Parish Councils have their origins in the development of villages during Saxon and Norman times – 1000 or more years ago.
Villages were ruled by the Lord of the Manor because as communications were poor and central government often weak, there was little national control. Sometimes the villagers all met to make decisions which affected the whole community. Gradually, it seems, that parish priests and sometimes schoolmasters joined the Lord of the Manor to become a kind of ruling clique and thus the first effective parish councils.
By 1601, Church Vestry Meetings were so organised and workable that it was quite natural for legislators to give them the responsibility of levying the poor rate. These were the first effective local taxes. Everyone in the parish was entitled to attend Church Vestry Meetings but in practice the work fell to a few individuals, rather like Parish Councils today.
The forerunner of Town and Parish Councils were called parish vestries, which, whilst they were not established by an Act of Parliament, their powers not defined in law and there was no rule about who could attend the meetings, by the latter part of the 17th century had become, together with the magistrates of the county, the rulers of England.
They had responsibilities for the general well being of the village, maintaining the church and churchyard, the village pound, and waging a constant battle against sparrows, foxes and hedgehogs. Appropriate officials were nominated from the members as surveyors of the highways, church wardens, sextons, keepers of the pound, assessors and collectors of the poor rate, some constables and even parish clerks.
These duties were unpopular but exemption could be obtained by purchasing a ‘Tyburn Ticket’ which was a certificate issued to anyone who successfully prosecuted a felon – this gave exemption from all parish offices. These tickets changed hands for up to 40 a piece – equivalent to around 2,000 today – this was because people did not want to take these unpaid positions.
In the urban parishes and some villages in the northern counties these parish vestries were followed by select vestries and these became a national scandal because these were often autocratic and corrupt and bills were introduced in Parliament to regulate their activities and, at one time, the House of Lords refused to consider the Government business outlined in the Kings speech at the opening of Parliament until a bill to reform the select vestries had received a first reading on the principle that reform of abuses must come before considering the Kings business.
Because of unemployment problems, the vestries had an increasing problem of responsibility for the poor. Voting in the vestry was proportionate to the rates they paid and this system of plural voting was adopted in many areas to the benefit of the more affluent. This system was not abolished until 1894 when Gladstone introduced the Local Government Act which led to the evolution of Parish Councils.
Although the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act removed from Parish Vestries the responsibility for poor relief and handed it to Poor Law Unions (the origins of our present District Councils) parishes had naturally accumulated responsibility for administering local charities, managing commons under distribution of land as a consequence of the 18th Century Enclosure Acts.
In 1894 although the Squire, the Parson and sometimes the Schoolmaster were still the leaders in the village, popular education was spreading and more people wanted a say in managing local affairs.
The great Victorian Prime Minister, W.E. Gladstone, piloted the 1894 Local Government Act through the House of Commons. It met a lot of opposition: there were over eight hundred amendments moved during its passage through the House. Nevertheless, the Act became law and Parish Councils were formed.
Under the 1894 Act, Parish Councils were to receive their income from rates levied on agricultural land, but this was a time of agricultural depression and the money raised was so very low that soon this system was abandoned. Householders were then rated; something they had never experienced before, and this lead to more opposition to Parish Councils.
It wasnt until after the First World War that Central Government began to give serious responsibilities to Parish Councils, the earliest among them being the provision of allotments and playing fields, although an Act relating to allotments had been passed in 1908.
After the Second World War the National Association of Parish Councils was formed, and by 1952 half of all parishes in the country were members. The Association became a national force and raised the profile and consequently the activity of parish councils.
The 1972 Local Government Act confirmed a firm place for the third tier alongside the newly formed district and County Councils at this time parish councils gained the right to call themselves Town Councils if they wished to do so.
Town Councils are constituted in the same way as all local authorities with Councillors elected by the local electorate each four years and a Chairman who is voted into position on an annual basis.