Referendum Principles: The Threat to Precepts
The government is planning to bring in new rules forcing local councils to hold costly local referendums over increases to the parish precepts. The consultation paper from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) makes proposals to bring local councils in line with principal councils by requiring them to hold a referendum if they plan to increase their part of council tax above a certain amount, with the effect of introducing ‘capping’ for the first time. The limit for principal councils – which spend around £100 billion a year – is currently 2%, with an additional 2% recently introduced to allow them to generate new income for social care costs.
In many cases the costs of holding a local referendum to ask local people if they support an increase in parish spending will run well into thousands of pounds, often wiping out the proposed increase. Unlike principal councils, local councils do not receive grant funding from central government or a share of business rates and are primarily financed through the parish precept.
Cllr Ken Browse, chairman of NALC said: “This really is a centralist sledgehammer to crack a nut, at a time when government should be supporting not undermining councillors and their important role in communities. This move, costing upwards of £1 million, will seriously damage smaller communities ability to help themselves and threaten the government’s previous commitments to localism and devolution.
“Local councils are doing a brilliant job improving their areas; whether it’s by building community resilience, increasing house building through neighbourhood planning, providing local transport solutions, supporting the local economy and businesses, organising community events and festivals, helping meet social care needs and making places dementia friendly or giving grants to help local groups and organisations – all this and more for an average cost to residents of just over a pound a week. “Our councils account for just 1.7% of the £26 billion raised through council tax in England and have demonstrated fiscal responsibility in recent years with overall increases in precepts going down, rising this year by just 6 pence per week as a result of local councils taking on services from principal councils and funding not being passed on to them.
“It is vital local councils continue to have the freedom and flexibility to raise the resources they need to invest in local services, especially at a time when they are taking on services and assets from principal councils, often much valued services which would otherwise cease completely and which communities want to see continue. Given their important and growing role, local councils should be celebrated and supported, not hindered by central government. While we will be opposing these plans very strongly, I am keen to work with the government and help them understand the impact of these proposals which will damage communities and local services as well as undermining the role of local councillors”.
Filming of Parish Council meetings: the law since August 2014
As reported at the time in the SPCA “Bulletin” (the issues dated 7th August and 14th August 2014 refer) the Government made the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014, pursuant to the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014, effective from 6th August 2014. The rules were changed to make councils, including parish and town councils, and other local government bodies such as fire and rescue authorities, more transparent and accountable to their local communities.
The key change was that the Regulations conferred on the public the right to film and report, using digital and social media, all those meetings of parish and town councils which are open to the public.
The Association has a model “Media Policy” that councils should consider adopting in order that they can respond accordingly when members of the public choose to exercise their rights under the Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014.
Emailing of Agendas
The Local Government (Electronic Communications) (England) Order 2015 (copy attached), which comes into effect on 30th January, modifies provisions in Schedule 12 to the Local Government Act 1972 to enable the use of electronic communications in the sending of summonses to members of parish councils in England. In other words, it will now be entirely lawful to send the agenda and meeting papers by email rather than the nominal requirement being that they be sent in the post or left at a member’s residence, providing that members consent to this means of delivery.
The legislative reform order having been laid in Parliament in 12th January, Local Government Minister Kris Hopkins appeared to tacitly acknowledge that many councils have already made the change when saying: “We have been encouraging can-do councils to adapt to the digital age to modernise the services they deliver to local people and deliver savings. This Government is determined to bust barriers to modernisation in local government therefore it is only right councils should be able to issue agendas electronically, whilst ensuring councillors continue to have access to hard copy papers if they wish. This is a great opportunity for councils to use modern digital communications to conduct business in the most efficient way possible and it will help reduce costs and provide better value for money for local taxpayers.”
Cllr Ken Browse, chair of NALC said: “This reform to rules, which are over forty years old, is long overdue but very welcome and will help parish and town councils operate more efficiently and effectively. NALC welcomes the Government’s announcement that allows local councils to be able to send agendas electronically rather than in the post; ending a budgetary burden on councils and enabling them to benefit from 21st Century technology.”