers as well as expanding its outdoor workforce by 10 new employees, who will be responsible for maintaining various services and assets.
Outcomes for community
Overall, the town council is ambitious and has no limits on where it wants to go with the devolution agenda, as long as it has the support of residents and councillors. In the future, the council aims to establish a capital fund, recognising that it will need to generate savings to ensure that long-term maintenance spending can be carried out, such as the replacement of bridges in Monkton Park.
The delegation of responsibilities and the devolution of assets and services has brought a number of positive benefits to local community in Chippenham, allowing the town council to make services more responsive to local needs. This has helped enhance service delivery around the town’s street cleaning operations and green space maintenance as well as securing the long-term sustainability of freehold assets.
The council has kept a good dialogue with residents over the precept and other changes, with a recent neighbourhood planning survey of 660 people indicating that residents are pleased with the current administration and how the town is progressing.
Wiltshire have been willing to work with ambitious town and parish councils within its area on a programme of devolution which suits their individual needs. Supported by their Community Ownership of Assets Toolkit, Wiltshire have negotiated for the transfer of assets and services to a number of town and parish councils, including Chippenham. The devolution of responsibilities, assets, and services to Chippenham Town Council, has also resulted in a net saving of around £300,000 for Wiltshire Council.
While Wiltshire have found some of the process challenging, with legal challenges around land ownership to overcome, there have been a number of benefits to local communities. Wiltshire has been willing to invest in assets or services before delegation, if that brings good results for communities.
Devolution in Wiltshire will continue with reviews on an ongoing basis to ensure packages of devolved services represent good value for money and deliver better services through town and parish councils like Chippenham.
Mark Smith, Chief Executive, Chippenham Town Council, [email protected]
Hannah Day, Programme Support Manager, Wiltshire Council, [email protected]
Wyre Forest District Council
Achieving savings and improved outcomes through a flexible localism approach
Number of Parishes
Total parish precept levied
Per cent of population covered by parishes
(one small parish does not have a parish council)
Wyre Forest District Council in Worcestershire has been fully parished since the establishment of Kidderminster Town Council, with the backing of residents, in December 2015. Wyre Forest has a commitment to ensure that local communities can best serve their residents through local delivery of assets and services, in the context of increasing financial and budgetary pressures. As a result of this, the council has worked with the 12 local councils in the area, the three town councils of Bewdley, Kidderminster and Stourport-on-Severn and nine parish councils, on a programme of devolution, which has led to the successful devolution of several services and assets.
The devolution work has been carried out over a number of years. However this has been crystallised with the development of Wyre Forest’s Localism Strategy, published in late 2019. This document acts as a framework for devolution within the district, reaffirming the council’s commitment to devolution, outlining the opportunities and methods by which this can take place, as well as the future devolution ambitions of the council.
The process that Wyre Forest has put in place sets out several opportunities for town and parish councils to take on assets or services through the transfer of the freehold in the case of assets, and full management of services. However, the council is also flexible, and agrees to identify opportunities for devolution and how best to carry this out, using leasehold transfers where parish or town councils would prefer this.
Devolution within Wyre Forest has had a number of benefits, for residents, for the town and parish councils and for the district council. Wyre Forest Council tracks a number of factors to ensure that the devolution continues to be successful. These include the long-term viability of assets and services financially, and more local control of assets and services, as well as value for money as a result of devolution. Tighter financial pressures on the district mean that these types of devolution are necessary, but only where it can be demonstrated that the local councils can sustain the service.
Value for money
Wyre Forest has generated considerable savings as a result of devolution. During the 2019/20 year, a total localism saving was £254,480 compared to the expected expenditure without devolution. This represents a significant saving. Much of this saving has come as a result of devolving services or assets, for example, the transfer of Kidderminster Town hall has generated considerable savings, both from the transfer of the management, including reductions in spending on events including the Christmas Event which costs £8,000 per year, as well as support in legal, finance and ICT for the operation of the asset, which generates income of more than £15,000 per year. Additionally, the transfer of the asset itself will generate further savings over the next few years, as Wyre Forest pays a decreasing grant over the next five years, eventually saving Wyre Forest £117,250 per year as the grant payment ceases.
There have also been opportunities for Wyre Forest to save money more widely as a result of devolution, including the transfer of six members of staff as a result of devolution of the management of Kidderminster Town Hall.
There have been a number of benefits from this devolution. The civic hall in Stourport, which was transferred, was not well used previously, but this has now improved. Additionally, securing the long-term future of the assets, one of Wyre Forest’s ambitions in the context of devolution, has been secured through this work. This has provided opportunities for investment in assets and the maintenance of services, as well as being able to ensure services are more responsive and adapt to local need. This is true at all levels of asset or service, where even down to litter picking there has been far greater responsiveness in comparison to the service the district council was previously able to offer.
Ian Miller, Chief Executive, [email protected]
Extensive transfers of assets and services achieved over more than a decade, in the context of a deepening policy of localism
Number of parishes:
Total parish precept levied
Per cent of population covered by parishes
Since becoming a unitary authority in 2009, Cornwall has deepened its commitment to localism and worked to support parish and town councils to use their powers and actions to improve their communities. It has undertaken over 400 transfer of assets and services. The devolution of assets has played a role in meeting the council’s reduced budget position whilst safeguarding and in some cases, enhancing, local service delivery. One example of a transfer is given below.
Par Running Track
The future of Par Running Track was looking in doubt in 2016 with acute budget pressures facing councils, meaning that difficult decisions about prioritising service provision were being made. Luckily a group of enthusiastic and committed residents, track users and the local parish council, Tywardreath and Par Parish Council, came forward to co-develop a proposal that would lead to the site being leased from Cornwall Council into local management, via Par Track Ltd, a Community Benefit Society, established to oversee the implementation of the ambitious plans for the site.
As a future for the track and its facilities became more certain, Cornwall Council was able to invest a significant sum in resurfacing the track, important as there are limited options for track based sports and training within the Duchy. The transfer was undertaken as a 125 year lease arrangement and Cornwall Council also supported the project with a one-off capital grant to assist with other plans and costs that were necessary to ensure the site was transferred in a suitable condition from which the Society could further enhance the assets.
The vision of the local community was to create a hub at the site, with the provision of library services, a café, a gym, after school sports and a programme of ambitious events and investment that has seen the skate park being replaced, a green exercise trail installed and a BMX pump track to attract and support the health and well-being of a diverse range of residents and users.
The project has been recognised by MCHLG as a real success in its report 'By deeds and their results: How we will strengthen our communities and nation’. The role of local leaders has been instrumental in driving and delivering the project and together with a lot of hard work from the community has turned the site into a vibrant local facility that is at the heart of the community. The society has recently been able attract a new chair to sustain and continue the work to date and the project is a really good example of local ‘people power’ organising and contributing time and commitment to create a community led project that Par Track and its users can rightly be proud of.
Scott Sharples, Devolution - Communities & Public Protection Service, [email protected]
East Devon District Council and Beer Parish Council
Developing a process to encourage creation of packages of asset and service transfers to support sustainable provision by town and parish councils.
Number of parishes
Total parish precept levied
Per cent of population covered by parishes
East Devon District Council and Beer Parish Council have been involved in a local pilot to explore opportunities for asset devolution within a locality.
A package of transfer measures has been agreed for Beer, designed to allow the community to make better commercial and cultural use of seafront assets. It involves a mix of new responsibilities, including transfer of play areas, open spaces and public toilets, with initial support for costs, including retention of car park revenue, on a reducing taper.
Challenges arose in initial discussions as there was no clearly defined procedure; there was limited financial and running cost data about the assets; and it took time to create a sound business case which supported the transfer of assets and worked for both the district and parish councils. After further work and discussion, the transfers were agreed in October 2019. Over 10 years this is estimated to offer £300,000 in revenue savings to the district council. The parish council intends to seek rental income by exploiting a variety of commercial opportunities, building on the seafront location. As this will take time to ramp up, the district council is providing a dowry on an eight year reducing taper and retention of the car park revenue.
Building on the experience of the pilot, the district council is now consulting locally on a new procedure to provide a clear structure, indicative timetable, fundamental principles and expectations, to encourage other towns, parishes and community groups to apply for asset transfers. Part of the process will involve robust checking that there is a credible mutual business case to do so.
One aim of the new procedure will be to make it easier to negotiate a package approach with a local council, enabling cost implications to be balanced with the aim of achieving revenue neutrality and better outcomes for local people.
Tim Child, Service Lead – Place, Assets & Commercialisation
Durham County Council
Working with town and parish councils to achieve positive results for residents.
Number of parishes
Total parish precept levied
Per cent of population covered by parishes
104 (with 22 additional parish meetings)
Durham County Council’s relationship with parish and town councils has developed from practical arrangements between the principal council and individual parishes to the signing of a charter between local councils and the county council to ‘maximise a joint approach of local councils and the county council working together for the benefit of local people’. These benefits include: generating real service improvements; meeting the public’s expectation that services are joined up; achieving better value for money for residents; improving recycling resources within the local economy; and reducing budgetary pressure.
Devolution and delegation to local councils in Durham has followed an incremental approach tailored to the needs and characteristics of each parish. The choice of approach is dictated by ambition and an assessment of how to generate the greatest benefit for the council, the place and residents. There are four levels of collaboration, each of which provides additional autonomy for a parish wanting to take on a service.
- Collaborative assistance: working together when the principal and local council need to do so, particularly for urgent matters such as snow clearance.
- Reciprocal arrangements: broadly revenue neutral agreements where, for example, a town or parish can work on tending to flower beds in their area, while the county council cuts the grass. This has been used in areas such as Murton.
- Commissioning: where the parish or county pays the other party for extra work to be carried out. For example, Stanley Town Council commissions neighbourhood wardens through the county council, so ensuring that they have access to access vetting, police radios and other economy of scale benefits. Equally, the county council may pay town and parish councils to run local events.
- Devolution: which has been used to transfer a range of assets and services across the area to parish or town councils, such as community halls, parks and open spaces, and cemeteries.
Durham has been successful in delivering devolution with a small county council investment as part of the process. This has increased the appetite for and incentivised further devolution with participating parishes, and with others who had previously been more reluctant.
There have been genuine benefits to local communities because of devolution. An example is Shotton Parish Council. After considerable negotiation, the county council agreed to transfer the freehold for the community centre in the village to the parish council. The parish council was then able to invest some of its own money, along with investment from Durham County Council, funding from a section 106 agreement and from the Big Lottery fund, to finance the development of the centre as a new community hub. The building now hosts an IT resource centre which is available for residents of Shotton to book to use for job hunting or upskilling through the provision of courses focused on IT and other skills. The new hub opened early in 2020, and also benefits the community through activities such as youth clubs, dementia clubs and providing accessible community space.
In 2015, the council ran the Delivering Differently programme. This aimed to support town and parish councils to take on the delivery role of local environmental services through greater partnership working or through devolution. In total £90,000 in grant money was received from the then Department for Communities and Local Government to support this form of devolution.
The criteria for the Delivering Differently programme included a value for money element in deciding which proposals to take forward. The highest scoring proposal was from Barnard Castle Town Council, which took on the maintenance of some grassed areas. They also proposed to take on the maintenance of a play area and a TUPE transfer of one member of staff for cleaning toilets. This has generated revenue savings for Durham County Council. Similar projects have also been put in place in Sedgefield and in Brandon and Byshottles, also generating savings.
Oliver Sherratt, Head of Environment, Neighbourhoods and Climate Change, [email protected]
This framework was developed by consultants from Shared Intelligence. The section below sets out their methodology, drawing on three main areas of activity:
- Literature review. Shared Intelligence have reviewed a wide range of national and local documents about the role of town and parish councils. This includes an extensive range of publications NALC, its independent Improvement and Development Board, the LGA, some academic papers, and policy statements and guidance notes produced by individual local authorities.
- Interviews. Shared Intelligence have undertaken a series of qualitative interviews with principal and local council members and officers and representatives to understand their experience and messages for this framework. Several interviewees, as well as LGA People and Places Board members and LGA and NALC staff joined a workshop discussion, held on a Chatham House basis, which reviewed the contents of an early draft of this framework.
- Case studies. Shared Intelligence have had more detailed discussions with a number of areas to produce the case studies that feature in this report.
List of potential town and parish council roles in the One Somerset unitary business case.
Cemeteries and church yards
Open spaces - including both greenspaces
as well as ‘hard’ open spaces
Off and on-street car parking provision and
Volunteering (co-ordination; health, social
care, fostering, etc)
Roadside verges and other small open spaces
Leisure and arts centres
*Note allotments is the one service area town and parish councils have a duty provide if demand is unsatisfied
Minor highways functions such as minor road and footpath repairs, lining, signage
Minor development control functions, planning
applications (using neighbourhood planning and neighbourhood development orders), tree preservation orders and listed building consents (for example one or two new house developments and residential extensions, applications for smaller work spaces but
not applications for residential housing estates or large industrial development)
Grass cutting and open space maintenance (gullies, verges, drainage, closed churchyards)
Health and wellbeing - isolation/volunteering/
Community libraries, premises
Community safety/neighbourhood watch
Local town economic development
(. eg job clubs)
Local climate change initiatives (for example local green transport schemes while ensuring unitary has strategic overview)
Homelessness and social housing liaison and
Monitoring and enforcement of environmental
Control of markets
Licensing – event notices, street trading etc