I’ve been looking forward to the opportunity to write a little about Queen’s Park and their bid to form a parish council in London. This community has been the first to gain the necessary approval of their local authority. What is notable about this group is the speed in which they have been able to do this. The legislative powers to form parish councils in London were granted in 2007 and became available from 2008. However, the community did not look to form a parish council until after the general election in 2010. The election of the first parish councillors will take place in May 2014. Four years to set up a parish council may seem a long time, but given the administrative and other hurdles to get over it is difficult to see how they could have done it any quicker. I believe it is unlikely that any other group will be able to repeat their speedy success. I’m going to set out the hurdles a prospective parish council faces and why I think this group overcame them.
Boundaries: where does our community end?
Petition for a community governance review
Gathering popular support is a requirement for setting up a parish council. In order to force the local council to consider setting one up it is necessary to trigger a community governance review. This is done by organising a petition which must be signed by at least 10% of electors. In Queen’s Park there was a very well organised campaign which maximised limited resources. The existing community governance infrastructure and access to a community empowerment practitioner undoubtedly helped to make this petition a success. Genuine community support for the proposal was also present and vital to a such a bid succeeding. As Westminster is a focus for London regional media it was possible for the group to gain some considerable publicity. Had the campaign been in Hillingdon or Sutton this might not have been so easy to achieve.
In the event Westminster did none of these things. It agreed the parish council in principle as proposed, but produced a final hoop for the community to jump through: a non-binding referendum of local electors. I believe adding this step points to the ambivalence of local authorities to parish councils. They are neither enthusiastically behind them nor outright in opposition to them. If they were so minded, Westminster could have rejected the proposal and justified it with a range of reasons. But at the same time they could have approved it at this point, based on the petition, dialogue with the proposers and the responses to the governance review consultation.
68% of electors voted to approve the parish council and the first elections will take place in May 2014 at the same time as the London borough council elections. It may seem like a lengthy process, and it is. However, Queen’s Park have probably navigated it about as quickly as is possible. Other campaigns have got stuck very early in this process and even had they got past initial conversations about boundaries the introduction at the last minute of additional hurdles such as a referendum might have derailed them entirely. Queen’s Park represented a well organised and well supported campaign, and Westminster a typical local authority in terms of its attitude to community governance. Without the special set of circumstances that existed in Queen’s Park it is unlikely that we will be seeing the introduction of further parish councils in London soon.