Are you one of nearly half of Swindon voters who lives in an area with no parish council?
If you live in areas like Old Town, Central Swindon, West Swindon or Rodbourne, then Swindon Council has started a process of creating a parish council for your area. Not just your area, the other areas too – we may all get one whether we like it or not.
Swindon Council leader David Renard has found himself in rather a pickle over the idea of creating parishes. He says they are local and hence truely democratic, however he believes so strongly in this idea that he is willing to push it through without any democratic vote by the people. Actually when asked, he felt that a referendum was specifically ‘not the most democratic way to decide this matter’.
What is strange is that new parish councils are normally at the request of local people. Legislation passed in 2007 encourages residents to petition for a parish council. If a petition of at least 7.5% of people in a specific parished area is received then an authority can conduct a review. But as no such petition has been received, this appears to be the borough starting their own review. But why do this only three years after a previous review decided that there was no great demand in Swindon for parish councils?
Whilst supporting the idea of a consultation process, Cllr Renard is very clear that his preference is that we should have parish councils in all areas. However it is also stated that he would assume that all those who don’t respond to a consultation can be deemed to support the idea.
Consultations do not often attract large responses, because the questions are complicated and residents have busy lives. When 5,000 people have an opinion on the idea of parish councils, it quickly becomes irrelevant because 215,000 other residents are deemed to support the idea, just because they have not spoken. It is hard to see how this can be challenged.
Does all this matter? Perhaps they are a good thing? But the idea of parish councils is even more important, because it represents a constitutional change.
Power and budgetary responsibility will pass from one layer of government to another new layer. Departments for lighting streets and emptying bins will be removed by the borough and officers may be made redundant. There will be no real opportunity to reverse these changes if a future council decides that it doesn’t work.
Cllr Renard has found himself in this position thanks to the politics of expediency. Whitehall are making large cuts to local government, but they are also clear that council tax must not be raised by more than 2% unless there’s a referendum.
Of course Swindon, like many Conservative councils, is not keen on raising council tax and even less keen on holding a referendum. So at a central level they suggest that the responsibility for cleaning, and lighting and street repair could be passed to parish councils, to be run by volunteers with separate new money raised by new local precepts. A clever trick. More money will be charged per household, but under a different name. Of course don’t blame Cllr Renard, he has ‘no choice, financially as this is the only way to keep the street lights on’, or so he tells us.
So why is Cllr Renard against a referendum? I say – if this idea is good enough he should be able to sell it to the people as it will affect generations to come. A referendum is a fair way forward in each of the proposed parish wards and would cost little if organised at the next council elections in May. It is legal and reasonable for the council to take a view by a referendum in each proposed parish area.
Surely he cannot force ideas on people who are unaware and not yet involved?