Shaw Residents’ Association sends their response to councillors on Swindon Borough Council regarding the Community Governance Review.
With regard to the future of parish councils in the borough, it raises more questions than it provides views and opinions, writes association chair Kevin Fisher
We are struggling to provide concise feedback simply because the ‘consultation’ has been taking place without a focussed set of questions for non-parished areas.
Clearly parishes could bring both positives and negatives to communities, but since no scope has been provided to the consultation, we are not in a position to make an informed judgement within our feedback.
For example, we have not been provided with a list of services a parished Shaw ward would own; indeed we do not know where the boundaries would be drawn. Clearly there is no such thing as a free lunch and yet there are no details in the consultation on estimated precepts or indeed the costs associated with the additional administration a parish would require.
Are we to assume that SBC, like many other councils, have the prime intent of using the unrestricted parish precept loophole to expand their funding indirectly?
Could services owned by a parish be more or less efficient (in terms of cost) than when owned by the Borough?
Given that for most industries economies of scale bring greater cost efficiencies and not the other way around, it seems clear to us that if a parish can indeed bring down the cost of such services, then those services must be suffering from massive inefficiencies in the way they are managed today.
The consultation also appears to have focused on one part of a much bigger picture. It fails to provide any insight into where a 100% parished Borough of Swindon will lead for its residents.
It is clear to us that ‘localism’ is not what is driving the agenda, but rather it is an excuse for the agenda.
We need to know what is the end goal and motivation for the initiative. Is it simply just to raise more taxes, is it to shut down SBC and merge it with Wiltshire County Council or is there some other end goal in mind?
To ask a population to give feedback on one small part of a bigger project plan for a potentially much bigger long term goal is just not acceptable. We have the opinion that Swindon Borough Council is following a process of change by stealth rather than change by consensus.
As noted at the start of our comments, we have more questions than we do opinions. For example:
1. We believe that the level of understanding and engagement within the community in political initiatives is generally low and so therefore the understanding and interest of what a ‘parish council’ is will be very poor. As a case in point, the Stratton St Margaret (which is a parish) referendum had only 7.8% turnout.
To make such a huge change in the governance of Swindon based on the ‘silence equals approval’ concept is simply unacceptable.
2. There are already too many unknowns to enable a proper consultation, for example: What will be the responsibilities of the parish? How many parish councillors will be needed? Will there be a significant reduction in borough councillors as a result? How much will the precept be and will council tax reduce the same amount? Will parish council precepts be capped in the same way as council tax?.
3. We do not know exactly what the likely boundaries between parish councils will be. If the Parish precept is calculated on property bands, there are bound to be ‘have’ and ‘have not’ Parishes. Would parish councils reflect existing communities? Would Parish boundaries cross Ward boundaries?
It is much harder to define communities in large urban areas such as Swindon and therefore how can parishes work in such an environment? Isn’t it the Boundary Commission that defines boundaries anyway?
4. What is the question in the consultation for non-parished wards? It cannot be demonstrated that there is a clear pull from the constituents unless the flawed approach of silence means approval is taken. The massive no vote in Stratton to expansion of the parishes role is a clear indication of those residents’ views of parish council expansion.
5. Will there be enough volunteers to become parish councillors or will borough councillors have to wear two hats? Where there are volunteers, will they likely pull from one set of demographics – e.g. retired middle class – therefore how can they be representative of the parish?
6. We believe it will add administrative cost when we should be working smarter. Economies scale with size – for example, it cannot be smarter to pay one person to cut one side of a playing field and another the other side, if that is where the boundaries fall.
7. The role of residents associations, such as the SRA, would become questionable. Why would we need Borough councillors, parish councillors (who are volunteers) and residents associations (who are volunteers) all representing the same people?
We fear parishes will switch many volunteer hours away from community activities onto administrative overheads.
8. If all of Swindon is parished it seems logical that the statutory part that is left would be under immense pressure to merge with Wiltshire Council. If that is indeed the intended or unintended consequence of the venture, then Swindon’s residents must be given a much clearer choice.