There’s no disputing that Town Councils perform an important role within local government and are an asset to many towns across the country.
However, through conversation with some residents, there appears to be a general misunderstanding of the powers a town council possesses and how they interact with other forms of local government. Hopefully, this article will clear up some of those misconceptions and clarify the place of a town council within local government, the statutory powers they can act upon and how one would go about creating one.
Pontefract is an ancient Borough, with the first Charter of Incorporation being granted by Richard III in 1484. Historically the term ‘town council’ was used for the governing body of a municipal borough until the 1972 Act.
The ancient boroughs were a historic unit of lower-tier local government in England and Wales. A charter of incorporation, which was granted by the monarchy, conferred considerable powers and a right of self-government, and each borough was governed by a municipal corporation headed by a mayor.
This was the case in Pontefract up until 1974, when the Local Government Act 1972 reformed local government in England and Wales. This act of Parliament was passed in response to outdated county boundaries, which reflected traditions of the Middle Ages or even earlier. As part of this reform, Wakefield Metropolitan District Council was formed and replaced a number of other local authorities, including Pontefract Borough Council.
For the purposes of local government, Wakefield is within a metropolitan area of England. As a metropolitan district council, Wakefield Metropolitan District Council have certain statutory responsibilities which they must discharge and some which they have the discretion to exercise. For example, a local authority, such as Wakefield Council, may have statutory powers to provide parks and sports facilities but it does not have to do so, because this is at its choice or discretion.
As a metropolitan district council, Wakefield Council acts as a single tier of local government providing a full range of local services. It is a billing authority collecting Council Tax and business rates, it processes local planning applications, it is responsible for housing, waste collection, waste disposal and environmental health. It is also a local education authority, responsible for social services and libraries.
Town councils operate at a level below local authorities, such as district and borough councils. They are not principal authorities and do not possess the same statutory powers as those of a local authority.
To this end, a town council has very few statutory functions or duties that it must discharge but instead has the discretion to exercise a range of statutory powers as it sees fit.
Although the public has a right to attend meetings of a town council and its committees, it is the elected councillors who collectively make decisions about council business and what services or facilities it provides.
Some of the statutory powers which a town council may wish to exercise include:
- Sports facilities
- Local youth projects
- Litter bins
- Community centres
- Community transport schemes
- Crime reduction measures
- Festivals and fetes
- Tourism activities
- Bus shelters
- Off street carparks
- Parks and open spaces
- Neighbourhood Planning
- Street lighting
- Traffic calming measures
No, a town council does not possess the same statutory powers as a local authority, such as Wakefield Council. Even if a town council in Pontefract was formed, Wakefield Council would still be responsible for rubbish collection, Council Tax collections, setting business rates, planning applications and other responsibilities which can only be carried out by a higher level of local government.
A town council may generate income from money from rents from premises that it leases or licences for use by others, or from the services or facilities it provides (e.g. sports facilities, off street car parks). It may also receive grants for certain projects.
However, the main source of income for a town council derives from the precept levied on the residents in its area. The precept is incorporated into a local resident’s council tax bill. In the case of Pontefract, this would be incurred as an additional precept on top of the council tax already levied by Wakefield Council.
The process for creating a new town council is as follows:
- A petition containing the signatures of at least 7.5% of the local population must first be presented to the local authority. This petition must state what is being proposed and include the signatures of at least 7.5% of local electors, based on the most recent electoral register.
- If the petition is valid, the local authority are obliged to carry out a ‘community governance review’ to see if there is sufficient reason and support for a town council to be formed.
The community governance review is undertaken by the local authority and consists of a consultation with residents, businesses and stakeholder groups in order to gain a consensus of opinion, either for or against the creation of a town council.
In the case of Pontefract, this would be achieved in line with Wakefield Council’s Engagement Framework and would include:
- Letter and leaflets containing frequently asked questions distributed to every household affected by the proposal
- Letter and leaflets circulated to a number of community groups, organisations and local businesses
- Posters and leaflets made available at local community venues, doctors surgeries and sports venues
- A public meeting
- Publicity on the Council’s website with the option of completing an e-form or leaflet
It is also important that, during both above stages, strong and continued public engagement and campaigning is undertaken by the group or individuals spearheading the campaign for a town council. The whole campaign process, from initial conception to final decision, can take up to 3 or more years. It is also beneficial, though not essential, if the local authority is in support of the campaign for the creation of a town council.
- Depending on the results of the Community Governance Review, a decision is made by the local authority as to whether there is sufficient supporting evidence to warrant the creation of a Town Council, or not.
If the former conclusion is decided, then the process for establishing a town council is triggered and an election of councillors is undertaken (normally held at the same time as the next local authority elections).
There has been one attempt to create a Town Council in Pontefract since the 1972 act was passed. A petition was delivered to Wakefield Council in December 2008 which included signatures from more than 10% of the local electorate (2,304 valid signatures from a local government electorate of 22646) requesting the creation of a town council in Pontefract.
A Community Governance Review was undertaken by Wakefield Council to assess public desire for the creation of a town council in Pontefract. This took place through two stages of public consultation. The results of the Community Governance Review were discussed in a meeting of the council on 21st April 2010, where it was resolved that a town council would not be established in Pontefract.
The minutes of the council meeting in which this decision was reached can be viewed on Wakefield Council’s website:
Pontefract Civic Society considered the opportunity of campaigning for a town council in 2016/17. Following a number of workshops and meetings, it was unanimously decided by the trustees that such a campaign would not be progressed by the civic society at that moment in time for the following reasons:
- The limited statutory powers available to a Town Council would duplicate effort already being undertaken by local voluntary organisations, whilst the most significant statutory powers required to see significant change in Pontefract would remain within Wakefield Council.
- The necessary funds required to sustain a campaign over the time period required were not readily available within the civic society, nor available as grant funding at that time.
- With a low number of active participants, it was felt that Pontefract Civic Society did not possess sufficient manpower to spearhead a campaign over the extended time period required. Furthermore, the opportunity cost which would arise as a result of this focus would be too great.
- Wakefield Council were not in support of the furtherance of a Town Council in Pontefract, potentially presenting a significant barrier to success.
- It was felt that relationships between Pontefract Civic Society, West Yorkshire Combined Authority, Wakefield Council and others could be strengthened and built upon to achieve the significant change desired in Pontefract.
Ultimately, it was decided that we would reserve the right to reassess this decision at a later date, and that, in principle, we were not completely against the idea of a Town Council in Pontefract. Furthermore, we agreed that, should any other group decide to mount a campaign in the meantime, we would take a judgement whether Pontefract Civic Society could support them.
We’re lucky in Pontefract to have a small but dedicated number of volunteers that provide many of the functions which may otherwise be carried out by a Town Council. An example of some of these groups include:
- Friends of Friarwood Valley Gardens, Friends of Pease Park and Friends of Pontefract Park are concerned with the improvement of our parks and green spaces.
- Pontefract Heritage Group and Pontefract Civic Society are concerned with promoting our local heritage and history for the purposes of encouraging tourism.
- Pontefract Civic Society, amongst other things, review and comment where necessary, on all relevant planning applications which are submitted to Wakefield Council
- Pontefract Heritage Partnership and The Crescent Project are concerned with bringing important local buildings back into long term use.
Whilst there’s no doubt that town councils provide an important role within local government, perhaps the most significant way in which the residents of Pontefract could ensure a better future for their town would be to offer their time and skills to any of the dedicated volunteer groups which already exist to make Pontefract a better place to live, work and visit.