The following frequently asked questions may help if you are seeking information about parish and town councils. If you require further general information please contact us for details.
Click on a question below to jump to the answer:
- Can I attend meetings of the council?
- Can I see the minutes of council meetings and other papers?
- Can I speak at the parish council meetings?
- Do councillors have to declare any financial or other personal interests they have in a matter under discussion by the council?
- How do I find out who the councillors are?
- How do people get elected to the council?
- To whom are the councillors accountable?
- What do I do if I have a complaint against the council?
- What do I need to do if I have a complaint about a councillors Conduct?
- What is a town or parish council?
- What powers do parish councils have with respect to planning applications?
- What powers do parish councils have?
- Who appoints the clerk and what do they do?
- Who is on the council?
Can I attend meetings of the council?
Yes. Every council and any sub committee meetings are open to the public. However a council can resolve to exclude the public and press from all or part of their meeting on the grounds that publicity would be prejudicial to the public interest by reason of the confidential nature of the business to be transacted or for other special reasons stated in the resolution and arising from the nature of the business of the proceedings (Public Bodies (Admission to meetings) Act 1960 s1). These are usually the exception. To give electors the opportunity to attend meetings, notices of meetings should be advertised throughout the parish usually with three clear days notice. Some councils also use websites and the local press to inform you of meetings.
Can I see the minutes of council meetings and other papers?
Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 you may see and have a copy of the ‘recorded’ information held by the council (unless it is classed as exempt information in the Act). This includes reports, minutes, correspondence and emails. The information has to be provided within 20 working days. There may be a photocopying charge. Minutes of parish council meetings should be available through the Council’s Publications Scheme. This should determine how you can access the minutes and other documents ( email, hard copy, inspection on website) and if there will be a charge for producing hard copies.
Can I speak at the parish council meetings?
You cannot speak while the normal business of the meeting is being conducted. However, it is good practice for all councils to include a public participation section on their agenda. This allows some time at the meeting for members of the public to address the council on an issue that concerns them. This is usually built into a councils Standing Orders. Normally if you wish to speak it must be relevant to an item included on the agenda. If you wish to raise anything which is not on the agenda you are advised to contact the council’s clerk in writing, asking for this to be included on the councils next agenda. Councillors cannot make decisions on anything which is not included on the agenda. The clerk can provide you with further details as to how this works in your council.
Do councillors have to declare any financial or other personal interests they have in a matter under discussion by the council?
Yes. All councillors have to abide by a Code of Conduct which sets out which interests have to be declared. They also have to enter relevant financial and other interests in a special register that is open to inspection by members of the public. The council’s clerk has a copy of the Code of Conduct and the register or it can be inspected at the County Council’s offices.
How do I find out who the councillors are?
From the Clerk. This information should always be included in Parish Council newsletters especially if the council is aspiring to obtain or has already obtained Quality Parish Council status. There is often a list on the parish noticeboard. Details of how to reach the clerk are available on the Locate a Parish page on this website.
How do people get elected to the council?
Elections are held every four years. The next scheduled elections in County Durham are May 2013 when Parish elections will be held alongside Durham County Council Elections. When elections are held you need to be nominated to stand for election and follow the election proceses in operation at the time. The County Council’s Electoral Services Officer can provide you with further advice on this – telephone 0191 3835644.
Sometimes the number of people who put their names forward for election equals or is less than the number of seats on the council. In these circumstances there is not a poll on election day and the people nominated are deemed elected. If the number deemed elected is less than the number of seats on the council, then the council is required to co-opt people onto the council to fill the vacancies.
If a seat on the council becomes vacant between normal elections then a special procedure has to be followed which can lead to an election or, more usually, the co-option of a new councillor. It is good practice for a council to advertise widely in the parish when a vacancy occurs to see if there is a demand for an election and if no election is called by electors also to advertise when it seeks to co-op a member onto their council.
To whom are the councillors accountable?
The electors of the parish. Elections to parish councils are held every four years. The council’s accounts are subject to scrutiny by the District Auditor and the Standards Board for England can investigate alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct by individual councillors.
What do I do if I have a complaint against the council?
First of all speak informally to the clerk or chairman to see if there is an easy way of resolving the matter. If this fails you will need to write formally to the Clerk of the Council asking for a copy of the council’s complaints procedure. You should return this to the council who should consider your complaint at its next meeting.
Hopefully, this will lead to a resolution. If it does not, then the next steps will depend on the nature of the complaint. If you believe there has been some other kind of financial or other impropriety you should initially discuss it with the County Council’s Monitoring Officer who will advise.
Please note that the Local Government Ombudsman (who investigates maladministration) does not have any jurisdiction with respect to town and parish councils.
What do I need to do if I have a complaint about a councillors Conduct?
If you believe there has been a breach of the Code of Conduct you need to write to the Durham County Council Monitoring Officer, County Hall, Durham DH1 5UF. Further advice will be provided by the Monitoring Officer.
What is a town or parish council?
Parish and town councils have been in existence since 1894 when Gladstone’s Government introduced the Local Government Act 1894. Some of the councils in County Durham have been in existence since 1894. Parish and town councils, sometimes referred to as “Local councils” are statutory local authorities.
A town council has exactly the same powers as parish council. Further information is available on our parish council pages.
What powers do parish councils have with respect to planning applications?
Parish councils are consulted by the relevant Planning Authority (Durham County Council) on all planning applications. Any views expressed by the parish council will be taken into account by the Planning Authority before a decision is made, providing the points made are relevant to the determination of a planning application. The final decision is made by the Planning Authority, not the parish council.
What powers do parish councils have?
They have a wide range of powers but very few duties , as detailed on our powers and duties page. Powers give councils the opportunity to be able to provide certain services whereas a duty must be undertaken by law. For example the Local Government and Rating Act 1997, s.30 allows a parish council to contribute financially to traffic calming schemes. This means they can but do not have to provide that service.
Powers essentially relate to local matters, such as looking after community buildings, open space, allotments, play areas, street lighting, bus shelters, car parks and much more.
A duty means that a parish council must do what the law says for example a parish council must appoint a chairman responsible for the smooth running of meetings and for ensuring that all council decisions are lawful. A council must also appoint a clerk as the council’s advisor and administrator.
Who appoints the clerk and what do they do?
It is a matter for each individual parish council to appoint their clerk. This process is normally overseen by a Personnel Committee of the council rather than the whole council.
Who is on the council?
A parish council must have a minimum of five members. Councillors are elected by electors within their parish and normally hold office for four years following elections. Every year the council elects one of them to be the chairman of the council (called the mayor of a town council).