Updated Report on the State of Parish Councils in the Arun District, West Sussex
Note: all web links are shown under-lined and in bold
One Bognor’s mission is to promote better governance in the Bognor Regis urban area, which it defines as the Parishes covering Aldwick, Bersted, Bognor Regis Town, Felpham, Middleton-on-Sea, and Pagham, population roughly 68,311. It also is concerned with Regeneration issues in the area. It has a Facebook Page (952 followers), an online Newspaper, The Bognor Regis Herald which also publishes regular updates based on local news sources.
The Local Government of the area is on 3 levels:
West Sussex County Council — statutory responsibilities eg for Education, Social Care, Highways — it raises revenue including via Council Tax
Arun District Council — statutory responsibilities eg for Planning, Housing, Environmental Health, Licensing — it raises revenue including via Council Tax
Parish Councils — these cover areas within Arun District, Arun’s website lists them. Parish Councils have no statutory responsibilities (except re- allotments) but have a wide range of discretionary powers — they raise revenue including via Council Tax, this annual sum is called a ‘precept’ and is collected via Arun.
From the Arun link above it will be seen there are 27 parishes listed, but there are parish areas without a Parish Council, some have a Parish Meeting. For the purpose of this Report, there are 24 Parish Councils in Arun District.
I wish to thank all Councils involved for their cooperation and trust this Report will be of value and interest.
To undertake a Survey of all 24 Parish Councils in Arun so as to compile data on a range of matters common to all of them, and to analyse and publish results in the furtherance of the aims of One Bognor and to publish in the public interest and for public information. The author is not aware of any previous, similar study eg by Arun Council or others. The initial impetus came from reading a BBC report about a study by a West Country local authority into its 62 parishes in recent months.
This Report will be circulated to all Parish Clerks etc who participated, with a request they share with their Councillors, also to District and County Councillors for Arun District, local government officials, relevant Constituency MPs, and via The Bognor Regis Herald. [May 23: this was done.]
A Questionnaire was sent by email link to all Parish Clerks, in October 2022, and the Freedom of Information legislation was invoked to ensure timely, full response. It will be seen the Questionnaire asked a wide-ranging series of questions ranging from numbers of Councillors, finances, services provided etc. The results were incorporated into a Spreadsheet — this and the individual responses provide the material for this Report. [May 2023 — also data from the May 2023 Local Elections.]
24 Parishes responded, the large majority without query. All bar 2 of the 24 had responses from the Parish Clerk, one from a Deputy Clerk, and one from the Council Chair.
Populations of Parishes
The Survey reveals that the 24 Parishes combined are stated to have a combined population roughly of 156,452 (some used rough estimates). Wikipedia states 160,758 based on the 2011 census. It will be interesting to compare the Survey figure with the forthcoming 2021 Census results.
Parish populations range from very small rural (225) to larger urban (26,641 for Bognor Regis Town, 30,000 for Littlehampton Town). On the western side of the District, six contiguous urban parishes (Aldwick, Bersted, Bognor Regis Town, Felpham, Middleton-on-Sea, and Pagham) record a combined population of 68,311.
Numbers of Parish Councillors, how elected/appointed
Total serving all 24 Parish Councils = 265
It may be thought that all of these are elected by voters at the ballot box — indeed parish council elections are held here every 4 years, same day and polling stations as for Arun District Councillors — last election May 2019, next May 2023.
However, the Survey asked how many are in place
Via the ballot box i.e. voted for = 60 or 22.6%
Update May 2023 = 47 or 17.7%, a decrease on 2019
Elected unopposed — that is, no one else stood against the person nominated who thus became elected unopposed = 127 or 47.9%. Update May 2023 = 139 or 52.5%, an increase on 2019
Co-opted — that is, appointed by parish councillors to fill vacancies = 74 or 27.9%
Updated May 2023 — not yet known, Query to be sent to PC Secretaries in due course. Available places constitute 30.8% of available places, an increase on 2019
These results show that just under a quarter of Parish Councillors have been voted for, which is the first major result of this Survey.
The remainder who have not been voted for constitute the large majority of Arun’s Parish Councillors. We deal with issues this raises later.
Update May 2023: The position has worsened with even less being voted-for than in 2019
Also, there are unfilled places, some 18% of places on those parishes with no voted-for councillors. Most of these are due to not enough candidates standing for election as opposed to resignations.
Update May 2023: The number to be coopted is not known at this time, almost immediately after the Ballot/Poll. In 4 Parishes which have wards, in 1 of each council’s ward, no one stood for election (Aldingbourne, Aldwick, Rustington and Yapton). Those Wards thus are unrepresented at this time. Other Councils have only 1 or 2 persons serving so the issue of quorum may arise.
What they spend annually
We asked 2 questions here:
What precept was charged to Arun in the most recent year = £4,919,883.96
Total Expenditure same year = £6,095,768.74
Other money was raised via a variety of means such as fees etc.
Of the four councils with any voted-for councillors, the precept was £2,458,409, or 49.97% of total Precepts.
That means that £2,461,474.96 was precepted by Parish Councils that have no voted-for Councillors.
The 24 Parish Councils recorded employing 126 staff between them, full- or part-time, costing a total of £2,347,680.81 or about 38% of total expenditure. Some Councils employed multiple staff others just 1 (usually part-time Clerk). We did not seek information about job roles in this Survey.
Services provided by Arun’s Parish Councils
This displayed a very wide range of facilities, we listed a number of areas, and Clerks etc provided additional information:
Allotments = 11
Grant aid = 14
Parish Hall = 10
Playing/Recreation Field = 11
Playschemes = 6
Youth Club = 3
None = 4
“Street lighting, Village Pond, Maintain War Memorial”
“Museum and Information Centre”
“Grass cutting to supplement WSCC, village enhancement projects”
“Events, bus shelters, public seating, floral displays, planning consultations, Parish Office and much more…”
“Allotment land is leased to APC and then leased to Honey Lane Allotment Association. Community events. Maintaining 6 play areas BMX Track and skatebowl. Maintaining green areas and trees on Bramley Green. Flowerbeds and hanging baskets in the village. We own the Angmering Community Centre which is run by trustees. We give Community Grants to groups, clubs, charities and organisations that are either based in Angmering or help/involved Angmering residents. Playschemes have been trialed this year at Mayflower Park with provider Freedom Leisure.”
“Thé scope of this question is very wide. Council considers providing services covered by statute that may benefit the community”
“Play rangers in school summer holidays open to all in Bognor Regis.”
“Food for families donations to schools, Tea and coffee club”
Councillor allowances and expenses
The Survey did not broach this topic but the law allows parish councillors to claim out-of-pocket expenses. Allowances are also possible, Bognor Town Council pays its Councillors over £500 p.a. Any such expenditure is included in the annual expenditure figures given above.
Political parties/ multiple representation
Again, not asked but the two largest Councils are based on party political groups including Independents. Often, we find some public sentiment against this but, on the other hand, it does tend to encourage nominations for places leading to all Councillors being voted-for. Also, it does not follow that councillors elected on a party ticket will always vote as one.
May 2023: This fact was repeated in Bognor and Littlehampton Town Councils, the former’s 16 Cllrs were all elected by ballot in the recent elections as were all 15 at Littlehampton. Unlike 2019, there was no ballot at Middleton, but one was called for both wards in Felpham due to a local residents alliance putting up candidates, triggering ballots in both — they snapped up 16 of the 18 seats, it seems this may have been the first ballot for maybe 30 years from what is understood.
Additionally, it is also the case that there are councillors who serve on Parish Councils also serve as District or County Councillors, re the first as non-party, re the latter two under party colours. In the 2019 list there were 5 who serve on more than one Parish Council, 36 who also serve as Arun Councillors, and 8 as County Councillors. The latter two groups claim substantial annual allowances.
May 2023: Again, a parish councillor was returned at Barnham and Eastergate without ballot who is known to be from a far-right party though he did not declare this, and he has served for a number of years not voted-for. This information was revealed by a far-right party boasting he had joined them from another. Link to BR Herald report.
Co-operation with other Parish Councils
We asked about co-operation with neighbouring councils: only 4 stated they do so.
We also asked about membership of local parish council organisations — there are a number, and we list numbers of the 24 for each:
Arun Association of Local Councils = 4
West Sussex Association of Local Councils = 18
Sussex Association of Local Councils = 10
National Association of Local Councils = 7
Other co-operation etc
This elicited a number of forums, meetings etc. One mentioned the West Sussex County Forums but these were abolished as from October 2022.
Issues/ concerns raised by this Survey
Given this Survey seems to have no antecedent, either from a local authority for the area or other body, this is a first, and it is hoped Councils and Councillors at all levels, and council employees responsible, will find this instructive and helpful. The May 2023 results have seen the situation worsen compared to 2019.
The first concern seems to be the large proportion of not-voted for Parish Councillors, around 75% in 2019, and that has worsened in 2023
What are the reasons for this? In a separate survey of residents some reasons may suggest themselves:
“Do you know if you have a Parish Council for your area?
69% YES 7% No 24% Don’t Know
“Do you usually vote in local elections?”
87% YES 13% NO
“If you know you have a Parish Council in your area, have you ever attended it or contacted it?”
20.5% YES 79.5% NO
We took only 100 responses, but this compares to the sort of outcome where a survey of 3000 is taken from the total UK population. However, it is agreed this is too small for any major conclusion though trends might be discerned from the responses.
People seem aware they have a Parish Council, they take part in Parish Ballots where there are competing candidates eg representing parties or resident groups etc BUT in a majority of elections there simply are not enough candidates to create a ballot by votes.
Given the above findings show that our combined Parish Councils spend nearly £5 million of local taxpayers money, of which just over 50% is controlled by Parish Councils with no voted-for councillors, we ask how healthy is this situation?
Also, as there is a dearth of candidates to ensure contested ballots, does this suggest a substantial lack of interest by the public in wanting to stand, and, if so, how can this be improved? Not, one would hazard, by the reported practice of one Parish Council interviewing suitable people! It has no voted-for Cllrs and this may seem a bit too ‘cosy’. Nor should crdeence be given to one District Councillor who has claimed this shows people are satisfied with the situation.
A major and urgent need is for Arun District Council to set up a Review of Parishing Arrangements in its area, it has powers in this regard, it has intervened before to merge two adjacent parishes — that option could and should be considered so that maybe 4 adjacent rural parishes could be merged in one area and 2 in another.
The temptation must be avoided not to put major emphasis on what parish councils might say, surely it is what the public/electorate wants which must be first consideration.
One route may be for Parish Councils and Arun/West Sussex actively to promote the idea of public service in this area through being nominated.
This is done to some extent, but Councils may wish to pursue this to a much greater extent. However, it has to be pointed out that this survey did NOT attempt to analyse the background of those who, by whatever route, become Parish Councillors, and that has to be a consideration. Age, gender, ethnic origins, social class etc would seem to be areas for focus.
Another idea, beyond the scope of local councils to decide, might be the minimum age at which a person can both vote and stand in a local election.
Perhaps lowering the age to 16 for local elections might be considered and we would suggest local councils at all three levels might discuss this, and get the views especially of young people. This might be a means of introducing young people to issues of government that affect them, for many that might well embrace very local issues — eg youth provision. Preparation for this could be included in civic education within schools enabling relevant local issues and needs to be the focus of study.
There is also the idea of ‘youth councillors’ who are elected by their u-18 peers and serve for wards etc parallel to the Parish and District wards, and who ‘shadow’ adult councillors.
However, this does not address the main issue of lack of sufficient engagement by electors to ensure there are sufficient candidates to ensure contested elections and thus choice by electors.
There may be a case for considering mergers of adjacent parishes to create larger Parishes. That is within the purview of Arun District Council to which this idea is directed.
This is perhaps even more relevant at this time as Arun has agreed to look at reducing the number of District Councillors (November 2022). LINK to Arun meeting
This would mean eg looking at convergences, identities etc. One particular geographical area which One Bognor has examined before is the urban area covered by the Parishes of Aldwick, Bersted+, Bognor Regis Town*, Felpham+, Middleton-on-Sea* and Pagham+ only 2 of which have all councillors voted-for*, 3 no voted-for Councillors+ and 1 has 5 out of 13 voted-for (but 2 wards vacant). [May 2023 — now 3 have all voted for, 3 none voted-for.] Such a new urban Parish Council would serve 68,000 residents, be able to raise a precept of £1.3 million a year, it would have a number of parish premises, playing fields etc. Less staffing might be directed to administrative functions perhaps, more to running direct services for the larger Parish area. The parish councils are not likely to support this, but the electorate should be the priority in terms of what happens, their views are paramount.
It should be born in mind that when Aldwick, Bognor Town and Felpham were created, at least, the maximum size for a Parish Council was 25,000 residents. Since their creation this was raised to 100,000 so that the coastal resort of Weston-super-Mare has a Town Council for 70,000 people.
Such a new urban area Larger Council might have eg 30 elected Councillors which would greatly improve the chances of attracting sufficient candidates.
If local residents then wished to have voices for their smaller areas, they would be free to establish eg neighbourhood residents groups and the like, and the Parish Council could agree some form of forum of these etc, maybe with relevant local ward councillors appointed to their managements annually, and able to apply for grant-aid etc, or to run facilities. Some could obtain charitable status such as CIO. The May 2023 result at Felpham, with the residents alliance creating the first contested election in over two decades, it seems, should be one to look into to see why and how the situation came about.
A major concern for the future must be the ability of local communities at parish level to have their voices heard against powerful upper-tier Councils, especially if representation is reduced as proposed at Arun.
Regroupings of the current parishes, whether rural or urban, offer the prospect of better accountability and fairer representation. That they are all elected-by-ballot is an obvious pre-requisite for being taken seriously.
A more radical proposal would require national legislation, and it is put forward for consideration to current representatives. That where a council lacks a majority of voted-by-ballot councillors, it should not have the power to precept whilst that situation obtains.
Another idea is that, where there are not sufficient candidates to require a ballot, the Returning Officer be empowered (needing national legislation of course) to hold a ballot of those nominated seeking a simple YES/NO for each candidate, those receiving a majority of YES votes would be elected.
Another variation, the R.O. would call another election within a specified time and the YES/NO idea applied if not enough candidates nominated to create a contested election.
Ultimately, it would seem reasonable to invest a R.O. with the power to refer what appears to be non-viable parish arrangements to the District Authority for consideration as to: merger, abolition etc based on consultation of their electorates which is indeed what Arun did with the non-functional parishes of Barnham and Eastergate, creating Banham and Eastergate Parish Council a few years back. In May 2023, this at least secured 10 parish councillors though none were voted-for and in one ward only 1 person was nominated.
There should also be concern that uncontested elections might prove a fertile ground for eg far right groups to make inroads into local government with being voted-for. One solution, again national, would be for any candidate to be required to declare personal membership of a political party or group — in Arun this would affect one member of a far-right group and a number of Liberal Democrat and Conservative members who serve in their colours on Arun Council but not a parish councils where they also serve. This improves openness and accountability.
There surely should be concern that the current system could allow extremist organisations to insinuate themselves into parish-level councils undetected.
This Survey has given an updated snapshot of the current situation re parishing arrangements, Parish Councils, their funding and activities. What has emerged is a mixed-picture of useful services, dedicated work by councillors, staff etc but a less-than-healthy picture of public engagement and voted-for representation. As with all human institutions there is much scope for improvement, and the case for fully representative, voted-for Parish Councils in Arun is strongly made.
Those currently engaged in these bodies surely must work to address the issues raised by this Survey, their undoubted excellent service to the communities of the District area is not doubted, but major changes may lie ahead if the system is to regain public confidence.
Jan Cosgrove — One Bognor
5 December 2022/ 13 May 2023
Parish Councils taking Part
in order of reply:
Slindon Parish Council, Rustington Parish Council, Pagham Parish Council, Aldingbourne Parish Council, Walberton Parish Council, East Preston Parish Council, Angmering Parish Council, Kingston Parish Council, Barnham and Eastergate Parish Council, Ferring Parish Council, Felpham Parish Council, Clymping Parish Council, Findon Parish Council, Middleton-on-Sea Parish Council, Littlehampton Town Council, Patching Parish Council, Aldwick Parish Council, Ford Parish Council, Bersted Parish Council, Bognor Regis Town Council, Clapham Parish Council, Lyminster & Crossbush Parish Council, Arundel Town Council, Yapton Parish Council
Note: the three listed as Town Councils are what are known as Larger Parish Councils, having the same status as other parish councils in law.
Unable to locate map showing all parish boundaries
May 2023 — Appendix: Results of 4 May 2023 Local Elections
Parish and numbers elected
Aldingbourne 8 (2 wards — 7, 1)
Aldwick 4 (4 wards — 2, 1, 0, 1)
Angmering 10 (2 wards — 1, 9)
Barnham & Eastergate 10 (2 wards- — 9, 1)
Bersted 9 (3 wards — 1 ,0 ,8)
Bognor Regis 16 (4 Wards, 4 each all voted for — 4, 4, 4, 4)
East Preston 13
Felpham 18 (2 wards all voted for)
Littlehampton 15 (all wards voted for)
Rustington 15 (4 wards — 6, 2, 7, 0)
Walberton 3 (2 wards — 1, 2)
Yapton 6 (2 wards — 0, 6)