There are approximately nine thousand parishes in England, and their history goes back to the Local Government Act of 1894. Some sixteen million people in England live within parished areas, and the local taxation of precept that they raise (a listed part of the Community Charge) is in the order of six hundred million pounds. Parish Councils are the foundation tier of local government, with powers and duties to improve the lives of their parishioners through representation to higher tiers such as regional authorities and government, and through direct provision of services. Parish Councillors are elected to office but unpaid, and serve terms of service to their communities for the public benefit.
In my parish of Charfield, and perhaps where you live too, housing development has increased the number of dwellings in the parish. When I moved to my village at the turn of the century there were 962 dwellings. All of these, whether owner occupied or rented, where supported and represented by the Parish Council. Since then, several developments have increased the number of dwellings to around 1280 (the figure is not exact and waits the results of the 2021 census). So far no big deal. But there is a significaant difference in many of these newer dwellings that seems to be slipping under the local authority radar.
Three of the recent estates in our village amount to nearly three hundred homes – about a quarter of the total village. They are built on private land, managed by private management companies for which there is a fee per household. These management companies look after the public open space, playground and recreation areas, allotments and, unless the local authority adopts them, even the roads, pavements and streetlights. Things that in other times would often have been the responsibility of the parish council.
The issue came to mind when as a parish councillor I was contacted by a resident on one of the new estates, and I was unable directly to assist the parishioner because the matter was connected to the land management company. I did what I could, but felt a little irritated and indeed disempowered as a councillor that I could not respond beyond referring them to their contractor, and I’m sure the resident felt likewise. I am still their representative in many aspects, and they pay as much as any other resident in their taxation band, but in some matters I am excluded from assisting.
One might argue that these homes are being triple taxed; they pay the community charge, through which the parish precept is also collected, and they pay a private fee for matters more regularly the provenance of the parish council. Caveat Emptor, one might say. Land fees are clearly advised during sale negotiation but, like leasehold charges, are not always appreciated in the mountain of detail digested during a house purchase. But there’s a long term issue here; a dilution of the parish and of local government. one could call it a ‘privatisation of place’.
As more and more private estates are developed, the role of the foundation tier of local government becomes watered down. Capitalism begins to own very the ground you live upon. What can be done to address what seems to me to be a threat to local democracy?
Here are two options I’ve thought of which might bear further examination. Firstly, there is a role for the Local Planning Authority, which here is within the county council. Either when initial negotiations begin at the pre-planning stage, or in a Condition on agreed planning permissions, it could be settled that all open space and facilities are devolved to the local authority. At this stage it doesn’t matter if that’s the county council or the parish council or, more likely, a split between both. An alternative is primary legislation, perhaps via an Early Day Motion from the local MP (and, yes, I’m bringing this article to his attention).
Both of these strategies would present a burden to existing and future land management companies, and also to local authorities. There would no doubt be push-back and lobbying of Parliament, especially in the EDM example. However, there seems to me currently to be a situation growing ever more significant that dilutes the existing legislation of the Local Government Acts (there are many, the most recent being 2010). Eventually, it might be envisaged that all housing developments would be privately managed and, over a short transitional period, the lower tier of government has been privatised without anyone really noticing.
(first draft, subject to being improved, laughed at, or deleted at whim.)