Swindon Council’s Cabinet will be asked next week to consider the creation of parish councils for the entire borough.
But opposition councillors and local campaigners have hit out at the plans as undemocratic as they feel such a major change should be decided by a referendum.
The plans also include the borough council asking existing and the newly created parish councils to take over services like street cleaning, litter and dog waste bin emptying and grass cutting as the local authority can no longer afford the £4 million cost to carry them out.
On average this will see a rise of £75 to every household’s annual council tax bill for houses in an existing parished area but it is still not known what kind of rise existing non-parished areas could see on top of this.
Cabinet members will be asked at the meeting on 16 June to authorise an engagement process with local communities in June and July to address issues raised in the first stage of the Community Governance Review.
If agreed, illustrative maps would also be prepared showing two options of what the new parish councils could look like and these would be further shaped at the engagement events. These will be available from 22 June.
A revised review timetable would be set out and the process would then see cabinet agree draft recommendations in August prior to a full consultation resulting in final recommendations presented to council in November. The parish councils would then be implemented from January with shadow parish councils being formed until an election in April 2017.
Cllr Jim Robbins (Lab, Mannington & Western Ward) said: “I’m really worried that huge change is being going to be imposed on residents without enough consultation. Many residents are unaware of this, and it needs to be explained much more clearly.
“Residents of Swindon should have the chance to choose whether they want parishes. Lots of people have really valid concerns about being taxed twice for the same work, of how much unnecessary bureaucracy will be introduced and where we will find parish Councillors from.
“I think that there should be a referendum to allow residents to properly have their say.”
A motion from the Labour group is being put before full council on Wednesday 15 June calling for a referendum on the parishing plans.
Campaigner Colin Doubleday, who is part of Better Swindon and lives in Old Town, set up a petition earlier this year calling for a referendum on the plans. This was something the council say they would be legally unable to do.
He told the Swindon Advertiser: “It’s arrogant, indefensible and undemocratic and obviously not wanted. Why have Swindon Borough Council not looked for other ideas or not had a referendum on this?
“It’s a major constitutional change. If you look at other parish councils, as far as we can tell many of the existing parish councillors were coopted or elected unopposed. So there is £5 million worth of funds being decided upon by unelected volunteers.”
Shaw Residents Association chair Kevin Fisher said: “The SRA provided a detailed response to the council’s outline plan in the governance review earlier in the year which has led up to the report to cabinet. We stated that the council’s consultation raised more questions than answers.
“We listed many concerns in our paper and, as yet, we have not received a response to any of them. Should the council decide to proceed with the parishing of West Swindon, we sincerely hope the issues we raise have not only been duly considered but that tangible solutions are part of the implementation.
“Otherwise we fear the public at large will be alienated from the new form of governance before it has even been implemented.”
The Community Governance Review is being carried out following requests from existing parish councils to review their arrangements, and following the success of the transfer of services to parish councils. A total of 258 responses were received, a high proportion of which expressed concern about creating new parish councils, while others said they did not have enough information to have a view. Other responses indicated that a consultative poll should take place before a decision is made.
However the council also received further feedback from engagement events that residents wanted to shape any future proposals, particularly in relation to the forming of new parish boundaries and this will take place should the cabinet agree the proposals.
The council currently spends around £4 million on grounds and cleansing services and it is estimated that residents’ annual council tax bills would increase by about £75 on average if the costs of these services are transferred to parish councils. However this will vary by parish to reflect the local prioritisation of services.
A number of parish councils have already successfully taken on grounds and street cleaning services from the council over the last two years with residents reporting that work is up to a good standard and that it is prioritised for local needs.
In order for these services to continue the council is proposing to work with parish councils, businesses and communities to develop alternative service solutions. The council would also give phased payments to the new parish councils to pay these services for the first year until the first round of precepts have been collected to pay for them.
Cllr David Renard, leader of Swindon Borough Council, said: “Local democracy provides more choice over what money is spent and where. Existing parish councils have already taken on some of these services with great success and we know that residents have seen a noticeable improvement in the appearance of their communities.
“The borough council will always have to prioritise statutory services such as caring for vulnerable people and safeguarding children and, for the last few years, we have transformed the way we do things in order to make millions of pounds in efficiency savings.
“But unfortunately we have now got to the point where there are certain services we can no longer afford to provide such as local grounds maintenance, street cleaning and maintaining play areas.
“We cannot increase council tax to pay for these services as the money raised would most likely have to be prioritised for the statutory services we are required to provide.
“We want to build on this model so these services continue because if we do not find alternatives they will stop. If cabinet agree to the recommendations in the report next week I would encourage people to engage with the process so they have a say in how these services are delivered in the future.”
The following public meetings have been scheduled, subject to cabinet approval next week. Space is limited at each venue, so anyone wishing to attend should contact firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone Leanne Curtis on 01793 464816.
Park South Community Centre – Monday 27 June – 7pm to 9pm
Broadgreen Community Centre – Wednesday 29 June – 7pm to 9pm
West Swindon Library – Money 5 July – 7pm to 9pm
Lethbridge School – Wednesday 6 July – 7pm to 9pm.
‘The unclear question of parishing Swindon.’ Shaw Residents’ Association responds to council’s engagement exercise. Click to read