What are the functions and duties of a town council?

Last updated on December 17, 2014

Recently, the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council run by the Workers’ Party has been red-flagged by the Ministry of National Development in its Town Council Management Report. It raised a host of questions as to the exact responsibilities of a competent town council.

Purpose of the Town Council System

There are two main reasons for setting up the town council system, as stated by Minister for National Development, Mr Khaw Boon Wan in 2013:

Firstly, Town Councils were set up to give authority and responsibility to elected Members of Parliament (MPs) to take charge of their constituents’ estate and to allow each Town to develop its own distinctive character under the MPs’ leadership.

Secondly, Town Councils, so set up, made MPs accountable to their voters for the running of the estate, as these voters can take the MPs’ performance into account when they next go to the polls.

Prior to the establishment of Town Councils, the common areas of HDB estates were maintained by HDB, in a centralized, apolitical system. With the establishment of the Town Councils system, responsibility for estate management was shifted to the Town Councils.

What is a Town Council?

The Minister may declare to be a Town an area comprising any constituency, or any 2 or 3 constituencies where the MPs have agreed to work together as a Town. (section 3, Town Councils Act)

Who are the members of the Town Council?

The elected members of parliament of that town will be members of the Town Council. The Chairman will be appointed from those elected members. In the case of a single-member constituency, that MP will be the Chairman. The Chairman can then appoint other members to the town council, numbering not less than 6 and not more than 30, or up to 10 members per MP, whichever is greater. At least 2/3 of the appointed members must be residents of the Town, to ensure that the interests of residents are represented. The Chairman will appoint from amongst the members not more than 2 vice-chairmen. (section 8,9, Town Councils Act)

Functions of a Town Council

The function of a Town Council is chiefly, estate management. Some examples are: cleaning services of the common areas, building maintenance, horticultural landscaping (eg. Grass cutting), electrical and mechanical maintenance (eg. Repairing faulty lights in common areas, lift rescue services), estate improvement works (provision of amenities such as covered walkways, playgrounds). A detailed list of the duties of the Town Council may be found in section 21 of the Town Council Act.

Outside of the common property that a town council is responsible for, a Town Council may also manage or maintain any industrial property, parking place, markets and hawker centres located within the Town of the HDB or the Government, by agreement with the HDB or the Government as the case might be. Similarly, on the request of any public authority or any community-based association, with the approval of the Minister, a Town Council may opt to carry out any work on the behalf of the organization as agreed between the Town Council and the public authority or association.

Powers of a Town Council

To fulfil its functions, the Town Council is conferred with certain powers through the Town Councils Act. A Town Council has the powers to:

  1. on the common property, establish places and facilities for recreation, relaxation and other educational and cultural purposes, make improvements to and maintain existing facilities, seeking the prior written consent of HDB when necessary
  2. within the Town, but outside the common property, the power to erect, install, plant, repair and maintain additional facilities, seeking the approval of the Minister and consent of the owner of the property involved
  3. acquire and hold and dispose of property of any description provided this is necessary for the performance of its functions
  4. impose charges for the use of facilities or services
  5. appoint agents to carry out the functions of the Town Council
  6. accept gifts and donations
  7. do all other acts that are reasonably necessary for the exercise of all or any of the powers or duties of the Town Council, and for the enforcement of its by-laws, and perform any other function which is conducive to the purposes of the Town Council in accordance with the provisions of the Town Councils Act or any other Act.

A Town Council may also make by-laws for regulating the control, management, administration, use and enjoyment of the common property within the Town, and generally for the purposes of carrying out its duties and functions. Examples of by-laws are, regulating the parking of vehicles on common property other than parking places; prescribing administrative fees to be paid for any services provided by the Town Council; prescribing penalties to be paid by residents for late payment of conservancy and service charges. A breach of any of the by-laws is an offense, and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $5,000.

How are Town Councils Funded?

Town Councils are funded by:

  1. Conservancy and Service Charges levied upon every flat in any residential or commercial property, and every stall in any market or food centre of the HDB within the town, at such rates determined by the Town Council.
  2. Government Grants-in-aid – such as the annual operating grant and any other grants.

Furthermore, Town Councils are required to set-up and maintain sinking funds to enable the carrying out of cyclical repair works such as those stated under section 33(6) of the Town Councils Act, separate from the Town Council Fund which is for the purposes of regular duties.

Town Councils may borrow money to carry out its duties, or invest surplus funds in trustee stocks.

In the case of non-payment of service and conservancy charges, the Town Councils are also empowered to recover such debts by:

  1. Recovering the arrears due in a Small Claims Tribunal;
  2. Applying to Court for a writ of seizure and sale of movable property belonging to the owner; and
  3. Imposing a charge and, upon expiry of the notice of intention to sell, dispose of the flat.

Failure of any owner or tenant of a flat or stall to pay any charges or interest due within 14 days from the date of service of the written demand for the charges will constitute an offence, and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $1,000.
(section 39, 44, Town Councils Act)

Further information on the financial workings of the Town Council may be found in the Town Councils Financial Rules.

How are town councils made accountable?

There are three offences in the Town Councils Act, relating to the misuse of Town Councils’ funds, the contravention of the Town Council – Lift Upgrading Programme rules, and the wilful withholding of information required by an auditor without reasonable cause. These offences are liable on conviction to fines.

Normal criminal and civil liabilities also apply to those in the Town Council that have transgressed upon the laws of the land.
If the Town Council fails to maintain the estate properly, or if any duty of a Town Council must be carried out immediately to remove any imminent danger to residents, the Minister for National Development is empowered to step in and appoint someone else to perform the duties of the Town Council.

Town Councils are also required to keep proper accounts, which must be audited annually. Each year, the Town Council will also display for public inspection estimates of its revenue and expenditure and a list of works proposed to be undertaken for the next financial year. Audited reports must be submitted to the Ministry for National Development for tabling to parliament. The Ministry will then make public its concerns and observations for the benefit of the residents, and publish the Town Council Management Report so residents can keep track of the performance of their Town Council.

This article was written by Denise Ee, an undergraduate at the NUS Faculty of Law.