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Parish Councils in United Kingdom

History: Parish Councils and the County Council

The powers and duties of a county council under the Local Government Act 1894 are numerous and varied, and the chief of them are mentioned hereafter in connexion with parish councils. The county council may establish a parish council in a parish which has a population of less than 300, and may group small parishes under a common parish council; in every case they fix the number of members of the parish council. They may authorize the borrowing of money by a parish council, and they may lend money to a parish council. They may hear complaints by a parish council that a district council has failed to provide sufficient sewerage or water-supply, or has failed to enforce the provisions of the Public Health Acts in their district, and on such complaint they may transfer to themselves and exercise the powers of the defaulting council, or they may appoint a person to perform those duties.

They may make orders for the custody and preservation of public books, writings, papers and documents belonging to a parish. They may divide a parish into wards for purposes of elections or of parish meetings. They may authorize district councils to aid persons in maintaining rights of common. They may, on the petition of a district council, transfer to themselves the powers of a district council who have refused or failed to take the necessary proceedings to assert public rights of way or protect roadside wastes. They may dispense with the disqualification of a parish or district councillor arising only by reason of his being a shareholder in a water company or similar company contracting with the council, and, as has above been stated, they have large powers of altering the boundaries of parishes. (1)

History: Parish Councils and the Urban District

They elected the churchwardens and overseers, the highway surveyor, if the parish was a separate unit for highway purposes, and the waywardens if it was included in a highway district. But there was nothing in the nature of a representative body exercising any powers of government in the parish regarded as a separate area. Under the act of 1894 this was changed. In every rural parish, that is to say, in every parish which is not included within an urban district, there is a parish meeting, which consists of the parochial electors of the parish. As already stated, these are the persons whose names are on the parliamentary and local government registers. If the parish has a population exceeding 300, a parish council must be elected. If it has a population of 100 or upwards, the county council are bound to make an order for the election of a parish council if the parish meeting so resolves.

Where there is no parish council, as will be seen hereafter, the various powers conferred upon a council are exercised by the parish meeting itself. Two or more parishes may be grouped together under a common parish council by order of the county council if the parish meetings of each parish consent. An annual parish meeting in every rural parish must be held on the 25th day of March or within seven days before or after that date; and if there is no parish council, there must be at least one other parish meeting in the year. At the annual parish meeting the parish council, if there is one, is elected, and the members of the council, who originally held office for one year only, now, under a subsequent act, hold office for three years. Any person who is a parochial elector, or who has for twelve months preceding the election resided in the parish, or within 3 m. thereof, may be elected parish councillor, and the number of councillors is to be fixed from time to time by the county council, not being less than five nor more than fifteen. Women, whether married or single, are eligible.

Powers to appoint overseers

The council are elected in manner provided by the rules of the Local Government Board. The rules now in force will be found in the Statutory Rules and Orders. They are very similar to those which are in force with reference to the elections of district councils, which have already been noticed. If a poll is demanded, it must be taken under the Ballot Act, as applied by the rules, and for all practical purposes it may be taken that the election proceeds in the same manner as that of a district council. The parish council elects a chairman annually. He may be one of their own number, or some other person qualified to be a parish councillor.

The council is a body corporate, may hold land in mortmain, and can appoint committees for its own parish or jointly with any other parish council. Among the powers conferred upon a parish council are those of appointing overseers and of appointing and revoking the appointment of assistant overseers. Churchwardens are no longer overseers, and the parish council may appoint as overseers a number of persons equal to the number formerly appointed as overseers and churchwardens. It may be useful to mention here that for purposes of the administration of the poor law, overseers no longer act, their duties in that respect having been superseded by the guardians. They remain, however, the rating authority so far as regards the poor rate and nearly all other rates, the exceptions being the general district rate in an urban district and the borough rate in a borough, made by the town council. They still have power to give relief to poor persons in case of sudden and urgent necessity, but their principal duty is that of rating authority, and they are bound to make out the lists for their parishes of jurors and electors. No payment is made to them. The office is compulsory, but certain persons are privileged from being elected to it.

The assistant overseer, who was formerly nominated by the inhabitants and vestry and then formally appointed by justices, is now, as has been stated, appointed by the parish council. He holds office at pleasure, and receives such remuneration as the council fix, and he performs all the duties of an overseer, or such of them as may be prescribed by the terms of his appointment. There may be in a parish a collector of rates appointed by the guardians. In that event, an assistant overseer cannot be appointed to perform the duties of collector of rates, but, on the other hand, the parish council may invest the collector with any of the powers of an overseer. The parish council may appoint a clerk, who may be either one of their own number without payment, or the assistant overseer, rate collector or some other fit person, with remuneration.

Powers and duties of parish councils

Among the duties transferred to parish councils may be mentioned the provision of parish books and of a vestry room or parochial office, parish chest, fire engine or fire escape, the holding or management of parish property, other than property relating to affairs of the church or held for an ecclesiastical charity, the holding or management of village greens or of allotments, the appointment of trustees of parochial charities other than ecclesiastical charities in certain cases, and certain limited powers with reference to the supply of water to the parish, the removal of nuisances, and the acquisition of rights of way which are beneficial to the inhabitants.

Public Lighting and Watching Act

Among the most important of the matters which concern a rural parish is the administration of what are commonly called the adoptive acts. These include the Lighting and Watching Act, the Baths and Washhouses Acts, the Burial Acts, the Improvement Act and the Public Libraries Acts. The Lighting and Watching Act was formerly adopted for a parish, or part of a parish, by the inhabitants in vestry, who elected lighting inspectors, of whom one-third went out of office in every year. The inspectors took the necessary steps for having the parish lighted (the provisions as to watching having been obsolete for many years), and the expenses of lighting were raised by the overseers upon an order issued to them by the inspectors. The owners and occupiers of houses, buildings and property, other than land, pay a rate in the £ three times greater than that at which the owners and occupiers of land are rated and pay for the purposes of the act. Now this act, like the other adoptive acts, can only be adopted by the parish meeting, and where adopted for part only of a parish, must be adopted by a parish meeting held for that part. After the adoption of the act it is carried into execution by the parish council, if there is one, and if not, by the parish meeting, and the expenses are raised in the same manner as heretofore.

Baths and Washhouses Acts

The Baths and Washhouses Acts have already been referred to in dealing with district councils, and it is sufficient to say that they are now adopted and administered in a rural parish in the manner pointed out with reference to the Lighting and Watching Act.

Burial Acts

The same may be said of the Burial Acts, but these are sufficiently important to require special notice. These acts contain provisions whereby burials may be prohibited in urban districts, and churchyards or burial grounds already existing may be closed when full. Formerly, when the acts had been adopted by the vestry, it was necessary to appoint a burial board to carry the acts into execution and provide and manage burial grounds. Now, in a rural parish which is coextensive with an area for which the acts have been adopted, the burial board is abolished and the acts are administered by the parish council; and the acts cannot be adopted in a rural parish save by the parish meeting. If the area under a burial board in 1894 was partly in a rural parish and partly in an urban district, the burial board was superseded, and the powers of the board are exercised by a joint committee appointed partly by the urban district council and partly by the parish council, or parish meeting, as the case may be. In a rural parish where there is no parish council, though the acts are adopted by the parish meeting, it is still necessary to elect the burial board, and that board will be elected by the parish meeting.

The distinction between a burial ground under the Burial Acts and a cemetery provided under the Public Health Acts has already been noticed. A burial ground, properly so called, has to be divided into consecrated and unconsecrated portions, and the former really takes the place of the parish churchyard; and the incumbent of the parish church, the clerk, and the sexton continue to receive the same fees upon burials in the consecrated portion as they would have done in the parish churchyard. It has been mentioned that a portion of the burial ground must be left unconsecrated. But this is subject to one important exception, that the parish meeting may unanimously resolve that the whole of the burial ground shall be consecrated. In that case, however, the parish council may, within ten years thereafter, determine that a separate unconsecrated burial ground shall also be provided for the parish. The expenses of the execution of the Burial Acts are provided by the overseers out of the poor rate upon the certificate of the body entrusted with the execution of them. In the event of the acts being adopted for a portion only of a rural parish, the burial board, or the parish meeting, may by resolution transfer all the powers of the board to the parish council.

Public Improvement Act

The Public Improvement Act, when adopted, enables a parish council to purchase or lease, or accept gifts of land for the purpose of forming public walks, exercise or play grounds, and to provide for the expense by means of a parish improvement rate. Before any such rate is imposed, however, a sum in amount not less than at least half of the estimated cost of the proposed improvement must have been raised by private 442 subscription or donation, and the rate must not exceed sixpence in the £.

Public Libraries Acts

The Public Libraries Acts enable the authority adopting them to provide public libraries, museums, schools for science, art galleries and schools for art. The expenses in a rural parish are defrayed by means of a rate raised with, and as part of, the poor rate, with a qualification to the effect that agricultural land, market gardens and nursery grounds are to be assessed to the rate at one-third only of their rateable value.

Finance: expenses of parish council

The expenses of a parish council may not, without the consent of a parish meeting, exceed the amount of a rate of threepence in the £ for the financial year; but with the consent of the parish meeting the limit may be increased to sixpence, exclusive of expenses under the adoptive acts. If it is necessary to borrow, the consent of the parish meeting and of the county council must be obtained. The expenses are payable out of the poor rate by the overseers on the precept of the parish council.

One of the most important powers conferred upon a parish council is that which enables them to prevent stoppage or diversion of any public right of way without their consent and without the approval of the parish meeting. The council may also complain to the county council that the district council have failed to sewer their parish or provide a proper water-supply, or generally to enforce the provisions of the Burial Acts; and upon such complaint, if ascertained to be well founded, the county council may transfer to themselves the powers and duties of the district council, or may appoint a competent person to perform such powers and duties.

In a parish which is not sufficiently large to have a parish council, most of the powers and duties conferred or imposed on the parish council are exercised by the parish meeting. It may be convenient here to add that where, under the Local Government Act 1894, the powers of a parish council are not already possessed by an urban district council, the Local Government Board may by order confer such powers on the urban council. This has been done almost universally, as far as regards the power to appoint overseers and assistant overseers, and in many cases urban councils have also obtained powers to appoint trustees of parochial charities. (2)



Notes and References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (11th Edition)
  2. Id.

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  • Article Name: Parish Councils
  • Author: International
  • Description: History: Parish Councils and the County Council The powers and duties of a county council under the Local Government Act [...]

This entry was last updated: November 4, 2020

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