Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Making it easier to set up new town and parish councils

The Department for Communities and Local Government is consulting on changes to the way parish and town councils are set up in England.

Community governance reviews are triggered by a petition

Since the 2007 legislation that allowed parish councils to be formed in Greater London, a new mechanism called a community governance review has been used to create town and parish councils. This represented a devolution of power from the secretary of state to the principal local authorities.

Taking Queen's Park as an example, the only successful parish council in London to date, it took four years from having the idea to form a council in 2010 to coming into their powers in 2014. This is partly due to electoral cycles, but also the guidance for governance reviews which allows local authorities in excess of a year to set the terms of reference and complete the review.

The governance review is only triggered once enough signatures have been collected on a petition. The consultation makes a number of suggested changes to the guidance for principal authorities and has the option of changes to legislation. The department would like responses to their consultation by 9 January 2013.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

YouTube Channel

I've started a YouTube channel to share videos that I find related to community governance in London. You can subscribe here.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Who will be next...?

Had a bit of time to check for evidence of communities thinking about forming parish councils. Queen's Park have been successful and will form a parish council in 2014. But what of the other attempts? I can find fifteen and all are at very different stages. The earliest stage of forming a parish council appears to be a period of discourse. This is often internet-based and then spills over into local newspapers, or is triggered by a local politician and perhaps involves correspondence with the local council. The setting up of a dedicated website or Facebook group is an indicator things are moving along and that there is someone driving the proposal forward. Things are really getting serious when there is a public meeting. London Fields and Wapping have reached this stage, but not beyond it. Only Queen's Park have successfully moved to the stage of petitioning the local council for a governance review.
See below for key to prospective councils
But what do these prospective councils point to? Firstly the geographical spread is interesting. Not only are the majority in the Inner London area that has no history of parish councils, but many are on the central London fringe. Only Chingford fits the anticipated profile of a community on the Greater London boundary looking to copy the experience of communities on the other side. Often the desire to form a council references something about identity and difference to "the rest" of the borough in which the community is situated. Communities on edges and boundaries (Crystal Palace, Forest Gate, Kilburn and Thamesmead) are  notably present. But parish councils cannot cross borough lines and cannot be used to ameliorate for the effects of London's often arbitrary (although often ancient) borough boundaries. It would be wrong to suggest people want to form parish councils for political reasons, but often the political profile of these areas differs from the rest of the local authority.

Back to the question "Who will be next...?" It is hard to say, as no community seems anywhere near as driven as the Queen's Park campaign. The most activity appears to be around the idea of councils in the north of Southwark, which is interesting as this borough has the most significant devolved area committee arrangements in Greater London. Has this experience been enough to convince the community they want more?

List of prospective councils:
Bermondsey (Southwark)
Borough & Bankside (Southwark)
Chingford (Waltham Forest)
Forest Gate (Newham)
Harlesden (Brent)
Kilburn (Camden)
London Fields (Hackney)
Mayfair (Westminster)
Mitcham (Merton)
Norton Folgate (Tower Hamlets)
Upper Norwood (Croydon)
Queen's Park (Westminster)
Thamesmead (Bexley / Greenwich)
Wapping (Tower Hamlets)
Waterloo (Lambeth)

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Planning Aid for London: Other Models for Neighbourhood Planning in London

In July I spoke at a Planning Aid for London event on neighbourhood planning in London, the creation of urban parishes and alternative forms of community governance. The slides from the event are available here.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Does success for Queen’s Park Parish Council point to how others will fail?

I've been looking forward to the opportunity to write a little about Queen's Park and their bid to form a parish council in London. This community has been the first to gain the necessary approval of their local authority. What is notable about this group is the speed in which they have been able to do this. The legislative powers to form parish councils in London were granted in 2007 and became available from 2008. However, the community did not look to form a parish council until after the general election in 2010. The election of the first parish councillors will take place in May 2014. Four years to set up a parish council may seem a long time, but given the administrative and other hurdles to get over it is difficult to see how they could have done it any quicker. I believe it is unlikely that any other group will be able to repeat their speedy success. I'm going to set out the hurdles a prospective parish council faces and why I think this group overcame them.

Boundaries: where does our community end?

The first hurdle is deciding on boundaries. Where does the community begin and end? This is much more problematic in Greater London than anywhere else because of the endless urban sprawl. Our communities are officially defined only by relatively large boroughs (32 covering 8 million people) and electoral wards (624 of them) that rarely coincide with what we would call a community. An added complication is that civil parishes cannot cross borough boundaries. So communities that sprawl into other boroughs cannot be united as one. In Queen's Park they chose to use an electoral ward. There are a variety of reasons for this. Firstly, it was already being used as a neighbourhood area by Paddington Development Trust so is an existing functional community for governance purposes. Secondly, administrative geography meant that the ward is surrounded on three sides by other boroughs with an isthmus connecting it to Westminster. Far from a protracted discussion on boundaries which could delay another parish council proposal, the boundaries were already self-evident and not a point of contention.

Support, powers and precept

The next hurdles connect with the need to get support. The first is the extent to which a parish council is understood to have sufficient powers to be worthwhile and the second is the extent to which paying increased council tax (known as a precept) is considered acceptable by the community. In the case of Queen's Park the reason for setting up the council was to secure a new means of funding. The grant from government had been cut and the community needed to find a new way to fund local activities. The problem of the precept was therefore turned on its head. Far from being an onerous means to an end, it was the very mechanism the community required and a way for them to help themselves. The other power of the parish council, often overlooked, was the permanence. The structures that had relied on ad hoc grants from government were under threat, but a new parish council would not face abolition merely because of limited funds. The powers of the parish council are fairly limited and this puts off some groups going through the effort of setting one up. In Queen’s Park there were at least two powers they could identify as worth the trouble.

Petition for a community governance review

Gathering popular support is a requirement for setting up a parish council. In order to force the local council to consider setting one up it is necessary to trigger a community governance review. This is done by organising a petition which must be signed by at least 10% of electors. In Queen’s Park there was a very well organised campaign which maximised limited resources. The existing community governance infrastructure and access to a community empowerment practitioner undoubtedly helped to make this petition a success. Genuine community support for the proposal was also present and vital to a such a bid succeeding. As Westminster is a focus for London regional media it was possible for the group to gain some considerable publicity. Had the campaign been in Hillingdon or Sutton this might not have been so easy to achieve.

Once the petition is submitted to the borough council they have a year in which to consider the proposal. There are a number of things that could delay or derail a proposal. It cannot proceed if it is felt the proposed boundaries are not viable, for example by leaving a small part of the borough cut off from the rest, and unable to form parish council in future. As part of the governance review the council will consider the whole borough, not just the area of the proposal. The borough council can choose to approve the new parish or suggest amendments to the proposal, which might include changing the boundaries. The council could divide the whole borough up into civil parishes. This is exactly what happened in Milton Keynes in 2001.

Final hurdle

In the event Westminster did none of these things. It agreed the parish council in principle as proposed, but produced a final hoop for the community to jump through: a non-binding referendum of local electors. I believe adding this step points to the ambivalence of local authorities to parish councils. They are neither enthusiastically behind them nor outright in opposition to them. If they were so minded, Westminster could have rejected the proposal and justified it with a range of reasons. But at the same time they could have approved it at this point, based on the petition, dialogue with the proposers and the responses to the governance review consultation.

68% of electors voted to approve the parish council and the first elections will take place in May 2014 at the same time as the London borough council elections. It may seem like a lengthy process, and it is. However, Queen’s Park have probably navigated it about as quickly as is possible. Other campaigns have got stuck very early in this process and even had they got past initial conversations about boundaries the introduction at the last minute of additional hurdles such as a referendum might have derailed them entirely. Queen’s Park represented a well organised and well supported campaign, and Westminster a typical local authority in terms of its attitude to community governance. Without the special set of circumstances that existed in Queen’s Park it is unlikely that we will be seeing the introduction of further parish councils in London soon.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

London's first parish council

Following a referendum organised by Westminster City Council, it looks very likely that the first parish council in Greater London since 1936 will be created in Queen's Park, Westminster in 2014. The formal decision will be made at a council meeting in June.

View Queen's Park, Westminster CP in a larger map

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

London's last parish council

BBC article today suggested that a new parish council for Queen's Park would be the first in 50 years. It is actually more like 75 years as the last parish council was abolished in 1936, not in 1965 as implied. But where was this last parish council?

There have been around 55 parish councils in the current area of Greater London. Almost all were created in 1894 and all were gone by 1936. All were situated in what is now Outer London. No mechanism has ever existed before 2007 to create a parish council in Inner London. Parish councils were created systematically in 1894. All of the country was already divided into civil parishes and any that were outside a borough or urban district (the big towns) got a parish council.

As London was expanding the number of parish councils started to decline. This was because when civil parishes became absorbed by boroughs or urban districts they were no longer permitted to have a parish council. The Local Government Act 1929 created a new mechanism - the county review order - which sped up the process of removing parish councils. The trigger for reform was usually an increase in population. In inter-war Outer London it was not uncommon for a parish to have a tenfold increase in population within a decade as suburban housing was constructed.

The loss of a parish council did not always equal a reduction in identity and local decision making. In this period the change from parish council was often a conversion to urban governance to reflect increased population, rather than an amalgamation with an adjacent district. The efficiency consensus that bigger was better had not yet been reached. However some outcomes of the reviews under the 1929 act were that very large urban districts such as Harrow, Hornchurch and Orpington replaced a number of parishes that had each previously enjoyed a parish council.

1934 was a big year for the parish council in Greater London. By the end of the year only one remained. Interestingly it was the now still semi-rural North Ockendon that survived two more years to 1936. The conversion to urban governance was perhaps in anticipation of house building there. In the event the Second World War and the Metropolitan Green Belt kept the suburban sprawl just a few hundred yards from the parish. North Ockendon was further made an anomaly with the construction of the M25 motorway and is now the only part of Greater London outside the limit it forms. It also holds the distinction of being the last place in Greater London to have a parish council from 1894 to 1936.

View North Ockendon in a larger map

Full list of parish councils and dates abolished

Chislehurst 1900
Foots Cray 1902
Feltham 1904
Hayes (Hillingdon) 1904
Ruislip 1904
Arkley 1905
Merton 1907
Yiewsley 1911
Morden 1913
Totteridge 1914
Beddington 1915
Coulsdon 1915
Mitcham 1915
Sanderstead 1915
Wallington 1915
Crayford 1920
Addington 1925
Dagenham 1926
Hornchurch 1926
Northolt 1928
Cowley 1929
Harefield 1929
Hillingdon East 1929
Ickenham 1929
West Drayton 1929
Bedfont 1930
Cranford 1930
East Bedfont 1930
Hanworth 1930
Harlington 1930
Harmondsworth 1930
Edgware 1931
Chelsfield 1934
Cranham 1934
Cudham 1934
Downe 1934
Farnborough 1934
Great Stanmore 1934
Harrow Weald 1934
Havering-atte-Bower 1934
Hayes (Bromley) 1934
Keston 1934
Little Stanmore 1934
Mottingham 1934
Noak Hill 1934
North Cray 1934
Orpington 1934
Pinner 1934
Rainham 1934
St Mary Cray 1934
St Paul's Cray 1934
Upminster 1934
Wennington 1934
West Wickham 1934
North Ockendon 1936

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Parish Watch Update

Time has come to update the list of potential community (parish) councils in London. Here are the proposed councils that have been suggested for Greater London in the past few years. Official campaign sites are given where they exist. If you know of any others, do tell me!

Wards in Greater London with community (parish) council proposals (2007-2012)

  • Chingford (Waltham Forest)
  • Harlesden (Brent)
  • Kilburn (Camden)
  • London Fields (Hackney)
  • Mayfair (Westminster)
  • Mitcham (Merton)
  • Norton Folgate (Tower Hamlets)
  • Queen's Park (Westminster)
  • South Bank (Southwark)
  • Thamesmead (Greenwich)
  • Wapping (Tower Hamlets)
Of these only Queen's Park in Westminster has got to the stage of triggering a community governance review, which is a required precursor to setting up a council.

Low tech version

Thursday, 9 February 2012


A milestone has been achieved and my research plans have received ethical approval. This means I can start approaching organisations and individuals who might be able to help me answer my research question. My timetable means I will start doing this later in 2012 and will be collecting data through interviews during 2012/2013. Hopefully writing up my thesis in 2014.

Saturday, 4 February 2012


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Thursday, 2 February 2012

Parish is a loaded term

An odd tale has been reported about the church leaders setting up a parish council in Mayfair. This is impossible as a parish council is a civil organisation. It isn't clear where the misunderstanding is coming from, either the church leaders, or the Evening Standard reporter, or both. What it does perhaps highlight is the problem with the nomenclature. The word 'parish' is instantly linked to the church, even though the connection between the two organisations has been broken for over 100 years.
Legislation in 1855 broke any connection between the church
of St George Hanover Square and civil administration

Perhaps it was wise that the 2007 legislation that enabled these councils in London made the change to allow them to be called community or neighbourhood councils instead of parish. They already had the right to be called a town council if they so desired. It might be time to drop the 'parish' name altogether, at least for new creations, and in particular in urban areas unfamiliar with the concept of a civil parish. Although it was reported that a 'church parish council' existed in Mayfair until 1899, this is false. Parish councils never existed in central London and even where they did they were never in any way connected to the church.