ALLOWING people as young as 16 to vote in parish council elections in England could give a significant boost to local democracy, a new report argues.

The report from the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPdPR) North, Handforth in hindsight: the future of hyperlocal governance in England advocates giving the right to vote to an estimated additional 472,000 voters aged 16 and 17 in a bid to make parish councils more representative and diverse.

The report uncovers startling figures that question the diversity, representation, and legitimacy of democracy at parish council level, and calls for a significant shakeup.

The research highlights that less than half of parish council seats are won through contested elections (38 per cent) and 35 per cent of councillors are co-opted, raising concerns about their legitimacy and representativeness.

Chief Officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, Jackie Weaver, shot to fame during a Covid lock down in December 2020 after her role as acting clerk at Handforth Parish Council went viral online. She said: “Parish councils are the perennial poor cousin within our democracy, yet they can play an enormously important role in communities.

“Parish councils provide or help facilitate a range of services from community spaces and infrastructure to activities for young people and the elderly. In the county where I work, we have councils with responsibility for budgets of up to £1.5 million. Yet all too often we see that parish councils are underpowered and overlooked. Anything that helps boost awareness and confidence in parish councils is welcome.”

IPPR North Research Fellow, Ryan Swift, said: “Some parish councils lack legitimacy in the eyes of communities with less than half of parish council seats being won through contested elections. In some cases, there is a crisis of representation among those who run and direct them.

“This is a problem for our democracy. Yet there are things the government could consider doing to change this. Our vision is that hyperlocal governance – far from the Handforth Council stereotype – could instead become a place of democratic innovation and engagement.”

The report urges the government to adopt a range of measures aimed at reinvigorating hyperlocal government, including to:

  • Introduce votes at 16 at the hyperlocal level, as in Scotland and Wales.
  • Explore the introduction of remote electronic voting.
  • Hold parish council elections on the same day as others, for example local authority, combined authority, or general elections.
  • Improve participation in parish councils by ending the ‘closed shop’ and giving them more powers and resources.
  • Make meetings more accessible and open to the public at locations and times that are convenient for different cross-sections of the community.

* In Scotland and Wales, the voting age for elections to local government, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senned is 16. More information here.

* Read Handforth in hindsight: the future of hyperlocal governance in England here.

* Source: Institute for Public Policy Research