Civil parish

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Civil parish (England)
Uk parishes.png
Map of English parishes and Welsh communities
Category Parish
Location England
Found in Districts
Created byVarious, see text
  • Various, see text
Number 10,449 (as of 2015 [1] )
Possible types
  • City
  • Community
  • Neighbourhood
  • Parish
  • Town
  • Village

In England, a civil parish is a type of administrative parish used for local government. It is a territorial designation which is the lowest tier of local government below districts and counties, or their combined form, the unitary authority. Civil parishes can trace their origin to the ancient system of ecclesiastical parishes which historically played a role in both civil and ecclesiastical administration; civil and religious parishes were formally split into two types in the 19th century and are now entirely separate. The unit was devised and rolled out across England in the 1860s.


A civil parish can range in size from a sparsely populated rural area with fewer than a hundred inhabitants, to a large town with a population in the tens of thousands. Eight parishes also have city status (a status granted by the monarch). A civil parish may be equally known as and confirmed as a town, village, neighbourhood or community by resolution of its parish council, a right not conferred on other units of English local government. Civil parishes predominantly cover rural areas, with many urban districts being wholly or partly unparished; approximately 35% of the English population live in a civil parish. As of 31 December 2015 there were 10,449 parishes in England. [1]

On 1 April 2014, Queen's Park became the first civil parish in Greater London. [2] Before 2008 their creation was not permitted within a London borough. [3]

The governing body of a civil parish is usually an elected parish council (which can decide to call itself a Town Council, Village Council, Community Council or a Neighbourhood Council, or a City Council if the parish has city status). Alternatively, in parishes with low populations, governance is by a parish meeting which all electors may attend.

Wales was also divided into civil parishes until 1974, when they were replaced by communities, which are similar to English parishes in the way they operate. Civil parishes in Scotland were abolished for local government purposes by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1929; the Scottish equivalent of English civil parishes are the community council areas established by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973.


Ancient parishes

The parish system in Europe was established between the 8th and 12th centuries, [4] and an early form was long established in England by the time of the Norman Conquest. These areas were originally based on the territory of manors, [5] which, in some cases, derived their bounds from Roman or Iron Age estates; some large manors were sub-divided into several parishes. [6]

Initially, churches and their priests were the gift and continued patronage (benefaction) of the lord of the manor, but not all were willing and able to provide, so residents would be expected to attend the church of the nearest manor with a church. Later, the churches and priests became to a greater extent the responsibility of the Catholic Church thus this was formalised; the grouping of manors into one parish was recorded, as was a manor-parish existing in its own right. [7]

Boundaries changed little, and for centuries after 1180 'froze', despite changes to manors' extents. [8] However by subinfeudation, making a new smaller manor, there was a means of making a chapel which if generating or endowed with enough funds would generally justify foundation of a parish, with its own parish priest (and in latter centuries vestry). [8] This consistency was a result of canon law which prized the status quo in issues between local churches and so made boundary changes and sub-division difficult.

The consistency of these boundaries until the 19th century is useful to historians, and is also of cultural significance in terms of shaping local identities; reinforced by the use of grouped parish boundaries, often, by successive local authority areas; and in a very rough, operations-geared way by most postcode districts. There was (and is) wide disparity in parish size. Writtle, Essex traditionally measures 13,568 acres (21 sq mi) two parishes neighbouring are Shellow Bowells at 469 acres (0.7 sq mi), and Chignall Smealy at 476 acres (0.7 sq mi)

Until the break with Rome, [9] parishes managed ecclesiastical matters, while the manor was the principal unit of local administration and justice. Later, the church replaced the manor court as the rural administrative centre, and levied a local tax on produce known as a tithe. [5] In the medieval period, responsibilities such as relief of the poor passed increasingly from the lord of the manor to the parish's rector, who in practice would delegate tasks among his vestry or the (often well-endowed) monasteries. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the power to levy a rate to fund relief of the poor was conferred on the parish authorities by the Act for the Relief of the Poor 1601. Both before and after this optional social change, local (vestry-administered) charities are well-documented. [10]

The parish authorities were known as vestries and consisted of all the ratepayers of the parish. As the number of ratepayers of some parishes grew, it became increasingly difficult to convene meetings as an open vestry. In some, mostly built-up, areas the select vestry took over responsibility from the entire body of ratepayers. This innovation improved efficiency, but allowed governance by a self-perpetuating elite. [5] The administration of the parish system relied on the monopoly of the established English Church, which for a few years after Henry VIII alternated between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, before settling on the latter on the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558. By the 18th century, religious membership was becoming more fractured in some places, due in part to the progress of Methodism. The legitimacy of the parish vestry came into question, and the perceived inefficiency and corruption inherent in the system became a source for concern in some places. [5] For this reason, during the early 19th century the parish progressively lost its powers to ad hoc boards and other organisations, such as the boards of guardians given responsibility for poor relief through the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. Sanitary districts covered England in 1875 and Ireland three years later. The replacement boards were each entitled to levy their own rate in the parish; the church rate ceased to be levied in many parishes and became voluntary from 1868. [5]

Civil and ecclesiastical split

The ancient parishes diverged into two distinct, nearly exactly overlapping, systems of parishes during the 19th century. The Poor Law Amendment Act 1866, which received royal assent on 10 August 1866, declared all areas that levied a separate rate or had their own overseer of the poor to be parishes. This included the Church of England parishes (until then simply known as "parishes"), extra-parochial areas, townships and chapelries. To have collected rates this means these beforehand had their own vestries, boards or equivalent bodies. Parishes using this definition subsequently became known as "civil parishes" to distinguish them from the ecclesiastical parishes. [11]

The Church of England parishes, which cover more than 99% of England, have become officially (and to avoid ambiguity) termed ecclesiastical parishes. The limits of many of these have diverged; most greatly through changes in population and church attendance (these factors can cause churches to be opened or closed). Since 1921, each has been the responsibility of its own parochial church council (PCC).

In the late 19th century, most of the "ancient" (a legal term equivalent to time immemorial) irregularities inherited by the civil parish system were cleaned up, and the majority of exclaves were abolished. The Census of 1911 noted that 8,322 (58%) of "parishes" in England and Wales were not geographically identical when comparing the civil to the ecclesiastical form.


In 1894, civil parishes were reformed by the Local Government Act 1894 to become the smallest geographical area for local government in rural areas. The act abolished the civil (non-ecclesiastical) duties of vestries, set up urban districts and rural districts, established elected civil parish councils as to all rural parishes with more than 300 electors, and established annual parish meetings in all rural parishes. Civil parishes were grouped to form either rural or urban districts which are thereafter classified as either type. The law coincided with negligible boundary changes overall save that further progress was made at the time to deal with the growing problem of the remaining cross-county parishes (see List of county exclaves in England and Wales 1844–1974).

Urban civil parishes continued of sorts; most being smaller than or coterminous (geographically identical) with the urban district or municipal borough in which they lay, which took over almost all of their functions. Large towns usually split between civil parishes were generally consolidated into one. In urban areas ad-hoc, unelected parish councils became most common, convened only for electing guardians to the poor law unions. The unions took in areas in multiple parishes and had a set number of guardians for each parish, hence a final purpose of urban civil parishes. With the abolition of the Poor Law system in 1930, urban parishes which were coterminous had virtually no function and most others also became defunct.

In 1965 civil parishes in London were formally abolished when Greater London was created, as the legislative framework for Greater London did not make provision for any local government body below a London borough. (Since the new county was beforehand a mixture of metropolitan boroughs, municipal boroughs and urban districts, no extant parish councils were abolished.)

In 1974, the Local Government Act 1972 retained civil parishes in rural areas and low-population urban districts, but abolished them in larger urban districts, especially boroughs. In non-metropolitan counties, smaller urban districts and municipal boroughs were abolished and succeeded by establishment of new successor parishes, with a boundary coterminous with an existing urban district or borough, or if divided by a district boundary as much as was comprised in a single district. In urban areas that were considered too large to be single parishes, the parishes were simply abolished, and they became unparished areas. The Act, however, permitted sub-division of all districts (apart from London boroughs, reformed in 1965) into civil parishes. For example, Oxford, whilst entirely unparished in 1974, now has four civil parishes, which together cover part of its area.


Some parishes were sub-divided into smaller territories known as hamlets, tithings or townships. [12]


Nowadays the creation of town and parish councils is encouraged in unparished areas. The Local Government and Rating Act 1997 created a procedure which gave residents in unparished areas the right to demand that a new parish and parish council be created. [13] This right was extended to London boroughs by the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 [14] – with this, the City of London is at present the only part of England where civil parishes cannot be created.

If enough electors in the area of a proposed new parish (ranging from 50% in an area with less than 500 electors to 10% in one with more than 2,500) sign a petition demanding its creation, then the local district council or unitary authority must consider the proposal. [3] Recently established parish councils include Daventry (2003), Folkestone (2004), and Brixham (2007). In 2003 seven new parish councils were set up for Burton upon Trent, and in 2001 the Milton Keynes urban area became entirely parished, with ten new parishes being created. In 2003, the village of Great Coates in mainly urban North East Lincolnshire regained parish status. Parishes can also be abolished where there is evidence that this is in response to "justified, clear and sustained local support" from the area's inhabitants. [3] Examples are Birtley, which was abolished in 2006, and Southsea, abolished in 2010. [15] [16]


Every civil parish has a parish meeting, which all the electors of the parish are entitled to attend. Generally a meeting is held once a year. A civil parish may have a parish council which exercises various local responsibilities prescribed by statute. Parishes with fewer than 200 electors are 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.

A parish council may decide to call itself a Town Council, Village Council, Community Council, Neighbourhood Council, or if the parish has city status, the parish council may call itself a City Council. [17] According to the Department for Communities and Local Government, in England in 2011 there were 9,946 parishes. [18] Since 1997 around 100 new civil parishes have been created, in some cases by splitting existing civil parishes, but mostly by creating new ones from unparished areas.

Powers and functions

Parish or town councils may exercise a number of powers at their discretion which have been defined by various pieces of legislation. The role they play can vary significantly depending on the size, resources and ability of the council, but their activities can include: [19] [20] [21]


Parish councils receive funding by levying a "precept" on the council tax paid by the residents of the parish (or parishes) served by the parish council. In a civil parish which has no parish council, the parish meeting may levy a council tax precept for expenditure relating to specific functions, powers and rights which have been conferred on it by legislation. 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. The district council may make an additional council tax charge, known as a Special Expense, to residents of the unparished area to fund those activities. [24] If the district council does not opt to make a Special Expenses charge, there is an element of double taxation of residents of parished areas, because services provided to residents of the unparished area are funded by council tax paid by residents of the whole district, rather than only by residents of the unparished area.

Councillors and elections

Parish councils comprise volunteer councillors who are elected to serve for four years. Decisions of the council are carried out by a paid officer, typically known as a parish clerk. Councils may employ additional people (including bodies corporate, provided where necessary, by tender) to carry out specific tasks dictated by the council. Some councils have chosen to pay their elected members an allowance, as permitted under part 5 of the Local Authorities (Members' Allowances) (England) Regulations 2003. [25]

The number of councillors varies roughly in proportion to the population of the parish.[ citation needed ] Most rural parish councillors are elected to represent the entire parish, though in parishes with larger populations or those that cover larger areas, the parish can be divided into wards. Each of these wards then returns councillors to the parish council (the numbers 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. If a vacancy arises for a seat mid-term, an election is only held if a certain number (usually ten) of parish residents request an election. Otherwise the council will co-opt someone to be the replacement councillor.

The Localism Act 2011 introduced new arrangements which replaced the 'Standards Board regime' with local monitoring by district, unitary or equivalent authorities. Under new regulations which came into effect in 2012 all parish councils in England are required to adopt a code of conduct with which parish councillors must comply, and to promote and maintain high standards. A new criminal offence of failing to comply with statutory requirements was introduced. More than one 'model code' has been published, and councils are free to modify an existing code or adopt a new code. In either case the code must comply with the Nolan Principles of Public Life. [26]

Status and styles

A parish can be granted city status by the Crown. As of 2020, eight parishes in England have city status, each having a long-established Anglican cathedral: Chichester, Ely, Hereford, Lichfield, Ripon, Salisbury, Truro and Wells.

The council of an ungrouped parish may pass a resolution giving the parish the status of a town, [27] at which point the council becomes a town council. [28] Around 400 parish councils are called town councils.[ citation needed ]

Under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, a civil parish may be given one of the following alternative styles:

As a result, a parish council can 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 or non-metropolitan districts). [29] [30]

The chairman of a town council will have the title "town mayor" and that of a parish council which is a city will usually have the title of mayor.

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 Hereford, whose city council was merged in 1998 to form a unitary Herefordshire. The area of the city of Hereford remained unparished until 2000 when a parish council was created for the city. As another example, the charter trustees for the City of Bath make up the majority of the councillors on Bath and North East Somerset Council.


Civil parishes cover 35% of England's population, with one in Greater London and very few in the other conurbations. 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-Mare, with a population of 71,758, is the most populous civil parish. In many cases small settlements, today popularly termed villages, localities or suburbs, are in a single parish which had one original church, the smallest of which continue to be widely called hamlets. 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, Birmingham has two parishes, New Frankley and Sutton Coldfield, whilst Oxford has four, and the Milton Keynes urban area has 24. Parishes could not however be established in London until the law was changed in 2007.


A civil parish can range in area from a small village or town ward to a large tract of mostly uninhabited moorland in the Cheviots, Pennines or Dartmoor.

Deserted parishes

The 2001 census recorded several parishes with no inhabitants. These were Chester Castle (in the middle of Chester city centre), Newland with Woodhouse Moor, Beaumont Chase, Martinsthorpe, Meering, Stanground North (subsequently abolished), Sturston, Tottington, and Tyneham (subsequently merged). The lands of the last three were taken over by the British Armed Forces during World War II and remain deserted.

In the 2011 census, Newland with Woodhouse Moor and Beaumont Chase reported inhabitants, and there were no new deserted parishes recorded. [31]

General abolition of anomalies

Virtually all instances of detached parts of civil parishes; parishes in alien, unconnected counties; and of those straddling counties have been ended.

Direct predecessors of civil parishes are most often known as "ancient parishes", although many date only from the mid 19th century. Using a longer historial lens the better terms are "pre-separation (civil and ecclesiastical) parish", "original medieval parishes" and "new parishes". The Victoria County History , a landmark collaborative work mostly written in the 20th century (although incomplete), summarises the history of each English "parish", roughly meaning late medieval parish. A minority of these had exclaves: such an exclave could be

In some cases an exclave of a parish (a "detached part") was in a different county. In other cases, counties surrounded a whole parish meaning it was in an unconnected, "alien" county. These anomalies resulted in a highly localised difference in applicable representatives on the national level, justices of the peace, sheriffs, bailiffs with inconvenience to the inhabitants. If a parish was split then churchwardens, highway wardens and constables would also spend more time or money travelling large distances. Some parishes straddled two or more counties, Todmorden of Lancashire and Yorkshire. [32]

Such anomalies mostly arose in the height of the feudal system, when parishes evolved. Major land interests (manor proper or church lands) may have acquired non-contiguous parcels of land i.e. beyond the original parish/county bounds or what would become the boundaries of a new parish. Those extra-territorial land parcels influenced the formation of parish boundaries where the parcels were significant to the parish. Thus secular land in an exclave, almost always manor, may have been the site of a prosperous farmstead, or remained part of the manor for generations, or the lord/lady of the manor may have held the right to appoint the parish priest (advowson) or co-founded the church as its patron. The scenario may also have arisen originally as an attempt to diversify the lord's (or overlord's) interests, or from a large burial ground in an urban setting. It could also arise from a chance inheritance. It caused inconvenience to the residents of most exclaves/enclaves (where not numerous or economically significant enough to have their own chapel of ease as to religious matters and a vestry as to civil matters). They had to attend a distant church and/or the manorial court for certain tithes, rates, baptisms, marriages, funerals, or to obtain regular poor relief and most forms of education, charitable alms and hospitalry.

The end of manorial courts coincided with growing agricultural innovation, fragmentation of land ownership and housing growth. The church and vestries were reluctant to bring boundaries up to date. This meant such anomalies were irrelevant nuisances with a real economic cost in distance of administration and confusion. They began to be remedied nationally in statute by Parliament in the early 19th century in the Poor Law Reforms of 1834, and was more widely in 1844 when an Act moved most parishes which were partly or wholly in an alien county. The remaining exclaves of counties were transferred in the 1890s and in 1931, with one exception: an exclave of Tetworth, surrounded by Cambridgeshire, was removed in 1965 from Huntingdonshire.

Other acts, including the Divided Parishes and Poor Law Amendment Act 1882 eliminated instances of civil parishes being split between counties, so that by 1901 Stanground in Huntingdonshire and the Isle of Ely was the last example; [33] it was split into two parishes, one in each county, in 1905. [34]

The Church of England has only abolished these where locally incepted (under the Anglican and the Catholic principle of subsidiarity). This means it has essentially kept, often divided in urban areas, the original parishes. The church's main website now has an accessible map, showing parish boundaries church-by-church. [35]

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Civil parishes in Berkshire

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Civil parishes in Cambridgeshire

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Civil parishes in Lancashire

A civil parish is a subnational entity, forming the lowest unit of local government in England. There are 219 civil parishes in the ceremonial county of Lancashire; Blackpool is completely unparished; Pendle and Ribble Valley are entirely parished. At the 2001 census, there were 587,074 people living in the 219 parishes, accounting for 41.5 per cent of the county's population.

Civil parishes in West Yorkshire

A civil parish is a subnational entity, forming the lowest unit of local government in England. There are 101 civil parishes in the ceremonial county of West Yorkshire, most of the county being unparished. At the 2001 census, there were 557,369 people living in the parishes, accounting for 26.8 per cent of the county's population.

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Civil parishes in the West Midlands (county)

A civil parish is a subnational entity, forming the lowest unit of local government in England. There are 21 civil parishes in the ceremonial county of West Midlands, most of the county being unparished; Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton are completely unparished. At the 2001 census, there were 89,621 people living in the parishes, accounting for 3.5 per cent of the county's population.

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Municipal Borough of Walthamstow

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History of local government in England Aspect of history

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St George Hanover Square

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Civil parishes in Cornwall

A civil parish is a country subdivision, forming the lowest unit of local government in England. There are 218 civil parishes in the ceremonial county of Cornwall, which includes the Isles of Scilly. The county is effectively parished in its entirety; only the unpopulated Wolf Rock is unparished. At the 2001 census, there were 501,267 people living in the current parishes, accounting for the whole of the county's population. The final unparished areas of mainland Cornwall, around St Austell, were parished on 1 April 2009 to coincide with the structural changes to local government in England.

Woolwich (parish)

Woolwich, also known as Woolwich St Mary, was an ancient parish containing the town of Woolwich on the south bank of the Thames and North Woolwich on the north bank. The parish was governed by its vestry from the 16th century to 1852, based in the Church of St Mary until 1842, after which in the purpose-built Woolwich Town Hall. The parish adopted the Public Health Act 1848 and was governed by the Woolwich Local Board of Health from 1852. When the parish became part of the district of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855 the local board was treated as if it were an incorporated vestry. It was in the county of Kent until it was transferred to London in 1889. In 1900 it was amalgamated with other parishes to form the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich and had only nominal existence until it was abolished as a civil parish in 1930. Since 1965 it has been split between the Royal Borough of Greenwich and the London Borough of Newham.

Parish (Church of England)

The parish with its parish church(es) is the basic territorial unit of the Church of England. The parish has its roots in the Roman Catholic Church and survived the English Reformation largely untouched. Each is within one of 42 dioceses: divided between the thirty of the Canterbury and the twelve of that of York. There are around 12,500 Church of England parishes.


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  19. "Powers and Duties of Local Councils". Cumbria Association of Local Councils. Retrieved 21 October 2018.
  20. "Parish council responsibilities". 5 November 2013. Retrieved 21 October 2018.
  21. Full list of powers of parish councils (archived since 15 July 2007) - Downloadable Microsoft Word Document
  22. "The General Power of Competence" (PDF). Local government Association. Retrieved 10 November 2018.
  23. "The Parish Councils (General Power of Competence) (Prescribed Conditions) Order 2012". Retrieved 10 November 2018.
  24. Local Government Finance Act 1992, section 35
  25. "Local Government Act 2000 The Local Authorities (Members' Allowances) (England) Regulations 2003 Reg 30".
  26. Local government: the standards regime in England - Commons Library Standard Note, Accessed 1 May 2015
  27. "The council of a parish which is not grouped with any other parish may resolve that the parish shall have the status of a town" "Local Government Act 1972 (c.70), Part XIII". Revised Statutes. Office of Public Sector Information. 1972. Retrieved 11 September 2010.
  28. Local government in England and Wales: A Guide to the New System. London: HMSO. 1974. p. 158. ISBN   0-11-750847-0.
  29. NALC - National Association of Local Councils Archived 26 September 2011 at the UK Government Web Archive Retrieved 26 December 2009
  30. Guidance on Community Governance Reviews Archived 17 May 2009 at the Wayback Machine (April 2008), London: Department for Communities and Local Government. ISBN   978-1-8511-2917-1. Retrieved 26 December 2009.
  31. "Unpopulated civil parishes and communities from the 2011 Census - Office for National Statistics".
  32. Todmorden Civil Parish Council and Community website. Retrieved 27 November 2014
  33. "Vision of Britain - 1901 Census: General - Areas".
  34. Local Government Board Order No. 56410, made under the Local Government Act 1894 (56 & 57 Vict. c.73) s.36
  35. Ecclesiastical parish still with detached part (example): Hascombe The Church of England. Retrieved 27 November 2014
  36. It was sold in 1967 to the Utopian Housing Society who built 7 blocks, housing 300 flats and maisonettes, completed in 1973 having communal woodland gardens. Many of the site's mature trees, including a plane about 250 years old and a red oak, were retained; see
  37. "St George's Hanover Square".