Friday, 29 June 2012

Does success for Queen’s Park Parish Council point to how others will fail?

I've been looking forward to the opportunity to write a little about Queen's Park and their bid to form a parish council in London. This community has been the first to gain the necessary approval of their local authority. What is notable about this group is the speed in which they have been able to do this. The legislative powers to form parish councils in London were granted in 2007 and became available from 2008. However, the community did not look to form a parish council until after the general election in 2010. The election of the first parish councillors will take place in May 2014. Four years to set up a parish council may seem a long time, but given the administrative and other hurdles to get over it is difficult to see how they could have done it any quicker. I believe it is unlikely that any other group will be able to repeat their speedy success. I'm going to set out the hurdles a prospective parish council faces and why I think this group overcame them.

Boundaries: where does our community end?

The first hurdle is deciding on boundaries. Where does the community begin and end? This is much more problematic in Greater London than anywhere else because of the endless urban sprawl. Our communities are officially defined only by relatively large boroughs (32 covering 8 million people) and electoral wards (624 of them) that rarely coincide with what we would call a community. An added complication is that civil parishes cannot cross borough boundaries. So communities that sprawl into other boroughs cannot be united as one. In Queen's Park they chose to use an electoral ward. There are a variety of reasons for this. Firstly, it was already being used as a neighbourhood area by Paddington Development Trust so is an existing functional community for governance purposes. Secondly, administrative geography meant that the ward is surrounded on three sides by other boroughs with an isthmus connecting it to Westminster. Far from a protracted discussion on boundaries which could delay another parish council proposal, the boundaries were already self-evident and not a point of contention.

Support, powers and precept

The next hurdles connect with the need to get support. The first is the extent to which a parish council is understood to have sufficient powers to be worthwhile and the second is the extent to which paying increased council tax (known as a precept) is considered acceptable by the community. In the case of Queen's Park the reason for setting up the council was to secure a new means of funding. The grant from government had been cut and the community needed to find a new way to fund local activities. The problem of the precept was therefore turned on its head. Far from being an onerous means to an end, it was the very mechanism the community required and a way for them to help themselves. The other power of the parish council, often overlooked, was the permanence. The structures that had relied on ad hoc grants from government were under threat, but a new parish council would not face abolition merely because of limited funds. The powers of the parish council are fairly limited and this puts off some groups going through the effort of setting one up. In Queen’s Park there were at least two powers they could identify as worth the trouble.

Petition for a community governance review

Gathering popular support is a requirement for setting up a parish council. In order to force the local council to consider setting one up it is necessary to trigger a community governance review. This is done by organising a petition which must be signed by at least 10% of electors. In Queen’s Park there was a very well organised campaign which maximised limited resources. The existing community governance infrastructure and access to a community empowerment practitioner undoubtedly helped to make this petition a success. Genuine community support for the proposal was also present and vital to a such a bid succeeding. As Westminster is a focus for London regional media it was possible for the group to gain some considerable publicity. Had the campaign been in Hillingdon or Sutton this might not have been so easy to achieve.

Once the petition is submitted to the borough council they have a year in which to consider the proposal. There are a number of things that could delay or derail a proposal. It cannot proceed if it is felt the proposed boundaries are not viable, for example by leaving a small part of the borough cut off from the rest, and unable to form parish council in future. As part of the governance review the council will consider the whole borough, not just the area of the proposal. The borough council can choose to approve the new parish or suggest amendments to the proposal, which might include changing the boundaries. The council could divide the whole borough up into civil parishes. This is exactly what happened in Milton Keynes in 2001.

Final hurdle

In the event Westminster did none of these things. It agreed the parish council in principle as proposed, but produced a final hoop for the community to jump through: a non-binding referendum of local electors. I believe adding this step points to the ambivalence of local authorities to parish councils. They are neither enthusiastically behind them nor outright in opposition to them. If they were so minded, Westminster could have rejected the proposal and justified it with a range of reasons. But at the same time they could have approved it at this point, based on the petition, dialogue with the proposers and the responses to the governance review consultation.

68% of electors voted to approve the parish council and the first elections will take place in May 2014 at the same time as the London borough council elections. It may seem like a lengthy process, and it is. However, Queen’s Park have probably navigated it about as quickly as is possible. Other campaigns have got stuck very early in this process and even had they got past initial conversations about boundaries the introduction at the last minute of additional hurdles such as a referendum might have derailed them entirely. Queen’s Park represented a well organised and well supported campaign, and Westminster a typical local authority in terms of its attitude to community governance. Without the special set of circumstances that existed in Queen’s Park it is unlikely that we will be seeing the introduction of further parish councils in London soon.