Neil Merrick 26 June 2019

The rise of the ‘super’ parish council

It has taken nearly half a century, but councillors in Chippenham have again taken charge of recreation and community facilities they were last responsible for in the early 1970s.

The transfer from Wiltshire to Chippenham Town Council of a large historic park, a community and arts centre and some small play areas came at a price for residents. The parish precept rose by 37.5% this year.

But the transfer of assets, along with services such as grounds maintenance and street cleaning, suits both local authorities. Wiltshire, created as a unitary ten years ago, is struggling to provide statutory services such as adult social care, while the town council is closer to people who use the facilities.

Chippenham is by no means the only town or parish council to raise its precept in 2019/20. Government figures shows the average band D precept charged by English parishes rose by £3.14 or 4.9%. It is the second year running parish precepts have risen by 4.9%, following two years when average rises exceeded 6%.

The increase in Chippenham means the town council is raising more than £2.9m from council taxpayers this year. Across England, parishes are raising in excess of £554m, up £36m, with ten individual councils each raising over £2m.

An analysis by the National Association of Local Councils shows that 20 councils are responsible for seven per cent of the total sum raised by the 8,845 parishes or towns that levy a precept.

The rise of so-called ‘super’ parish councils coincides with local government cuts that mean larger authorities are looking to offload assets and services. Justin Griggs, NALC’s head of policy, says parishes are more than happy to expand their role and assist larger authorities. 'They are responding to local need,' he says.

Chippenham chief executive Mark Smith says town councillors were keen to 'step into the breach' and approached Wiltshire to discuss which assets and services they could take over. 'It was a negotiation,' he says. 'We put up our precept by half a million pounds to fund services that Wiltshire was providing a year ago.'

For contractual reasons, Chippenham is sharing the cost of providing some services until June 2020, when it will take over full responsibility from Wiltshire. 'If it needs hoeing, litter picking or hedging, we will be doing it,' he adds.

The transfer means the return of assets that, until 1974, were owned by Chippenham Borough Council. They were then taken over by North Wiltshire, a district that was abolished in 2009. Smith, who has worked in local government for 30 years, says it feels as if Chippenham has become a small district or borough council. Earlier this year, it appointed a director of resources.

Council leader Sandie Webb says the increase in the precept was publicised well in advance and led to few objections. Just 26 people queried the rise in council tax, she says, with only two going away dissatisfied after the situation was explained. 'People don’t want worst services,' says Webb.

Other ‘super’ councils include Weymouth, created in April as part of a reorganisation in Dorset that led to two new unitary councils, with six districts disappearing. The council is raising more than £3.3m from the precept after taking over services that used to be run by Weymouth and Portland Borough Council.

In addition to parks, allotments and public toilets, the town council is responsible for Weymouth’s beach. However, with the sea front classed as a defence facility, the town council took out a 125-year lease and the freehold and responsibility for coastal defence switched to Dorset, one of the new unitaries.

Jane Biscombe, Weymouth’s town clerk, says residents are behind the new council, which allows Dorset to focus on statutory functions. 'We remain uncapped,' she adds. 'We have additional budget flexibility and can meet demands of residents.'

Doubts remain over the size of the town council, which has 29 elected members, about half of whom had been borough councillors prior to April. A boundary review before the 2024 elections may see the number of town councillors reduced.

This year saw the creation of 27 parish or town councils in England, while 17 were disbanded. The largest precept rise was in Lilbourne, Northamptonshire, where the parish council almost trebled its band D precept to fund a land purchase.

Elsewhere, towns and parishes are helping to subsidise community transport. In Bishop’s Stortford, the town council runs a bus service on behalf of a local charity, including employment of staff.

In Lancashire, Longton Parish Council stepped in three years ago after the county council cut support for a service between the village and Preston, six miles away. This year, Longton’s band D precept rose by 58% while, over the past three years, it has gone up about threefold, says parish chair Graham Gooch.

The half-hourly service is well used and costs the parish £70,000 per year. Without the bus, younger residents and pensioners would feel cut off, he says. 'People are very much behind us,' adds Gooch, pointing out the parish precept still only costs each household 9p per day.

Ahead of this year’s comprehensive spending review, NALC is arguing for parish and town councils to continue raising money for services, unencumbered by capping. It also wants parishes and towns to be able to apply directly for government grants to improve high streets and other amenities.

Justin Griggs would like to see parishes offered a multi-year deal as they enjoyed for the past three years. 'We have heeded calls for responsibility from ministers and demonstrated restraint,' he says. With more reorganisations to follow that in Dorset, there is also a likelihood more parish councils will be created, so giving unparished areas a voice.

But will ministers be explicit and recognise parish and town councils are growing in stature and importance? Clerks such as Jane Biscombe say smaller councils should be properly resourced if services are to continue being devolved. 'Parish and town councils cannot be a dumping ground for things that [other] local authorities can’t afford to do anymore,' she says.

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