The current hot topic for discussion is whether or not Swindon Borough Council should parish the un-parished areas of the borough. I am not going to discuss the financial reasons for SBC to consider parishing the borough or what the cost might be on residents of such an action. That part of the argument is for others to put over.
I already live in a parished area of town, so for me this isn’t up for debate. I’m also a parish councillor which ought to make me biased but it doesn’t. I believe that it is up to local residents and communities to make up their own minds. But what does concern me is that people may make the decision not to support becoming a parish based on some misconceptions about what a parish council does, how it works and what it means to be a councillor.
At the meetings that I have attended on the subject, the same comments keep coming up as reasons for not supporting parish councils. “I want to represent my community, not be a parish councillor”, “I’m only a volunteer”, “I don’t want to manage budgets”, “It’s another level of bureaucracy”, “It won’t work in built-up areas, it’s for rural communities”, “I’m not religious” and “I’m not a retired man”. Well, The Vicar of Dibley obviously didn’t do parish councils any favours!
So let me try to debunk a few of these. My urban parish council is made up of 18 councillors, of which three are currently co-opted (not elected), we asked for volunteers to take up the seats unfilled at the last election. Co-opted councillors have exactly the same powers as those elected. 55% of councillors work, 40% of councillors are women, 90% live in the parish and the others have close ties to the area. My particular parish council has no ties to churches or political parties.
I’ve been a parish councillor since 2007. My neighbourhood suffered severe and sustained sewer flooding for 12 months. What started as a residents’ flood alliance ended with me on the parish council, representing my neighbours’ concerns about the lack of support/action/information being received from various bodies. I started off as a co-opted councillor and have now been through two elections, but I still consider myself a volunteer. By putting myself up for election, I feel that I give my neighbours a direct opportunity to confirm that they still want me to represent them.
All parish councils have a Clerk and a Responsible Financial Officer, often the same person. These people are highly qualified and knowledgeable in local government, they are the ones who know the law and have to keep their councillors within it. They are the money managers not the councillors. They are the ones who will not let councillors go over budget or spend a penny outside the parish boundaries!
And on that subject, the parish precept (parish council tax) is legally required to be spent within the parish and is set by the parish council. Whilst it is collected through the Borough Council tax system on the parishes’ behalf, 100% must be paid back to the parish. This is a marked difference to council tax which the Borough can collect from say, Shaw and spend in Walcot.
We are statutory consultees on planning applications within the parish, we deal with open spaces, litter collection, play areas. We run a minibus, provide room facilities for local groups, manage allotments. We are responsible for grass cutting and shrub maintenance in some areas. We don’t do big stuff like street lighting, refuse collection, road repairs. Parish councils simply do not have the facilities, expertise or manpower to cover these services and are never likely to. All parish council meetings are open to the public. We have heated debates, disagreements and sometimes we even agree with each other! What we don’t do is sit between the Borough Council and the residents. We deal with different grass root issues and we can contact the Borough on parishioners’ behalf.
Before saying no to parish councils because of the reasons I listed above, come and see for yourself. If you would like more information and/or a parish councillor to talk to your community group, please contact any parish clerk. Type ‘parishes in Swindon’ in any search engine and you’ll get a list of contact details.
Chairman – Haydon Wick Parish Council