The Role, Functions and Future Potential of Community and Town Councils in Wales
Dr Bill Edwards
Dr Graham Gardner
Non IGES Collaborators
Dr Jon Anderson (Cardiff University)
Funded by the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG), April 2002 - March 2003
This study was commissioned by WAG to record the current structure and activities of town and community councils in Wales and to inform policy on their future development. The research involved a postal questionnaire survey of all 737 local councils in Wales, a questionnaire survey of county councils followed up by interviews, interviews with clerks and councillors in 20 case study councils, telephone interviews with other bodies engaging with local councils, four public seminars and the receipt of written submissions from councils and other interested organisations. Three Post-Doctoral Research Assistants were employed on this project: Jon Anderson, Graham Gardner and Rachel Hughes.
This study, along with the earlier ESRC-funded project on ‘Participation, Power and Rural Community Governance in England and Wales’ and the ‘Research Study of the Quality Parish and Town Council Scheme’ for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), has provided evidence has informed the development of government policy in England and Wales.
In particular, recommendations from this research on town and community councils in Wales, presented to the Welsh Assembly Government in the ‘Aberystwyth Report’ directly formed the basis for provisions in the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011, as acknowledged in the Explanatory Memorandum for the legislation:
“The provisions in Part 7 of the proposed Measure flow from the study commissioned by the Assembly Government and undertaken in 2003 by the University of Wales, Aberystwyth: Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences into community councils in Wales, ‘Research Study into the Role, Functions and Future Potential of Community and Town Councils in Wales’ (“the Aberystwyth Report”). This was the first comprehensive review of the work of community and town councils in Wales.” [Paragraph 4.17]
The provisions introduced by the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011 included changes to arrangements for establishing and dissolving town and community councils, holding community meetings and polls, reviewing community areas and electoral areas, co-opting council members and appointing youth representatives; new powers for the Welsh Government to award direct grants to town and community councils, to enforce ‘charter agreements’ between community councils and principal authorities, and to introduce an accreditation of quality scheme for community councils; and a power for town and community councils to promote well-being in their area. These provisions have contributed to the capacity of town and community councils in Wales to serve their community by providing greater stability, enhancing accountability, strengthening relations with principal councils, and extending the remit of councils, as recognized in the Explanatory Memorandum for the National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Local Government) Order 2010 (which enabled the National Assembly for Wales to introduce the legislation):
“[T]he study undertaken in 2003 by the University of Wales, Aberystwyth: Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences into community councils in Wales, “Research Study into the Role, Functions and Future Potential of Community and Town Councils in Wales” (the “Aberystwyth Report”) presented a comprehensive review of the activities undertaken by community councils across Wales … In its formal response to the Aberystwyth Report (in 2004), the Welsh Assembly Government gave a commitment to seek legislation to address issues identified in the review, with a view to putting in place arrangements to develop and strengthen the role of community councils and enabling them to deliver a wider range of services and actions locally. This would also serve to increase the effectiveness of community councils’ representational role and their ability to work in partnership with other bodies.” [5.4]
Of particular note is has been the creation of a new statutory power enabling town and community councils in Wales to co-opt two ‘youth representatives’ (aged 16-25). This provision, unique in Europe, will strengthen the voice of an under-represented section of the community and promote engagement in public service by young people. It was proposed in recommendation 8.4 in the 2003 report to the Welsh Assembly Government, and introduced by Sections 121 – 124 of the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011.
In addition, the research has also directly informed a number of other developments that did not require legislation. These included new guidance on model charters between town and community councils and principal authorities, issued by the Welsh Government in March 2008, which has led to the adoption of charter agreements in 12 of the 24 Welsh local government areas by October 2013; and the implementation of a National Training Strategy for town and community councils, initially published in 2006, but delivered over the period to 2012, with a new strategy agreed for 2012-15. As the Society of Local Council Clerks stated in their submission to the National Assembly for Wales Legislation Committee, “The training of Town and Community Council staff has been a direct result of many of the recommendations of the Aberystwyth Report”. In total, 53 of the 76 recommendations made by Aberystwyth University in the ‘Aberystwyth Report’ had been implemented in full or in part by July 2013.
Parallel developments in public policy relating to parish and town councils in England have also been informed by the research undertaken by Aberystwyth University. In particular, research on the Quality Parish and Town Council Scheme directly informed the revision of the scheme in 2008, as noted in the foreword to the official guidance document:
“The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs commissioned the University of Wales to review the Scheme in 2006 and their research report helped the National Stakeholders to agree amendments to the Scheme that, while not placing an undue burden on councils wishing to achieve Quality status, would ensure that the tests remained relevant to our tier, would help councils to achieve ever higher levels of professionalism and help councils to cement their position as community leaders.”
The modifications made to the Quality scheme as a result of the Aberystwyth University research included requirements for councils applying for ‘quality’ status to demonstrate that they work proactively to support local democracy and citizen engagement, and to evaluate the training needs of members and staff. These provisions have contributed to greater democratic accountability and professionalism in parish and town councils in England (the Quality Parish and Town Council Scheme was replaced by the Local Council Award Scheme in January 2015).
As a follow-up to the original 2003 study, Professor Michael Woods completed an Evidence Review for the Welsh Government on ‘Developing a Comprehensive Understanding of Community and Town Councils in Wales’, published in 2014. The report from the Evidence Review can be accessed below: