In England, a civil parish is a type of administrative parish used for local government, they are a territorial designation which is the lowest tier of local government below districts and counties, or their combined form, the unitary authority. Civil parishes can trace their origin to the ancient system of ecclesiastical parishes which historically played a role in both civil and ecclesiastical administration; civil and religious parishes were formally split into two types in the 19th century and are now entirely separate. The unit was devised and rolled out across England in the 1860s.
|Civil parish (England)|
|Created by||Various, see text|
|Created||Various, see text|
|Number||10,449 (as of 2015)|
A civil parish can range in size from a large town with a population of up to 95,000 to a single village with fewer than a hundred inhabitants. Eight parishes also have city status (a status granted by the monarch). A civil parish may be equally known as and confirmed as a town, village, neighbourhood or community by resolution of its parish council, a right reserved not conferred on other units of English local government. Approximately 35% of the English population live in a civil parish. As of 31 December 2015 there were 10,449 parishes in England. The most populous is Sutton Coldfield, and those with cathedral city status are Chichester, Ely, Hereford, Lichfield, Ripon, Salisbury, Truro and Wells.
Wales was also divided into civil parishes until 1974, when they were replaced by communities, which are very similar to English parishes in the way they operate. Civil parishes in Scotland were abolished for local government purposes by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1929, the Scottish equivalent of English civil parishes are community council areas, which were established by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973.
The Parish system in Europe was established between the 8th and 12th centuries and an early form was long established in England by the time of the Norman Conquest.
These areas were originally based on the territory of one or more manors, areas which in some cases derived their bounds from Roman or Iron Age estates. In a few cases, manors were so large that they were sub-divided into more than one parish.
Initially churches and their priests were the responsibility of the lord of the manor, but not all lords were both willing and able to provide these, so residents of nearby manors would look to the church of the nearest manor that had a church. Later the churches and priests became the responsibility of the Catholic Church and these arrangements were formalised, with the boundary of the parish taking the boundary of the group of manors (where there was more than one manor to a parish).
Parish boundaries were very conservative, changing little, and after 1180 'froze' so that boundaries could no longer be changed at all, despite changes to manorial landholdings - though there were some examples of sub-division. This consistency in boundaries was a result of Canon Law, which governed the rights and responsibilities of local churches, and made boundary changes and sub-division very difficult.
The consistency of these boundaries, up until the 19th century is very useful to historians, and is also of cultural significance in terms of shaping local identities, a factor reinforced by the adoption of parish boundaries, often unchanged, by successor local government units. There was huge variation in size between parishes, for instance Writtle in Essex was 13,568 acres while neighbouring Shellow Bowells was just 469 acres, and Chignall Smealy 476 acres.
Until the break with Rome, parishes managed ecclesiastical matters, while the manor was the principal unit of local administration and justice. Later the church replaced the manor court as the rural administrative centre, and levied a local tax on produce known as a tithe. In the medieval period, responsibilities such as relief of the poor passed increasingly from the Lord of the Manor to the parish's rector, who in practice would delegate tasks among his vestry or the (often well-endowed) monasteries. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the power to levy a rate to fund relief of the poor was conferred on the parish authorities by the Act for the Relief of the Poor 1601. Both before and after this optional social change, local (vestry-administered) charities are well-documented.
The parish authorities were known as vestries and consisted of all the ratepayers of the parish. As the number of ratepayers of some parishes grew, it became increasingly difficult to convene meetings as an open vestry. In some, mostly built up, areas the select vestry took over responsibility from the entire body of ratepayers. This innovation improved efficiency, but allowed governance by a self-perpetuating elite. The administration of the parish system relied on the monopoly of the established English Church, which for a few years after Henry VIII alternated between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, before settling on the latter on the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558. By the 18th century, religious membership was becoming more fractured in some places, due for instance to the progress of Methodism. The legitimacy of the parish vestry came into question and the perceived inefficiency and corruption inherent in the system became a source for concern in some places. For this reason, during the early 19th century the parish progressively lost its powers to ad hoc boards and other organisations, for example the loss of responsibility for poor relief through the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. Sanitary districts covered England in 1875 and Ireland three years later. The replacement boards were each entitled to levy their own rate in the parish. The church rate ceased to be levied in many parishes and became voluntary from 1868.
Civil and ecclesiastical split
The ancient parishes diverged into two distinct, nearly overlapping, systems of parishes during the 19th century. The Poor Law Amendment Act 1866 declared all areas that levied a separate rate: C of E ecclesiastical parishes (until then simply known as parishes), extra-parochial areas, townships and their analogue, chapelries, to be "civil parishes". To have collected rates this means these beforehand had their own vestries, boards or equivalent bodies.
The Church of England parishes, which cover more than 99% of England, became officially termed "ecclesiastical parishes" and the boundaries of these soon diverged from those of the Ancient Parishes in order to reflect modern circumstances. After 1921 each ecclesiastical parish has been the responsibility of the parochial church councils (PCCs).
In the late 19th century, most of the ancient irregularities inherited by the civil parish system were cleaned up, and the majority of exclaves were abolished. The United Kingdom Census 1911 noted that 8,322 (58%) of parishes in England and Wales were not identical for civil and ecclesiastical purposes.
In 1894 civil parishes were reformed by the Local Government Act 1894 to become the smallest geographical area for local government in rural areas. The act abolished the civil (non-ecclesiastical) duties of vestries, set up urban districts and rural districts, established elected civil parish councils as to all rural parishes with more than 300 electors, and established annual parish meetings in all rural parishes. Civil parishes were grouped to form either rural or urban districts which are thereafter classified as either type. The law coincided with negligible boundary changes overall save that further progress was made at the time to deal with the growing problem of the remaining cross-county parishes (see List of county exclaves in England and Wales 1844–1974).
Urban civil parishes continued of sorts; most being smaller than or co-terminous (geographically identical) with the urban district or municipal borough in which they lay, which took over almost all of their functions. Large towns usually split between civil parishes were generally consolidated into one. In urban areas ad-hoc, unelected parish councils became most common, convened only for electing guardians to the poor law unions. The unions took in areas in multiple parishes and had a set number of guardians for each parish, hence a final purpose of urban civil parishes. With the abolition of the Poor Law system in 1930, urban parishes which were co-terminous had virtually no function and most others also became defunct.
In 1965 civil parishes in London were formally abolished when Greater London was created, as the legislative framework for Greater London did not make provision for any local government body below a London borough. (Since the new county was beforehand a mixture of metropolitan boroughs, municipal boroughs and urban districts, no extant parish councils were abolished.)
In 1974 the Local Government Act 1972 retained civil parishes in rural areas and low-population urban districts, but abolished them in larger urban districts, especially boroughs. In non-metropolitan counties, smaller urban districts and municipal boroughs were abolished and succeeded by establishment of new successor parishes, with a boundary coterminous with an existing urban district or borough, or if divided by a district boundary as much as was comprised in a single district. In urban areas that were considered too large to be single parishes, the parishes were simply abolished, and they became unparished areas. The Act, however, permitted sub-division of all districts (apart from London boroughs, reformed in 1965) into civil parishes. For example, Oxford, whilst entirely unparished in 1974, now has four civil parishes, which together cover part of its area.
Nowadays the creation of town and parish councils is encouraged in unparished areas. The Local Government and Rating Act 1997 created a procedure which gave residents in unparished areas the right to demand that a new parish and parish council be created. This right was extended to London boroughs by the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 – with this, the City of London is at present the only part of England where civil parishes cannot be created.
If enough electors in the area of a proposed new parish (ranging from 50% in an area with less than 500 electors to 10% in one with more than 2,500) sign a petition demanding its creation, then the local district council or unitary authority must consider the proposal. Recently established parish councils include Daventry (2003), Folkestone (2004), and Brixham (2007). In 2003 seven new parish councils were set up for Burton upon Trent, and in 2001 the Milton Keynes urban area became entirely parished, with ten new parishes being created. In 2003, the village of Great Coates in mainly urban North East Lincolnshire regained parish status. Parishes can also be abolished where there is evidence that this in response to "justified, clear and sustained local support" from the area's inhabitants. Examples are Birtley, which was abolished in 2006, and Southsea, abolished in 2010.
Every civil parish has a parish meeting, which all the electors of the parish are entitled to attend. Generally a meeting is held once a year. A civil parish may have a parish council which exercises various local responsibilities prescribed by statute. Parishes with fewer than 200 electors are usually deemed too small to have a parish council, and instead will only have a parish meeting: an example of direct democracy. Alternatively several small parishes can be grouped together and share a common parish council, or even a common parish meeting.
A parish council may decide to call itself a Town Council, Village Council, Community Council, Neighbourhood Council, or if the parish has city status, the parish council may call itself a City Council. According to the Department for Communities and Local Government, in England in 2011 there were 9,946 parishes. Since 1997 around 100 new civil parishes have been created, in some cases by splitting existing civil parishes, but mostly by creating new ones from unparished areas.
Powers and functions
Parish or town councils may exercise a number of powers at their discretion which have been defined by various pieces of legislation. The role they play can vary significantly depending on the size, resources and ability of the council, but their activities can include:
- The provision and maintenance of certain local facilities such as allotments, bus shelters, litter bins, parks, playgrounds, public seats, public toilets, public clocks, street lights, village or town halls, and various leisure and recreation facilities.
- Maintenance of footpaths, cemeteries, village greens and war memorials.
- Parish councils are supposed to act as a channel of local opinion to larger local government bodies, and as such have the right to be consulted on any planning decisions affecting the parish.
- Since 1997 parish councils have had new powers to spend money on crime prevention measures, and to contribute money towards traffic calming schemes.
- Giving of grants to local voluntary organisations, and sponsoring public events, including entering Britain in Bloom.
- The Localism Act 2011 allowed eligible parish councils to be granted a "general power of competence" which allows them within certain limits the freedom to do anything an individual can do provided it is not prohibited by other legislation, as opposed to being limited to the powers explicitly granted to them by law. To be eligible for this, a parish council must meet certain conditions such as having a clerk with suitable qualifications.
Parish councils receive funding by levying a "precept" on the council tax paid by the residents of the parish (or parishes) served by the parish council. In a civil parish which has no parish council, the parish meeting may levy a council tax precept for expenditure relating to specific functions, powers and rights which have been conferred on it by legislation. In places where there is no civil parish (unparished areas), the administration of the activities normally undertaken by the parish becomes the responsibility of the district or borough council. The district council may make an additional council tax charge, known as a Special Expense, to residents of the unparished area to fund those activities. If the district council does not opt to make a Special Expenses charge, there is an element of double taxation of residents of parished areas, because services provided to residents of the unparished area are funded by council tax paid by residents of the whole district, rather than only by residents of the unparished area.
Councillors and elections
Parish councils comprise volunteer councillors who are elected to serve for four years. Decisions of the council are carried out by a paid officer, typically known as a parish clerk. Councils may employ additional people (including bodies corporate, provided where necessary, by tender) to carry out specific tasks dictated by the council. Some councils have chosen to pay their elected members an allowance, as permitted under part 5 of the Local Authorities (Members' Allowances) (England) Regulations 2003.
The number of councillors varies roughly in proportion to the population of the parish. Most rural parish councillors are elected to represent the entire parish, though in parishes with larger populations or those that cover larger areas, the parish can be divided into wards. Each of these wards then returns councillors to the parish council (the numbers depending on their population). Only if there are more candidates standing for election than there are seats on the council will an election be held. However, sometimes there are fewer candidates than seats. When this happens, the vacant seats have to be filled by co-option by the council. If a vacancy arises for a seat mid-term, an election is only held if a certain number (usually ten) of parish residents request an election. Otherwise the council will co-opt someone to be the replacement councillor.
The Localism Act 2011 introduced new arrangements which replaced the 'Standards Board regime' with local monitoring by district, unitary or equivalent authorities. Under new regulations which came into effect in 2012 all parish councils in England are required to adopt a code of conduct with which parish councillors must comply, and to promote and maintain high standards. A new criminal offence of failing to comply with statutory requirements was introduced. More than one 'model code' has been published, and councils are free to modify an existing code or adopt a new code. In either case the code must comply with the Nolan Principles of Public Life.
Status and styles
A parish can gain city status but only if that is granted by the Crown. In England, as at 2019 are eight parishes with city status. All have long-established Anglican cathedrals: Chichester, Ely, Hereford, Lichfield, Ripon, Salisbury, Truro and Wells.
The council of an ungrouped parish may unilaterally pass a resolution giving the parish the status of a town. The parish council becomes a "town council". Around 400 parish councils are called town councils.
Under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, a civil parish may now be given an "alternative style" meaning one of the following:
The chairman of a town council will have the title "town mayor" and that of a parish council which is a city will usually have the title of mayor. As a result, a parish council can also be called a town council, a community council, a village council or occasionally a city council (though most cities are not parishes but principal areas, or in England specifically metropolitan boroughs or non-metropolitan districts).
When a city or town has been abolished as a borough, and it is considered desirable to maintain continuity of the charter, the charter may be transferred to a parish council for its area. Where there is no such parish council, the district council may appoint charter trustees to whom the charter and the arms of the former borough will belong. The charter trustees (who consist of the councillor or councillors for the area of the former borough) maintain traditions such as mayoralty. An example of such a city was Hereford, whose city council was merged in 1998 to form a unitary Herefordshire. The area of the city of Hereford remained unparished until 2000 when a parish council was created for the city. The charter trustees for the City of Bath make up the majority of the councillors on Bath and North East Somerset Council.
Civil parishes cover 35% of England's population, with one in Greater London and very few in the other conurbations. Civil parishes vary greatly in size: many cover tiny hamlets with populations of less than 100, whereas some large parishes cover towns with populations of tens of thousands. Weston-super-Mare, with a population of 71,758, is the most populous civil parish. In many cases small settlements, today popularly termed villages, localities or suburbs, are in a single parish which had one original church, the smallest of which continue to be widely called hamlets. Large urban areas are mostly unparished, as the government at the time of the Local Government Act 1972 discouraged their creation for large towns or their suburbs, but there is generally nothing to stop their establishment. For example, Birmingham has just one parish, New Frankley, whilst Oxford has four, and Northampton has seven. Parishes could not however be established in London until the law was changed in 2007.
A civil parish can range in area from a small village or town ward to a large tract of mostly uninhabited moorland in the Cheviots, Pennines or Dartmoor.
The 2001 census recorded several parishes with no inhabitants. These were Chester Castle (in the middle of Chester city centre), Newland with Woodhouse Moor, Beaumont Chase, Martinsthorpe, Meering, Stanground North (subsequently abolished), Sturston, Tottington, and Tyneham (subsequently merged). The lands of the last three were taken over by the British Armed Forces during World War II and remain deserted.
General abolition of anomalies as to extent
Virtually instances of parish detached parts; parishes in alien, unconnected counties; and of those straddling counties have been ended — as to civil parishes.
Direct predecessors of the civil parishes are most often known as the "ancient parishes" even though many date as late as the mid 19th century. Using a longer historial lens the better terms are "unseparated (civil and ecclesiastical) parish", "original ancient parishes" and "new parishes". A landmark collaborative historians' work which is incomplete, the Victoria County History series, mostly written in the 20th century groups all English land into its original ancient parishes which it simply brands "parishes". A minority of these had exclaves: such an exclave could be
- an enclave within another parish,
- surrounded by more than one other parish, or
- a pene-enclave, partly surrounded by sea.
In some cases an exclave part of a parish (a "detached part") was in a different county. In other cases, counties surrounded a whole parish meaning it was in an unconnected, sometimes named "alien" county. These anomalies resulted in a highly localised difference in applicable representatives on the national level, justices of the peace, sheriffs, bailiffs with inconvenience to those people. If a parish was split then churchwardens, highway wardens and constables would also spend more time or money covering the entire ground. But so too would those with duties in rugged upland terrain. A few parishes, uninterrupted, straddled two or more counties, such as Todmorden: Lancashire and Yorkshire.
Such anomalies mostly arose in the height of the feudal system which coincided with the founding or major alteration of most parishes. Major land interests (manor proper or church lands) by gift, lawful conquest or purchase were involved which owned the relevant non-contiguous parcel of land i.e. beyond the original parish/county bounds or what would become the boundaries of a new parish. That fact alone would be insufficient — the parcel's extent and nature must have, as was common, persuaded the church and diocese to agree parish boundaries to match. Thus where secular land, almost always manor, formed the exclave it is likely it hosted a well-inhabited farm (farmstead); stayed part of the manor for generations; the lord/lady of the manor held the right to appoint the parish priest (advowson); or co-founded the church as its patron. The scenario can also have arisen originally as a deliberate attempt to diversify the lord's (or overlord's) interests, or from a large burial ground in an urban setting but it could also arise from a chance inheritance. It caused inconvenience to the residents of most exclaves/enclaves (where not numerous or economically significant enough to have their own chapel of ease as to religious matters and a vestry as to civil matters): they would attend church and/or the manorial court for certain tithes, rates, baptisms, marriages, funerals and whenever or wherever it was compulsory or would confer them advantage such as to obtain regular poor relief and most forms of education, charitable alms and hospitalry. The end of manorial courts was coinciding with growing agricultural innovation, divorce by now of most parcels' ownership from their original holdings and housing growth. The church and vestries were reluctant to bring boundaries up to date. This meant such anomalies were irrelevant nuisances with a real economic cost in distance of administration and confusion. They began to be remedied nationally in statute by Parliament in the early 19th century in the Poor Law Reforms of 1834, and was more widely in 1844 when an Act moved most parishes found themselves partly or wholly in an alien county. The remaining exclaves of counties were transferred in the 1890s and in 1931, with one exception: an exclave of Tetworth, surrounded by Cambridgeshire, was removed in 1965 from Huntingdonshire.
Other acts, including the Divided Parishes and Poor Law Amendment Act 1882 eliminated instances of civil parishes being split between many counties such that by 1901 Stanground in Huntingdonshire and the Isle of Ely was the last example; it was split into two parishes, one in each county, in 1905.
The Church of England has only abolished these where locally incepted (under the Anglican and the Catholic principle of subsidiarity). This means it has essentially kept, often divided in urban areas, the original parishes. This has been praised for local history studies but criticised as ad hoc and confusing to new residents by having many parishes with exclaves. The church today operates its main website with a freely accessible map, navigable church-by-church to see the parish boundaries.
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- It was sold in 1967 to the Utopian Housing Society who built 7 blocks, housing 300 flats and maisonettes, completed in 1973 having communal woodland gardens. Many of the site's mature trees, including a plane about 250 years old and a red oak, were retained; see http://londongardensonline.org.uk/gardens-online-record.php?ID=WST100
- In praise of ... civil parishes Editorial in The Guardian, 16 May 2011.