In England, a civil parish is a territorial designation which is the lowest tier of local government below districts and counties, or their combined form, the unitary authority. It is an administrative parish, in contrast to an ecclesiastical parish.
A civil parish can range in size from a large town with a population of about 80,000 to a single village with fewer than a hundred inhabitants. In a limited number of cases a parish might include a whole city where city status has been granted by the Monarch. Reflecting this diverse nature, a civil parish may be known as a town, village, neighbourhood or community by resolution of its parish council. Approximately 35% of the English population live in a civil parish. As of 31 December 2015 there were 10,449 parishes in England.
The division of land into ancient parishes was linked to the manorial system: parishes and manors often covered the same area and had the same boundaries. The manor was the principal unit of local administration and justice in the early rural economy. 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.
The ancient parishes diverged into two distinct systems of parishes during the 19th century. The Poor Law Amendment Act 1866 declared all areas that levied a separate rate, including extra-parochial areas, townships, and chapelries, to be "civil parishes". The Church of England parishes, which together covered the whole of England, became officially termed "ecclesiastical parishes", and after 1921 each was the responsibility of a local parochial church council.
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 duties of vestries, set up urban districts and rural districts, established elected civil parish councils in all rural parishes with more than 300 electors, and established annual parish meetings in all rural parishes, whatever their population. Civil parishes were grouped into rural districts. Boundaries were altered to avoid parishes being split between counties.
Urban civil parishes continued to exist; however they were generally coterminous (geographically identical) with the urban district or municipal borough in which they lay, which took over almost all of their functions. Large towns which had previously been split between civil parishes were, for the most part, eventually consolidated into one parish. No parish councils were formed for urban parishes, and their only function was electing guardians to the poor law unions. Many of these would include areas in more than one district. With the abolition of the Poor Law system in 1930, such urban parishes had virtually no function.
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 all of London was previously part of a metropolitan borough, municipal borough or urban district, no actual 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 (Grimsby) 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. 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. 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.
Typical activities undertaken by parish or town councils include:
The role played by parish councils varies. Smaller parish councils have only limited resources and generally play only a minor role, while some larger parish councils have a role similar to that of a small district council. Parish councils receive funding by levying a "precept" on the council tax paid by the residents of the parish.
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.
A parish can gain city status but only if that is granted by the Crown. In England, there are currently eight parishes with city status, all places with 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.
This section needs to be updated.(March 2017)
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, several small villages are located in a single parish. 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.
Direct predecessors of the civil parishes are known as the "ancient parishes". A minority of these had exclaves: such an exclave could be
In some cases an exclave was in a different county. In other cases, counties themselves could have an exclave made up of a parish. Both of these anomalies would result in a different representatives on the national level and different justices of the peace, sheriffs, bailiffs, churchwardens, highway wardens and constables, in the exclave from those parishes surrounding them. There were also a few examples of parishes split between two or more counties, such as Todmorden, split between Lancashire and Yorkshire.
These anomalies might have arisen at the time of the feudal system, when the land interests of a lord of the manor included more than one parcel of land which were not geographically contiguous, and the area of the manor (later parish) arose from such land interests. This might have arisen originally as a deliberate attempt to diversify the lord's (or overlord's) interests, but perhaps more often it would arise from inheritance. It might however cause inconvenience to ordinary people, whether needing to attend church for baptisms, marriages or funerals or other reasons, or to obtain justice, pay rates or obtain poor relief. This frequent nuisance began to be remedied nationally in statute by Parliament in the early 19th century in the Poor Law Reforms, and was more widely remedied (but not wholly eliminated) in 1844. Before civil parishes were introduced, the Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844 transferred many parishes which were exclaves of a county to the county which mostly surrounded them. The remaining exclaves of counties were transferred in the 1890s and in 1931, with one exception. An exclave of the parish of Tetworth, surrounded by Cambridgeshire, was finally removed in 1965 from Huntingdonshire.
Other legislation, including the Divided Parishes and Poor Law Amendment Act 1882, eliminated instances of civil parishes being split between multiple counties, and by 1901 Stanground (in Huntingdonshire and the Isle of Ely) was the sole remaining example. Stanground was split into two parishes, one in each county, in 1905.