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Towards a Participatory Representative Democracy? UK Parish Councils and Community Engagement.

Towards a Participatory Representative Democracy?

Joanie Willett and Joe Cruxon, Politics at the University of Exeter, Cornwall.

Key findings

  • Town and parish councils have the potential to be a really important way for people to be able to shape their communities, and are a primary access point of democracy.
  • Although people know that they exist, unfortunately many people don’t have a very good perception of them, and don’t necessarily feel that they reflect their interests.
  • To counter this, Cornwall’s parish councils need make themselves more accessible to a much wider audience. New technologies such as community mobile phone applications might be one way to do this.


Getting involved with the parish council is one of the easiest ways to make changes to our communities and neighbourhoods, and so to get involved with local democracy. This is especially important now that under the Localism agenda, many local authorities such as Cornwall Council are offering the opportunity for parishes to deliver more services such as libraries and public conveniences.

In our study (which we undertook in Cornwall) we find that although parish councils had excellent brand recognition, as most of the 33 persons interviewed knew broadly what they were, and thought that councillors enjoy their role. On the other hand, very few people knew what they do. This was not helped by a general perception that parish councillors tended to be of a particular, older, retired type of demographic group. As a consequence, this means that younger people in particular felt that councils did not represent their needs, or were not accessible.

Many people claimed that they were not able to play a role in community politics because they lack the time. But when we dug deeper, we found that there was much more to non-involvement. Instead, we often found stories of conflict. One participant told us that she had previously been a councillor, but disagreement over the use of community resources for young people had created so much discord that she had become isolated and had felt that she had no option other than to move house to a different locality. Another participant told us that since she had to live and work in her village, the inevitable conflicts that she foresaw with the existing councillors would be detrimental to her livelihood and lifestyle. This creates a self-perpetuating cycle – a lack of diversity on parish councils means that community issues can be approached from a narrow set of perspectives and possible solutions, which then amplifies the perception that parish councils are less relevant to the lives of many citizens.

Part of the problem lies in communication. Frequently, we were told about how communities and parish councils were both trying really hard to communicate with each other, but found it difficult to do so effectively. Sometimes, the ways that parish councils disseminate information is very different to how members of the community would like to receive it. Sometimes, councils can be very wary of the kinds of response that they will get from the community when they manage to find ways of opening up a multi-way dialogue. This could have really damaging effects for councils, and we heard stories about how less-than-effective use of communication meant that positive actions could easily be misconstrued, creating negative narratives.

So what can be done? One of the key factors that emerged from this research, is that people do want to be involved in their communities, and they do want to help to make positive change. But they also need to feel that this is an effective and productive use of their time. We suggest that one way of widening participation, and exploring new ways of communicating effectively, would be for councils to work with younger people – including those under the age of 18 – to explore ways of communicating across generational divides. This might include exploring ways of using social media and new technologies such as mobile phone applications.

Parish councils have an enormous potential for helping to create vibrant communities, where individuals can share information and get involved in shaping the places they live in. They are the most accessible point of democratic engagement in the UK, and therefore are vital for reinvigorating our representative democracy. Now, we need to make sure that they are able to reach that potential.been exaggerated.

»Read full paper on Open Research Exeter (ORE)