Swindon Council to ’empower’ local people by denying them power to decide on parishes

At the Council meeting yesterday I asked a couple of questions on the Community Governance Review which will consider whether to introduce parishes into all the non-parishes areas of the town.

Question 1: “Will the administration make a commitment that no area of the town, which currently does not have a parish, will have one imposed on them without their residents being able to vote for or against the creation of a new parish?”

Answer : “Thank you for your question. The law makes no provision for holding such a referendum. If Full Council resolves to undertake a Community Governance review tonight, then the local authority will follow the process set down by law and government guidance.”

It may be true that ‘the law’ under which a Community Governance Review takes place says nothing about a referendum. Yet there is nothing to stop the Council organising a ballot of the non-parished areas, either together or singularly. The fact is that they do not want to commit to one because they fear that they would lose it.

Question 2: “If a non-parished area subsequently has a parish introduced will SBC Council Tax for the residents of that parish be reduced commensurate with the funding of the service/s transferred from the Borough to the parish level?”

Answer: “The level of Council Tax to be set by both the Borough Council and Parish Council is for each to determine and the two are not directly linked. Residents of the parish will only pay once for the services provided within the area, but within the current financial context that local government is operating and the rising tax pressures for other Council services, it is unlikely that the Borough Council will be in a financial position to propose a tax reduction.”

This is disingenuous. If the Borough hands over services to a new Parish and the Borough CT remains at the same level then CT payers are in effect paying for the service that the Borough no longer supplies and the new parish precept for the transferred services. This is a form of double taxation.

There is a fundamental question of democracy posed by this issue. The Conservative administration is, at this stage, refusing electors in the non-parished areas, a direct say in whether or not new parishes are introduced. Colin Doubleday from the Pipers Area Residents Association asked whether the administration agreed that electors should be allowed a vote to decide. David Renard answered with one word – No.

Of course, there will be a ‘consultation’ on the Review. Yet we know from painful experience what this means. The administration wants to introduce new parishes so they can transfer non-statutory services to parishes and thus save themselves money as the government continues to strangle local government by cutting grant levels. Toby Elliott tried to tell us that this was all about ’empowering’ local people. But how can you ’empower’ local people by denying them the power to decide whether or not they have a parish?

On the basis of experience there is much cynicism about SBC ‘consultations’. However, it would be a mistake to accept that this was ‘a done deal’. As the meeting organised by ‘Better Swindon’ (“We need referendum on plans to ‘parish up Swindon, say residents” )recently showed there is considerable opposition from areas where it might not have been expected. It’s essential that as many people and organisations as possible get in their protests and demand a vote in the non-parished areas. Don’t let the Council be able to turn round and point to little feedback in the ‘consultation’.

What is being proposed by the administration is a far-reaching change in the organisation of local government in the town. This should not be a decision for a few dozen Councillors. We need to build a democratic movement against their high-handed arrogance. Let the electors decide.

Martin Wicks

November 13th 2015

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