The purpose behind the 1894 legislation (which Gladstone used to set up Civil Parishes) was to separate civil and religious powers in England (rural England in particular) but since then why has no government seen fit to Parish the whole of England?
To those of us in the parish movement (I mean Parish Councillors) it seems such an obvious thing to do if managing communities effectively at the grass roots is a desirable outcome; which it clearly is. So let’s examine why it has not happened and sadly may well never happen.
Firstly, we live in a significantly centralised democracy and since the Second World War it has probably become more centralised. Power is firmly gripped at Westminster and all governments, no matter what they say before taking office and certainly after they have taken office, seem to fall for the argument that letting the natives do what they want is simply not good for them. For that buzz word localism read ‘we need to let the natives think they are gaining more control over their affairs and the communities they live in whilst not really giving them much at all’.
We can see this played out in planning regulations over generations where centralised policies and edicts are made over how many houses should be built for example, even targets (remember the Regional Strategies) for house building are imposed at times.
But hang on don’t all the main political parties talk about decentralisation and localism? Well yes they do but in practice anything that is devolved is either sent down with strings attached or is a reasonably worthless sop such as Neighbourhood Planning.
Then there is the existing spread of parish councils. Are they a good advert for further and/or real decentralisation? I am sure you can find both good and poor examples to justify an answer either way but frankly the parish councils sector is not well organised, it does not effectively campaign and it is taken little notice of by all governments.
But why is that the case? It is probably because of the extremely diverse nature of parish councils and finding two alike is hard work. Governments like dealing with Districts, Boroughs and County Councils because they are predicable, usually do as they are told and can have their funding put at risk by not following the governmental line. Is there any wonder then that national politicians who think Westminster is the be all and end all of democracy don’t care for a local government sector that is incredibly diverse, sleepy in some quarters whilst too innovative and over active (for Government tastes) in others, is staunchly independent and presently still has fund raising powers that are significantly un-fettered by government?
Take Eric Pickles that blunt and controlling Yorkshire chap. He seems, as a Minister of the Crown, to be pondering on trying to control parish precepts! What business is it of his; a parish precept is a matter between the parish council and the folks who live in that parish. Why on earth would anyone outside of a parish have any wish to interfere in that very local democratic process?
But for my money the problem is that parish councils need to become more credible despite their diverse nature because if they don’t truly local grass roots democracy will never be endorsed by any government in terms of powers available and extending parish councils across all of England. The big question is how do they become more credible and break down the walls of our stifling centralising democracy?