For anyone who isn’t sure about the role of a Parish Council in modern life, here is a brief history on the origins and formation of Parish Councils.
Lorraine McNeill – Clerk to Sunningdale Parish Council, Berkshire
Parish Council, also known as a Local Council, is a statutory local authority in its own right. It has a wide variety of powers conferred by many statutes (Acts of Law), which it administers within it’s parish boundary (local authority area).
A common misconception is that today’s Parish Council is in some way connected with, or part of, the Church. The confusion arises over the word “parish”, but to fully understand this a brief history lesson is required.
The origins of most English parishes dates back over 500 years to a time when England was divided into areas known as ‘manors’ owned by Lords. The Lord of the Manor had a civil responsibility to maintain his starving tenants through the right of levy (taxation). This was imposed using an assembly system of local administration known as a ‘court’. Over time and as the manor courts’ power declined, the influence, wealth and responsibility of the Church increased. Gradually the Lord of the Manor’s rights and responsibilities were taken over by the Church, which had recognised rights and obligations of charity to the poor. The obligations were managed in each church’s parochial area, which is known as a parish.
These responsibilities were administered through meetings of the inhabitants and were known as Vestries (as they were usually held in the Church Vestry). As the population expanded so did the size of the meetings, so much so that they split into smaller more administratively efficient committees called Select Vestries which in turn each claimed a separate existence. Unfortunately the Select Vestries using their power of levy known as the Church Rate, rapidly became notorious for being corrupt. As the vestries’ origins was in an ecclesiastical institution, considerable damage was done to the old parochial system of authorities.
In the 1800’s the Church Rate was abolished and the poor law administration was withdrawn from the parochial authorities. As society developed new administrative services were created to fulfil the needs of the parish and were assigned to specialised bodies. The organisation of these services proved to be inefficient and complicated. It took Parliament twenty years of legislation and experimentation to resolve the issue.
In 1894 the Local Government Act was passed which created local authorities responsible for the administration of a parish’s services as well as the civil functions of the older parochial institutions – the new authorities were known as Parish Councils.