Community and town councils: next in line?

01 August 2014

Article by Rhys Iorwerth, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Following the publication of the Williams Commission’s report in January 2014, there has been considerable focus on the proposals to reduce the number of principal authorities in Wales from the current 22 to between 10 and 12.

However, less attention has been paid to the future of community and town councils – the most local form of democracy in the Welsh political system. There are more than 730 such councils throughout Wales, on which sit a total of around 8,000 councillors. While the merger of principal authorities has grabbed the headlines, it seems that the community and town council sector might also need to brace itself for change.

Welsh community and town councils vary substantially in size, with the amount of citizens they represent ranging from around 200 to 45,000 people. They are funded in the main through a ‘precept’ from the area’s principal authority, and this also varies. The mean precept is around £40,000 and the median precept approximately £10,500. However, a quarter of all councils set a precept of less than £5,000.

The Welsh Government has introduced a number of policy developments over recent years intended to address perceived weaknesses in the sector. They have included provisions in the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011 to increase the powers and strengthen the capacity of community and town councils; a national training strategy; and new guidance on the relationship between town and community councils and the principal authorities. More recent developments through the Local Government (Democracy) (Wales) Act 2013 will oblige all community and town councils to have an online presence from April 2015.

Meanwhile, on the same day as the Williams Commission reported, the Welsh Government published an Evidence Review of community and town councils in order to ‘inform future policy development’ in this area.

This Evidence Review recognises that the developments listed above have ‘considerably strengthened the institutional framework for community and town councils’. The report also highlights the sector’s value and says that its benefits include local responsiveness; the ability to represent local interests; the ability to mobilise community activity; and the ‘additionality’ town and community councils provide to services delivered by principal authorities. In contrast to non-statutory community groups, the Evidence Review pointed out that community and town councils are notable for their accountability, stability and continuity.

However, the Evidence Review also highlights numerous areas where concerns about the sector remain. For instance:

  • From one council to the next, there is a great deal of inconsistency in size, setting, budgets and activities. This is an obstacle to introduce new powers and provisions that can apply across the whole sector;
  • Decision making is constrained by statutory and self-imposed restrictions on revenue and expenditure;
  • Some councils are not always complying with guidance or legal obligations;
  • The profile of councillors is not representative of the communities they serve (with an over-representation of those aged over 60);
  • There is a resistance by a small minority of councils towards modernisation and professionalization;
  • There can be shortcomings in the knowledge and understanding of local government by some councillors and clerks, which can limit the effectiveness of the councils themselves.

The Williams Commission report identified some of these problems and drew particular attention to the fact that, following the 2012 elections, only one in five community and town council seats in Wales were filled by councillors who were elected in a public poll. The remaining councillors were all returned unopposed or co-opted after no candidates stood for particular seats.

Combined with the problems associated with small scale, the Williams Commission concluded that the ‘town and community council sector is in clear need of reform’. As such, it recommended that town and community councils should be merged or enlarged to ‘create fewer, larger councils capable of expressing local interests clearly and effectively’.

In its recent Devolution, Democracy and Delivery White Paper on reforming local government, the Welsh Government says that it agrees with the Williams Commission that community and town councils are ‘too small, and lack capacity and capability’. As such, it will consider whether any principal authority areas in Wales would benefit from a review of their communities and their boundaries.

However, the Welsh Government also stresses that it does not wish to recreate the two-tier system of local government that existed prior to 1996. It stresses instead that the role of community and town councils must be considered ‘in the context of larger Principal Authorities and the role of ward Councillors within those Authorities’. The White Paper goes on to promise ‘a further paper this Autumn’ that will look at options for strengthening community governance to make it ‘effective and fit for purpose for the 21st Century’.

Merger of the 22 principal authorities will no doubt continue to focus attention and draw debate. But community and town councils might well be next in line.