The Blog

Parish Councils in London

A recent statement from the United Nations on the shape of the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals asked the question. How can we shape our cities so that everyone can enjoy a decent quality of life whilst protecting the environment? This is a fundamental question when we consider that 3.5 billion people live in the planets cities today and by 2030 it is estimated that 60 per cent of the world's population will live in urban areas. The way that we govern our cities then is central to achieving a sustainable development whatever that might look like. Is the resurgence of parish councils in our cities the answer? This is also a question that is currently rising to the top of the political agenda in England and Wales as Queens Park Parish, the first parish council in London for 50 years looks to its elections on the 22nd of May.

Parish councils are the closest level of government to their communities and can and do play a pivotal role in shaping these communities. They are constituent of and should be representative of these communities and are therefore best placed to understand local needs. Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has described parish councils as the magic wand of localism. But whilst this rhetoric is all well and good the reality may be in stark contrast with some arguing that this represents a clash between economic growth and sustainable development as parish's are provided with increased powers whilst their resource base is squeezed.

Furthermore, at the ground level parish councils are incumbent with their own barriers for effectively enhancing their communities. These have been documented within the traditional rural communities which parish councils serve. Whilst different dynamics exist in rural areas there are some important and transferable lessons to be learned for emerging urban parish's. There are a number of words that represent these issues that are seen to be used repeatedly and often predictably in these discussions. These include but are not limited to, communication, consultation and training. These are of course important issues that are highly relevant to parish councils, and indeed any organisation. But for me there are three issues I want to elaborate on that move to the heart of an effective parish. These are identity, governance and of course community.

Identity: The first barrier is an inappropriate misconception of what a parish council represents. It represents a focus point where different flows and networks converge to deliver services, catalyse innovation and improve wellbeing ultimately crating a sustainable community. A parish council is a hybrid organisation, it is both a statutory body and a third sector organisation as the councillors are volunteers but must respond in a business like fashion to make the best use of resources at their disposal. And this is achieved through efficiency, effective goal setting and allocation of these resources.

Governance: Here the first step is identifying the tensions and opportunities in the relationship between the different tiers of government. What is important is not to dismiss or obscure this reality but instead to expose and address issues that may arise. It may often be the case that it is individual personalities that create or intensify these divisions instead of political or practical circumstances. Governance also refers to the ability of the council to engage effectively with other actors that impact on local communities. This includes third sector organisations, businesses and other community based groups. A parish council then must become an expert at multiagency working whilst being firmly focused on community needs.

Community: And last but not least community. In the denser urban environments the socio economic boundaries are not so easily identified and a parish administration should be sensitive to this fact. The intensity of city flows and rhythms, increased population numbers and the increased scale of service provision pose a significant challenge for the establishment and successful running of parish councils within our cities. Queens Park Parish is an exciting addition to local government and has real potential to enhance the lives of those living within that community. I believe that in ten years parish councils will be common place on the city landscape. But how they will map onto this landscape and affect it demographically, economically, socially and environmentally is not certain.