It gives me great pleasure to publish here Ros's thoughts on local government finance and, more generally, on the Conservative Party's view on localism and accountability...
I am writing in response to consultation on the Local Government Finance Settlement 2015/16 and the statement from the Local Government Minister Kris Hopkins MP on council tax and parishes.
The Minister has invited views on “whether the highest spending parishes should be subject to the same referendum principle as the rest of local government” and “whether town and parish councils whose failings have been highlighted in a Public Interest Report should be included”.
As a Liberal Democrat it is my strong belief that far too much power remains concentrated in Westminster; ours is one of the most centralised countries in the Western world and that has to change. Only by returning power to the communities, villages, towns, cities and regions of England can we drive growth, improve public services and give people the freedom to run their own lives.
To this end parish and town councils are an important part of our local democracy and I was heartened to see the Minister reiterate this in his statement. Much has been done by the Coalition Government over the course of this Parliament to empower communities and parishes and I want to see this continue.
However I simply do not believe any parish or town council, irrespective of size, location, budget or activity should be required to hold a referendum on increases to their precept.
This is unnecessary interference by Government and only serves to convey a lack of faith and trust in those people elected to serve on parish councils to improve their area and make locally accountable decisions. From my own experience parishes are closer to local issues than anyone, and work hard to engage with local people about how they can improve their area using the precept, communicating and justifying any (usually small and modest) increases accordingly. Indeed I remain supportive of removing the requirement to hold local referenda for council tax changes completely.
I also cannot support the notion of applying referenda principles to parishes with a Public Interest Report. I would much rather see a system whereby the parish sector takes the lead in helping parishes who have experienced difficulties, with action by Government as an absolute last resort. I would urge you to explore how this might be achieved with bodies such as the National Association of Local Councils, who I know are committed to high standards of governance and financial accountability and sector-led improvement.
I also wanted to comment on the situation regarding council tax support funding, which I know is causing real problems for parish councils up and down the country.
It simply cannot be acceptable that funding being provided by Government to parishes, via billing authorities, is not passed on to them. I would strongly urge the Minister to step up his efforts to resolve this issue as I know the number of councils not passing on funding to parishes is increasing.
This is likely to have an inevitable knock-on effect on local services and the parish precept, which I am sure the Minister does not want to see happen. I am also concerned about the overall impact such funding shortfalls will have on localism and community empowerment, especially at a time when Government and principal councils are encouraging more partnership working within local government, as well as devolution of services to the local level and parishes.
In conclusion I do not support the extension of referenda principles to parishes and urge more action to ensure council tax support funding is passed on to parishes.
Ros ScottBaroness Scott of Needham Market