In one of the most decisive moves in the restructuring of Swindon’s local governance, Swindon Borough Council’s cabinet meeting on 17 August could see a proposed plan for several new parishes, and expansion of existing parish boundaries, approved.
As it stands the 16 existing parish councils cover just over 40 per cent of Swindon’s households, and the plans would see the remaining 59 per cent split between four new parish councils; West Swindon, South Swindon, North Central Swindon and South Central Swindon.
The ongoing ‘community governance review’ has included several months of public meetings, with many community groups and residents associations offering their views on how parishing would work in their areas.
Nythe Parish Council would be asked to take on the areas of Eldene and Liden under the proposed plans, whilst Blunsdon St Andrew would be carved into two separate councils, split by the A419.
The new councils would be asked to take on certain responsibilities from the Borough such as grass cutting, graffiti and litter management, with each parish able to decide initially how many of these services they are able to take on. As Swindon Borough Council seeks to reduce their reduction in costs by 2020, these services could also include management of community centres and libraries in the parished areas.
It was stated via the SBC website that these new parishes will bring an increase in council tax, via a new parish precept, of £75 on average per household for a Band D property. This could increase further however, as parishes take on additional services in the future.
In the newly created Central South Swindon parish, the sheer amount of retail space and commercial buildings could see this increase doubled. The council have been in discussions with local business groups with regards to a voluntary £400,000 contribution towards offsetting some of this additional cost to the taxpayer, but nothing has been confirmed.
Councillor Mary Martin, cabinet member for Communities said: “I don’t think people are opposed to parishing in Swindon per se, but they have made their views known regarding the boundaries and we have tried to take that into account.
“Maintaining the status quo is not an option. If 12 months down the line the grass isn’t being cut in half the borough and litter wasn’t being picked up, but the other half was receiving those services, I think people would very quickly notice that.
“We are in the very difficult position where historically Swindon is half parished and half not. I think the people that attended our public meetings understood a lot about parishing but it isn’t something that grabs people’s attention, as long as the services continue to be provided.”
When asked about the potential timescale for parishing, Cllr Martin said: “We would look to have the Shadow Parish Councils in place by December/January so they could set their rates for April, the 2017/18 financial year. From the point of creation, the new councils will be autonomous.”
Cllr Jim Grant, Leader of the Swindon Labour Group, has responded to Swindon Council’s Parishing Plans. He said: “These parish proposals will go down as one of the biggest subversions of local democracy in Swindon’s history.
“The Conservatives are proposing to force on people new parish councils they haven’t asked for and impose council services on these new parish councils which people will have to pay for. Our understanding is the council-tax will go up by at least £120 in the current non-parished areas because of the parish precept people will have to pay. It will, in effect, be a stealth tax on people.
“Their proposals will rip up the knowledge base and skills Swindon Council has in delivering local services and will be replaced with a minimum wage, low quality contracted parish service. People will no longer know where to turn when they want the grass cut or shrub trimmed in their local green spaces.
“People will also now have to pay for a parish clerk and other parish council infrastructure they never used to have to pay for. They’re adding significant costs on people without letting them have a say on this through a local referendum and that is simply wrong.”