The Council is a corporate body, which means that it is an ‘it’ in law, a legal entity in its own right, and the decisions it takes are the responsibility of the council as a whole. It has a legal existence separate from that of its members. It can own land, enter into contracts and be subject to court proceedings. It is responsible for its actions as a body. The LGA 1972 provides the legal foundation for today’s councils, formerly ‘parishes’ that were created under statute in 1894.
It is the first tier of local government, raising money, primarily through taxation, known as the precept. It also has responsibility for deciding how this money is spent, for the benefit of the community, delivering and maintaining a range of facilities and services to meet local needs. This can include such things as street lighting, allotments, cemeteries, playing fields, community centres, litter bins, war memorials, seats and bus shelters – to name but a few!
Its most significant responsibility is to represent it community. The council endeavours to balance the needs of different elements of the community to achieve the best possible outcome.
The Chairman must be appointed to a parish council and is elected annually by the members of the council at their Annual Council Meeting. The chairman’s main role is to manage council meetings, with responsibility for ensuring that effective and lawful decisions are made under advice from the clerk.
Councillors are elected by the electors of the parish every four years, although they may also be appointed by by-election, co-option, appointment by the district council, the council itself or by return after a successful election petition. Each council is made up of individual councillors, of which the minimum number of positions is 5, and Clapham Parish Council has 5 member positions.
The role of the councillor is to contribute to the work of the council by suggesting ideas, engaging in constructive debate and responding to the needs and views of the community. Councillors attend and participate in meetings, comment on proposals to ensure the best outcome and vote to enable the council to make decisions. An individual councillor (including the chairman) cannot make a decision on behalf of the council and should always remember that they represent the council as a corporate body. Councillors need to accept the decision of the council as a whole even if they do not agree with it.
The Clerk is the ‘proper officer’ to the council: an individual employed by it to implement its decisions, guiding and advising on legal and procedural matters, in a professional, objective and independent manner. The clerk’s primary responsibility is to advise the council on whether its decisions are lawful and to recommend ways in which decisions can be implemented. However, they have many other responsibilities including day to day administration, drawing up agendas, attending meetings, producing minutes and advising on planning applications. They may also supervise staff, act as a publicity officer, organise events and project manage services and facilities. The clerk often, but not always, manages the council’s finances. The clerk takes instructions only from the Council as a body and never from an individual councillor, including the chairman.
The Responsible Financial Officer (RFO) must be appointed by each local council. This person may be the same individual who undertakes the role of the clerk, particularly in smaller councils, but the position of RFO has very specific duties and responsibilities, as distinct from those of a clerk. They must ensure the ‘proper’ administration of the council’s finances in accordance with the Council’s financial regulations and relevant statutory requirements detailed within the Accounts and Audit Regulations that are updated regularly. The officer will prepare budgets, monitor income and expenditure on a regular basis, provide budgetary reports, and guide and advise on the precept calculation by providing a draft annual budget for the council. They will complete bank reconciliations and VAT returns, manage the staff payroll including HMRC PAYE and National Insurance contributions and year end procedures, complying with internal and external audits. They arrange appropriate and timely payments and issue invoices as required and ensure payment within terms. The RFO also has responsibility for producing and updating the asset register and managing insurance risk. It is the duty of the RFO to ensure that proper financial controls are set up within the council and enforced. This will mitigate the risk of loss, fraud or bad debt, whether through deliberate or careless actions.