ENGLISH local government is strange. You might live in an area with a single ‘unitary’ authority, while other people have a district council, a county council and maybe even a regional mayor on top of that.

But probably the strangest incarnation in our local government set-up is the one that is the least discussed. It can be a huddle in a village pub or a multi-million-pound operation: it is the town or parish councils.

Last year, I was elected onto Billingham Town Council via a by-election. Even though I have been a follower of politics since my mid-teens, this was new to me: I had attended the council only once and it hadn’t even existed when I was growing up.

I was surprised to find that, at least in some areas, there is a shortage of willing candidates. Our town had no competitive elections in 2015 because there were fewer candidates than seats. Although it did later fill up, we are now going into an election with two standing vacancies. This is in stark contrast to other layers of local government, where it’s only when you venture deep into Labour or Conservative territory that you find the main parties are not at least putting someone on the ballot. Why is this?

One reason might be that town and parish councils have few powers and even fewer responsibilities – “maintenance of a town clock” is a memorable one.

However, strangely enough, there is no upper limit on the amount of council tax precept this type of body can levy on the public. So, as a town council, if you want to ask each household for £500 a year, nothing’s stopping you; but if you want to take over bin collections, you’ll have to get permission.

Another potential explanation is that these organisations are little understood - even by those who, like me, consider themselves politically informed.

Part of this is because the law only requires minimal levels of public engagement, and it’s up to councils whether they want to go further. However, in this day and age when a vast majority tell pollsters that they think politics is broken, when many feel they have no influence over what happens in their community, it seems to me time for more people to become engaged and give up a small amount of time to hold our authorities to account.

The Government could make it easier by giving clearer powers and instructions to parish and town councils; they are, after all, the most local and grassroots level of our democracy. Having greater powers and a clearer mandate would likely attract more volunteers to participate. While they’re at it, they could end the confusing patchwork of different tiers of local government and bring efficiencies by combining back office functions between nearby authorities.

It’s common sense, but rocks the boat, which is probably why it hasn’t happened yet.

As it is, town and parish councils can be very helpful in bringing together community groups, providing financial support for local worthy causes, and creating a sense of social cohesion – whether you have a town clock to maintain, or not.

Many areas in our region have local elections next month. I hope they will result in full meeting rooms and council chambers.

  • Mark Burdon chairs the Tees Valley branch of The North East Party.