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In England, a civil parish is a territorial designation and in some places the lowest tier of local government, below districts and counties. A civil parish can alternatively be known as a town, village, neighbourhood or community by resolution of its parish council; and in a limited number of cases has city status granted by the monarch. They cover only part of England; corresponding to 35% of the population. There are currently no civil parishes in Greater Londonmarker and before 2007 their creation was not permitted within a London borough.


The division into parishes is an ancient one, the name is ultimately derived from the Latin parochia, which were divisions used by the early Christian Church. In England parishes arose from Church of England divisions, and were originally purely ecclesiastical divisions, but over time they became used for some purposes of civil administration.

Under the Highways Act 1555, parishes became responsible for upkeep of roads. Every adult inhabitant of the parish was obliged to work four days (and soon after six days) a year on the roads, providing their own tools, carts and horses. The work was overseen by an unpaid local appointee, the Surveyor of Highways. This function was transferred to Highway Boards in 1855 and later to County Councils. See also toll road. The poor had previously been looked after by the monasteries until their dissolution. In 1572, the magistrates were given power to 'survey the poor' and impose taxes for their relief. This system was made more formal by the Poor Law Act 1601, which made parishes responsible for administering the Poor Law. They appointed overseers, who could charge a rate to support the poor of the parish. The 19th century saw an increase in the responsibility of parishes, although the poor law powers were transferred to Poor Law Unions. These often later became Rural Districts.

The parishes were run by vestries, meeting annually to appoint these officials. Most were "open" (where all ratepayers in the parish could attend) but a few were "select" (elected). These parishes were generally identical to ecclesiastical parishes. However some township in large parishes administered the Poor Law themselves. The latter part of the 19th century saw most of the ancient irregularities in the system cleaned up, with the majority of exclaves abolished. The Poor Law Amendment Act 1866 declared all areas that levied a separate rate (that is, extra-parochial areas and township, and chapelries) become civil parishes as well. Also borders were altered to avoid parishes being split between counties. Any place that could claim to be free of any poor rate obligation was referred to as "extra-parochial". Such places were often old church lands, and a few still existed in the 20th century.

Civil parishes in their modern sense were established afresh in 1894, by the Local Government Act 1894. The Act abolished vestries, and established elected parish councils in all rural civil parishes with more than 300 electors. These were grouped into rural districts. Urban parishes continued to exist, and were generally coterminous with the urban district or municipal borough in which they were situated. Large towns originally split between multiple parishes were, for the most part, eventually consolidated into one parish. No parish councils were formed for urban parishes, and their only function was as areas electing guardians to Poor Law Unions. With the abolition of the poor law system in 1930 the parishes had only a nominal existence.

In 1965 civil parishes in Londonmarker were formally abolished when Greater Londonmarker was created, as the legislative framework for Greater London did not make provision for any local government body below a London borough (since all of London was previously part of a metropolitan borough, municipal borough or urban district, no actual parish councils were abolished). In 1974 the Local Government Act 1972 retained civil parishes in rural areas and small urban areas, but abolished them in larger urban areas. Many former urban districts and municipal boroughs that were being abolished rather than succeeded were continued as new parishes. Urban areas that were considered too large to be single parishes were refused this permission and became unparished areas. The Act also led to the possibility of sub-division of all districts (apart from London boroughs, reformed in 1965), into multiple civil parishes. For example, Oxfordmarker, whilst entirely unparished in 1974, now has four civil parishes, covering part of its area.


Civil parishes do not cover the whole of England, and most exist in rural and smaller urban areas. Civil parishes were abolished in Londonmarker in 1965, and in other large urban areas in 1974, by which time their influence was largely nominal in the urban districts and boroughs. Civil parishes vary greatly in size: many cover tiny hamlets with populations of less than 100, whereas some large parishes cover towns with populations of tens of thousands. Weston-super-Maremarker, with a population of 71,758, is the most populous civil parish. In many cases, several small villages are located in a single parish. Large urban areas are mostly unparished, as the government at the time of the Local Government Act 1972 discouraged their creation for large towns or their suburbs, but there is generally nothing to stop their establishment. For example, Birminghammarker has a parish, New Frankleymarker, whilst Oxfordmarker has four, and Northamptonmarker has seven. Parishes could not however be established in London until the changing of the law in 2007 and as yet none have been established there.

The creation of town and parish council is encouraged in unparished areas. The Local Government and Rating Act 1997 created a procedure which gave local residents the right to demand that a new parish and council be created in unparished areas. This was extended to London boroughs by the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. If at least 10% of electors in an area of a proposed new parish sign a petition demanding its creation, then the local district council or unitary authority must consider the proposal. The final decision rests with the Department for Communities and Local Governmentmarker. Recently established parish councils include Daventrymarker (2003), Folkestonemarker (2004), and Brixhammarker (2007). In 2003 seven new parish councils were set up for Burton upon Trentmarker, and in 2001 the Milton Keynesmarker urban area became entirely parished, with ten new parishes being created. In 2003, the village of Great Coatesmarker (Grimsbymarker) regained parish status. Parishes can also be abolished on request, such as Birtleymarker, which was abolished on April 1, 2006.


A parish council can become a town council unilaterally, simply by making a resolution to do so. Around 400 parish councils are called town councils. Under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, a civil parish may nowcall itself by an "alternative style" meaning one of the following:

  • community
  • neighbourhood
  • village

A parish can gain city status but only if that is granted by the Crown. In Englandmarker, there are currently eight parishes with city status, all places with long-established Anglican cathedrals: Chichestermarker, Elymarker, Herefordmarker, Lichfieldmarker, Riponmarker, Salisburymarker, Truromarker and Wellsmarker. The chairman of a town council will have the title "town mayor" and that of parish council which is a city will usually have the title of mayor. As a result, a parish council can also be called a town council, a community council, a village council or occasionally a city council (though most cities are not parishes but principal areas, or in England specifically metropolitan boroughs, non-metropolitan districts).

Parish councils

Every civil parish (or community) has a parish meeting, consisting of all the electors of the parish (or community). Generally a meeting is held once a year. A civil parish may have a parish council which exercises various local responsibilities given by statute. If a parish has fewer than 200 electors it is usually deemed too small to have a parish council, and instead will only have a parish meeting; an example of direct democracy. Alternatively several small parishes can be grouped together and share a common parish council, or even a common parish meeting. In places where there is no civil parish (unparished areas), the administration of the activities normally undertaken by the parish becomes the responsibility of the district or borough council. There are about 8,700 parish and town councils in England, and about 1,500 parishes with only parish meetings. Since 1997 around 100 new civil parishes have been created, in some cases splitting existing civil parishes, but mostly by creating new ones from unparished areas.

Powers and functions

Typical activities undertaken by parish or town councils include:

  • The provision and upkeep of certain local facilities such as allotment, bus shelters, parks, playgrounds, public seats, public toilets, public clocks, street lights, village or town halls, and various leisure and recreation facilities.
  • Maintenance of footpaths, cemeteries and village greens
  • Since 1997 parish councils have had new powers to provide community transport (such as a minibus), crime prevention measures (such as CCTV) and to contribute money towards traffic calming schemes.
  • Parish councils are supposed to act as a channel of local opinion to larger local government bodies, and as such have the right to be consulted on any planning decisions affecting the parish.
  • Giving of grant to local voluntary organisations, and sponsoring public events, including entering Britain in Bloom.

The role played by parish councils varies. Smaller parish councils have only limited resources and generally play only a minor role, while some larger parish councils have a role similar to that of a small district council. Parish councils receive funding by levying a "precept" on the council tax paid by the residents of the parish.

Councillors and elections

Parish councils are run by volunteer councillors who are elected to serve for four years and it is rare for them to be paid. The number of councillors varies roughly in proportion to the population of the parish. Most parish councillors are elected to represent the entire parish, though in parishes with larger populations or those that cover large areas, the parish can be divided into wards. These wards then return a certain number of councillors each to the parish council (depending on their population). Only if there are more candidates standing for election than there are seats on the council will an election be held. However, sometimes there are fewer candidates than seats. When this happens, the vacant seats have to be filled by co-option by the council. When a vacancy arises for a seat mid-term, an election is only held if a certain number (usually 10) of parish residents request an election. Otherwise the council will co-opt someone to be the replacement councillor. Every Parish Council in England must adopt a code of conduct, and parish councillors must comply with its standards, enforced by the Standards Board for England.

Charter Trustees

When a city or town has been abolished as a borough, and it is considered desirable to maintain continuity of the charter, the charter may be transferred to a parish council for its area. Where there is no such parish council, the district council may appoint Charter Trustees to whom the charter and the arms of the former borough will belong. The Charter Trustees (who consist of the councillor or councillors for the area of the former borough) maintain traditions such as mayoralty. An example of such a city was Herefordmarker, whose city council was merged in 1998 to form a unitary Herefordshiremarker. The area of the city of Hereford remained unparished until 2000 when a parish council was created for the city. The charter trustees for the City of Bathmarker make up the majority of the councillors on Bath and North East Somerset Council.

Deserted parishes

The 2001 census recorded several parishes with no inhabitants. These were Chester Castlemarker (in the middle of Chestermarker city centre), Newland with Woodhouse Moormarker, Beaumont Chasemarker, Martinsthorpemarker, Meeringmarker, Stanground Northmarker (subsequently abolished), Sturstonmarker, Tottingtonmarker, and Tynehammarker. The last three had been taken over by the British Armed Forces during World War II and remain deserted.

The future

In October 2006, the DCLGmarker white paper Strong and prosperous communities proposed a wide-ranging set of reforms to the future of civil parishes in the UK. This included ending the Secretary of State's power to approve the creation of new parishes and by-laws, ending the legislative bar on the creation of civil parishes in London (mentioned above), the power to enforce by-laws through fixed penalty notices and the ability to style parish councils as 'community', 'neighbourhood' or 'village' councils. The power to approve new parishes will now reside with district or unitary councils, who will also have the right to provide for alternative arrangements in non-parished areas such as neighbourhood committees.

See also


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