Lancashire County Council has approved a new charter in which it pledges how it will engage with the more than 200 parish and town councils in its area.
While County Hall is responsible for major services like social care, highways and schools, parish authorities aim to improve the quality of life for locals in their patch by helping to deal with issues occurring on residents' doorsteps and enhancing public spaces.
In spite of the power gulf between them, the work and ambitions of the parishes often brings them into the orbit of the county council - regularly requiring collaboration and consultation between the highest and lowest levels of local government in Lancashire.
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The charter is a refresh of a document first drawn up in 2008 and last revised nine years ago. The latest version contains dozens of pledges from County Hall - including a promise to maintain a direct point of contact for parish and town councils to enable them to raise issues and receive a prompt response.
It also commits the county to engaging with them “on all issues that are likely to affect their area” and even floats the idea of delegating responsibility for some services to parishes, where this is deemed appropriate and with their agreement.
In return, parish councils are expected to “act as a conduit between the local community and Lancashire County Council” and also “take responsibility for engaging with their local community on matters relevant to their area”, promoting public consultations being run by County Hall.
County council cabinet member for cultural services Peter Buckley said that the charter recognises that parishes “come with a variety of needs, aspirations [and] budgets”.
At a cabinet meeting where it was endorsed, County Cllr Buckley invited individual parishes to discuss the charter at meetings of their own authorities in order to ensure that it formed part of a “two-way process”.
Cabinet member for adult services Graham Gooch - who has chaired Longton Parish Council for more than 16 years - said that the charter should be seen as a way of empowering parishes.
“Many of them could do more - and I think this is a way of stimulating them into action,” he added.
Small they may be, but parish and town councils have significant revenue-raising powers and are able to levy a charge - or “precept” - on the council tax bills of those living in their area. Unlike the county council - and also district authorities like Preston, Chorley and South Ribble - the annual increase in a parish council’s portion of council tax is not capped.
Parishes and neighbourhoods also receive a share of community infrastructure levy payments made to local planning authorities from housing developers building in their area.
County Cllr Aidy Riggott, cabinet member for economic growth and development, is also a member of Euxton Parish Council. He said that parishes have a “desire to…deliver things in their community and [a] willingness to work with other partners, especially [the county council] to do that”.
He added: “I think a great deal of good will come for Lancashire communities at a real grassroots level by us having better relationships driven by this charter.”
The relationship between county and parish is not always an easy one. As the Local Democracy Reporting Service reported earlier this year, several parish councils reacted angrily after learning that their plans to put up hanging baskets and Christmas bunting could be threatened by a requirement for them to pay for lampposts - the property of the county council - to be tested to ensure that they could bear the weight of the decoartions.
Speaking after the revised charter was approved at County Hall, Debra Platt, from the Lancashire Association of Local Councils (LALC), said that the refreshed document was welcome news “after calls from local councils that relationships with our county council could be better”.
“Representatives of LALCs executive worked alongside county and local council colleagues on the charter's review. The pledges to improve communications and assist local councils to carry out their valuable work in their communities will be well-received - and I hope will help build a productive working relationship with the county council."
The chartrer was drawn up as part of a prcess which saw 15 representatives of parish and town councils sit on a county council-run working group which explored how the county and parish councils could operate better together.
Only half of Lancashire's residents are currently represented by a parish or town council, with the remainder being “unparished”.
Across the county, there are 212 parished areas - represented by over 180 parish councils, 19 town councils and one neighbourhood council.