Local government minister Simon Clarke recently caused a spat on Twitter, referring to ‘parent councils’ in an exchange about parish councils. It was good he joined the conversation, but his phraseology was rightly criticised. Districts and unitaries can hold community governance reviews that create, merge, split or even abolish parish councils, but they are not their parents.
Parish councils are independent local authorities which enjoy more autonomy than their principal authority cousins. They choose what services and assets they run. While some larger town and parish councils have significant operations and various income streams, most depend on a tax they set for 100% of their income.
Whitehall’s language is often unnecessarily inaccurate. London boroughs are not ‘upper tier’ when the Greater London Authority exists. Most areas that are described as ‘two-tier’ have parish councils and some, such as Cambridgeshire, also have a mayoral combined authority.
The minister’s speech at the virtual Local Government Association (LGA) Conference praised ‘city region mayors, who each have the powers to stimulate job creation, build homes, improve transport and reduce local carbon emissions’. These are the powers of principal authorities. District councils are the strategic housing and planning authorities, responsible for air quality as part of their responsibility for environmental health.
The minister said ‘we will always be led by the evidence’. England is over-centralised: powers and funding need to be taken away from Whitehall, but should this require local government reorganisation and more mayoral combined authorities? It is too soon for evidence that they produce better economic outcomes and ‘levelling up’. ‘Better’ performance might reflect greater propensity for growth in city regions, reinforced by the location of universities, businesses and excellent transport links – advantages which many shire county areas may lack.
The Government’s prescription of ‘many more elected mayors and unitary councils’ in the devolution White Paper will ‘remove the complexity of governance and reduce costs to the taxpayer’ only by making principal authorities more remote. District and shire county councils would all face abolition. In ‘making space for town and parish councils to be genuinely empowered’, let’s hope Whitehall doesn’t think that they will need parenting.
Ian Miller is chief executive of Wyre Forest DC