Neil Merrick 06 June 2018

Parish councils and the devolution of services

When city councillors stood for election in Salisbury last year, they promised voters they would provide the cleaner streets people wanted. But they also warned that it would come at a price.

Despite its name, Salisbury is a parish council and, along with other parish and town councils, is taking on services from higher tier authorities.

Twelve months after the election, the band D precept it charges residents has gone up by 69% to £208. Salisbury now raises just over £3m per year from council tax compared with £1.7m in 2017/18.

The higher precept coincides with Salisbury not only taking responsibility for street cleaning from Wiltshire, a unitary authority, but also maintenance of parks, children’s playgrounds and open spaces such as the market square.

Further devolution is due to follow. Ironically, in a city where security has dominated conversation for the past few months, the city council is about to take control of a new digital CCTV system.

Council leader Matthew Dean is proud of what he sees as major devolution, nine years after reorganisation saw Salisbury lose its district council powers with most services passed to Wiltshire.

The driver for change may well be financial, with higher tier authorities capped and prioritising statutory services. But Dean, who also sits on Wiltshire Council, says it makes sense for Salisbury to take charge of areas such as recreation.

The council’s turnover has risen by £2.3m to £6.2m. “As unitary authorities become more strategic commissioning authorities with less discretion over services, there is a feeling that these services should be devolved down,” he says.

Government figures show band D precepts levied by parish and town councils rose by an average of 4.9% in 2018/19, the lowest increase for three years.

But this headline figure masks significant differences in parts of England, with some parish authorities doubling or trebling precepts to fund services once provided by higher tier councils.

Justin Griggs, head of policy at the National Association of Local Councils, says parishes are not just looking to take over services but raise standards. 'Communities are continuing to invest more of their own money through their parish council,' he says. 'People can get involved in holding councils to account.'

Not all parish councils are multi-million businesses in the same way as Salisbury. An analysis by NALC shows the largest band D rise this year was 717%, levied by three grouped parishes in Lancashire - Bolton by Bowland, Gisburn Forest and Sawley. Together, however, the councils are only raising just over £20,000 from council tax in 2018/19.

In contrast, Mountsorrel Council will raise more than £540,000 (up from £207,000) after increasing its band D precept from £76 to £199. The rise follows the transfer of services from Leicestershire and from Charnwood Borough Council.

Not only is Mountsorrel running a community centre and a youth cafe but, from September, will take charge of a library threatened with closure. The librarian’s salary will be paid by the parish council. “We didn’t want to rely on volunteers,” says parish chair Steve Haywood.

Opposition to the rise has mostly died down, he says, noting that services provided by the parish only cost about 55p per day. Yet the parish rise was accompanied by a 5.99% council tax increase levied by Leicestershire and one of 3.6% from Charnwood.

During the past five years, Mountsorrel has taken nearly £320,000 from reserves to avoid increasing council tax, leaving it with just £48,000.

In the long term, there is the question of whether Mountsorrel and other parishes that rely on volunteer councillors have the capacity to run services associated with larger councils. 'We are the lowest of the low,' says Heywood. 'We are the third tier of local government and don’t get paid.'

This year’s average rise of 4.9% in band D parish precepts follows increases of 6.3% in 2017/18 and 6.1% the previous year. For now, talk of capping parish precepts has receded, but ministers are undoubtedly keeping an eye on spending.

In a speech to last year’s annual NALC conference, Sajid Javid, then Communities and Local Government Secretary, noted that 30 parish or town councils were raising more than £1m per year through council tax. 'The desire for communities to take back control is clearly there,' he said.

Javid also warned district councils and unitary authorities they should pass funding down to parishes, including a portion of grant for council tax support schemes. This message was reiterated in a letter sent to billing authorities in May by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

According to Justin Griggs, parishes regularly look to other sources of funding, such as grants. 'Parish councils are alert to the message from central government about fiscal responsibility,' he adds.

In East Devon, Cranbrook Town Council is just three years old but watching its tax base grow. By 2031, there should be 8,500 homes in the town compared with 1,900 today.

In April, the council virtually trebled the band D precept to £256. However, residents have the consolation of no longer paying an estate rent charge to a management company set up by developers, with 97% of residents likely to be better off.

The town council is running play areas and other open spaces, including a country park and nature reserve. 'The district council and county council expect the town council to take the lead on these things,' says Ray Bloxham, chair of Cranbrook’s finance committee.

Back in Salisbury, the city council is preparing not just to run CCTV but to take on a full-time environmental services manager. Looking back over the past few months,

Matthew Dean believes devolution gave the council the status and extra capacity to help the city recover following the Skripal affair.

Grounds staff employed by the council cleaned up play areas as well as the Maltings shopping precinct, which was at the centre of the incident. 'There was a feeling that we are the local people on the ground,' says Dean. 'It’s wonderful to have a large parish council to support Salisbury through this event.'

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