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Parish Council and Village Websites – they both must comply with WCAG 2.1AA and here’s why…

Mark Tomkins
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As many will know, since the 23rd September 2020, all public bodies need to ensure that their websites comply with the new WCAG (Website Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.1AA standard. This means that all levels of councils across the UK will need to make sure that their website, and the content that goes on it, complies with these rules that govern accessibility and ensure that users with disabilities aren’t compromised in any way when trying to access the content.

We went into detail in our previous article on Website Accessibility for Public Bodies some time back but in short we explained that a website’s framework (the page templates, navigation and the way it was coded) all affect how easy (or hard) it is for a person to use the site if they have disabilities or use assistive technology. We also explain how just adding free accessibility plugins was a bad thing and not recommended as it just deals with surface problems and does not get to the fundamentals of website accessibility.

However, what has become a regular question from parish clerks relates to whether their parish website needs to comply if the parish council pages are hosted on a community or village website.

Historically, many parish councils have used a few pages on their village or community website as a way to keep things all together – often it will be because there’s a member of the community who has web development knowledge and offers the access for free or a small cost and the clerk simply sends the updates through to them to action.

The problem is that, since the law came in at the end of September, all public bodies (parish councils included) need to comply with the WCAG 2.1AA guidelines.

So what does that mean?

The village or community website is not bound by the legal requirements of the public body, such as a parish council. They do not need to meet WCAG 2.1AA standards. But official communications of the parish council do.

However, it’s not just the few pages the parish council use on that village website that need to comply – it’s the whole website.

That is because a website is constructed in a way that uses common elements – the navigation system, or menu, the underlying page templates and general method of coding – all of which are shared across the whole site.

It is also not just limited to the accessible nature of the PDFs or files the council put on their pages. Access to these files is attained by using the website’s navigation and page templates and, as you cannot determine at what point a web visitor arrives at the website and on which page they might start their journey, all pages on the site need to meet the WCAG 2.1AA requirements.

This means that, unless the village or community website developer can make the website WCAG 2.1AA compliant, the parish council will need to extract its pages from that site and build a new site that is compliant.

That is not to say that all parish councils must leave their existing provider with a view to seeking a new WCAG 2.1AA compliant website but rather, putting it to the incumbent webmaster to see if he or she can make the necessary improvements to the website framework in order for it to comply.

What’s also important to consider is that, as a public body, a parish or town council has regulatory requirements in terms of what it publishes and its format, alongside good GDPR compliance in regard to the data the website collects from its users.

Transparency code

Another aspect to consider relates to control and publishing responsibilities. We are aware of parish councils citing that, because the parish council uses pages on a village website, there is nothing they can do about meeting WCAG complinace.

However, under the Transparency Code – which is over 5 years old at the point of writing, the council is required to have control over its communication and publish its required documents, such as finance, minutes, agendas, councillor information and so-on, within agreed time frames. Where a parish council has pages on a village website that do not meet WCAG requirements (and it does not own or control the website), should the website owner not wish to or is able to provide the parish council with the control it needs to perform the changes necessary within the required time frame to meet compliance, the council could be in conflict with the Transparency Code.

User Experience

Additionally, older village websites are not mobile responsive and with current data suggesting that more than 70% of all internet surfing is done from a mobile phone it is vital to make sure the website is very mobile responsive so as to better serve its community and parish council users.

 

The brutal truth

The best case scenario is that the webmaster of the village or community website on which the parish council has its pages can make the necessary changes to the website in order for it (and more importantly) the parish council to meet compliance. That means less upheaval and keeps the local provider supporting the council (and community).

However, very often the village or community websites are made using free (or low cost) online platforms where it is going to be hard – or impossible – to make the necessary changes to the site in order to meet the needs of the parish council. As a result, the council will have to face the reality of leaving the current provider and commission a WCAG 2.1AA website for its own use.

Using a WCAG 2.1AA website provider, such as the websites offered by Aubergine, are a low-cost way for a parish or town council to have a website that meets the requirements and gives them all the admin tools needed to update the content.

In the long run, this may prove a better route as it means the council can continue to meet the requirements (a reputable platform service will monitor changes to the legislation and update its framework accordingly) as well as being able to grow the communication channel to its community. And as the last 7 months of difficulties through the restrictions of COVID have shown, a website is a vital tool for any council to communicate in these remote times.


You can find more information on Aubergine’s WCAG 2.1AA compliant website packages for parish councils or feel free to call me on 01525 373020 and I can provide you with first-hand experience and insight into using the system gained through my efforts as a parish councillor for a small and busy parish council.