The issue of parishing which at one stage seemed to be quite clear has now taken on an opacity which may yet require the shining of a little more light before we are able to determine exactly what council leader Cllr David Renard and his cabinet colleagues are seeking to achieve.
According to Cllr Renard, on the one hand, ‘the Borough Council has no proposals to introduce new parishes’ while on the other it ‘wishes to consult on changes to existing parishes as a well as examining the possibility of creating new ones.’ It’s all very confusing isn’t it?
So why is parishing such a ‘hot topic’ and what is the history and background to parish councils. The first thing to say is that parish councils are as old as the hills and certainly older than Swindon Borough Council.
Many parts of the borough are already parished although it has to be said that the role of existing parish councils is limited with most major spending decisions being made by its much larger borough counterpart. For many people the major difference is the ‘political’ dimension. Where party politics rule in Euclid Street, local issues are dealt with by local people at parish level who in the main are less inclined to be associated with a particular political organisation.
Parish Council’s do have expert advisors and they are ably led by a parish clerk. For many the attraction of a parish council is the perceived affinity of local people making decisions in the best interest of the immediate community. There is a lot to be said in favour of smaller government but what is the real reason behind this Damacine conversion in the civic corridors of power.
Cllr Renard offers the view that a core democratic principle is that decisions should be made as close to the people affected as possible. Strangely, it’s not a view he has seriously championed in the past.
In October 2012 the Council undertook a Community Governance Review which determined that little if any action was required to amend parish boundaries or create new parishes from the non-parished areas of the town. Indeed, the general sentiment repeated throughout the report to councillors suggested little appetite for change, supported by statements like ‘no evidence for change being received from residents’ and ‘it has not been demonstrated that any change would secure more effective and convenient community governance within the area or better reflect the identities and interests of the community in that area.’
So what has changed in just three short years to create the need for yet another Community Governance Review?
Thankfully the answer is crystal clear and it is not the desire generated by citizens to change the current status quo. Rather it’s the result of Central Government short funding local councils which is forcing Swindon’s politicians to consider the unpalatable – holding a referendum to sanction a huge rise in council tax. And if there’s one thing Cllr Renard and his cabinet do not wish to entertain, it is a vote on raising the tax burden. Therefore isn’t it much better to achieve the same end objective by persuading parish councils to raise their tax precept?
The decision to Parish the non-parished areas of the town is not being made or considered on the basis of political altruism but on the very obvious one of political expediency. Following the money trail suggests that in year one the Parish Councils will receive 100 per cent of the cost of any activity they take on from the borough. This figure reduces until year three when the Parish will be on its own to deliver a range of services and raise the money from people living in their area.
What is clear is that from year two onwards the Parish precept will have to rise if transferred services are to be maintained. In one fell swoop responsibility for the rise in tax can be attributed to a new group of people in charge of another layer of local government (albeit an existing layer in areas which have been traditionally parished, but non-existent in areas which are not parished).
Following the money trail again, if you live in a non-parished area and you look at your Council Tax bill, there is an item called ‘Swindon Non Parish Area.’ The 2015-16 charge is about £35 for a Band D property. Does this mean this amount disappears from your tax bill to be replaced by the parish precept (the parish tax).
Heck no, Swindon Council intends to absorb the Swindon Non Parish Area charge into the general council tax, which means they keep an existing local tax and expect the new parish councils to levy its own tax to pay for the services they will have to delivery, i.e. grass cutting, hedge cutting, cleaning up litter and dog mess, and maintaining play areas.
Cllr Renard seeks to confuse even this issue by suggesting if parishes buy services such as grass cutting they will be supportsing the local economy, and in his fairy tale world smaller contracts will result in lower prices. It’s an interesting approach which reads more like the narrative from a story book as opposed to a sensible well thought out strategy based on sound economic arguments. Clearly the Councillor has chosen to ignore such simple business principles such as the efficiencies acheived from the ‘economy of scale.’
As for the Borough Council, the assumption is that it will handle the important stuff, what they often refer to as the old, the vulnerable adult and child protection, all of which consumes a major and increasing part of the spending budget. What is more likely to occur is that a new commissioning body will rise from the ashes of a redundant council, perhaps a body not too dissimilar from the Police and Crime Commissioner and we can already imagine the names on the voting slip – can’t we?
Parish Councillors at present are all volunteers and many parishes are largely free of party politics. We can only guess how long it will be before the volunteer parish councillor becomes the semi-professional party apparatchik. Indeed a question yet to be answered is whether or not an emasculated Borough Council will require 57 elected councillors.
After all, how many politicians do you need to ’invite or request support from partners.’ And if there are fewer borough councillors, how many of them are likely to be looking for positions on parish councils?
Isn’t that something an Adult Services and Child Protection Commissioner could well do him or her self, especially if they were handsomely remunerated?