Apparently JK Rowling’s new novel doesn’t paint parishes in a flattering light. It’s as fictional as the boy wizard himself.
Because we love our parish people. You are localism’s magic wand.
Since the Local Government Act of 1894, you’ve been providing unrivalled help, to the smallest of villages, the largest of towns.
And the principles you embody are hardwired into the social DNA of every hometown, every village, in every era of our history.
And because you care about your areas, because you are rooted in the places you love, you are prepared to do something about it.
Good works - floods and Jubilee
In recent days, as floods have drenched our towns, we’ve seen parishes, from Oxford to Devon, coming to the rescue again.
Laying sandbags, battening down the hatches, working with police and fire crews, doing everything they can to save their communities.
And, in this great year of the Jubilee, we’ve seen parishes, stepping into the spotlight, organising Big Lunches and street parties, helping the celebrations go with a swing.
That’s why, wherever I find a new parish in a rural or urban area, like Queen’s Park in Westminster, I cheer it to the rafters.
Because our local services are at their best when they are run by local people.
And let me say to NALC, that the role you continue to play, championing local people, ensuring their voice resounds loud and clear in the corridors of power, is absolutely vital.
Putting parishes in charge
Now we all know parishes, have the credibility to lead their communities. So we’ve made sure you’re calling the shots.
We’ve cut through the jungle of red tape that tied you up in knots.
And we’ve scrapped the Standards Board that summed up everything that was wrong with local government.
Instead of wasting taxpayers money on petty squabbles, we’re letting the sunlight of transparency shine through.
Localism requires local accountability.
I know some councillors are concerned about publishing their business interests. The names of their spouses. Pictures of their pet goldfish.
But, as our light-touch guidance explains, only one of the above has to be on record. I won’t tell you which one. That might spoil the surprise. But here’s a clue - it’s just common sense.
As for bullies and liars, they must expect the full force of the law.
Ultimately, local people should trust the public. You put decent people in and if they get it wrong they don’t get elected next time.
I call it minimalism.
New powers, new rights
Standards Board apart, we’ve also got rid of the childish power of well being which died a death every 4 years. And we’ve given you the General Power of Competence instead.
Councils can now do anything an individual can do unless it’s specifically ruled out. These days you don’t have to get things signed-off in triplicate, if you want to, for example, back community composting, or transform a village pub into a wi-fi hotspot.
The power of competence means you’re only limited by your imagination and your ingenuity. And when it is combined with new community rights - that let you bid to control local services like street cleaning or step in to save a much love community asset like the local pub - the implications are far reaching.
Of course, some parishes will need training in the art of power. But no need to dust down your copies of Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’. Just log onto the my community rights website instead.
Actually, I strongly suspect, the more power you grab, the more power you’re going to want. That’s why we’ve also introduced neighbourhood planning.
With the help of the slim-line National Planning Policy Framework, the days of wasting time on the amount of projection of a window are gone. So too the pettifogging bureaucracy and the master planning.
We’ve put local people at the heart of the system. So they get to decide where new homes, new shops and new offices should go. And which green spaces to protect.
It’s your chance to remould your area in your own image.
Our neighbourhood frontrunners are already blazing a trail in Upper Eden.
Seventeen parishes are beavering away in the most sparsely populated area of the country to provide housing for farmers and rural businesses. They’re hoping to hold the first ever neighbourhood plan referendum in March. I can’t wait.
I’m also pretty excited about what’s going on in the City to Ripon - where they’re working out how to allocate land for 160 homes.
Over to you - the precept
So we’ve thrust genuine power into the hands of local people. Now it’s over to you to get your parish in order; to build proper neighbourhoods, to choose activism not nimbyism. And to make sure you’re not overburdening hard working folk with increased taxes.
It hasn’t escaped my noticed that, at a time when most districts are freezing their council tax, the average parish precept has gone up by 3%. And the trend is seeing parish increases outstripping the rest of local government.
I’ve made it clear. We would look at again at the council tax referendum principles. But, as a general rule of thumb what you really need to ask yourself is this;
- can you square any rise with your electorate?
- can you really look your local folk in the eye?
- have you really done everything you can to manage your resources, work with others, make the most of what you’ve got…?
This last point is critical because if there is one thing neighbourhood budgets have shown it’s the advantage of looking beyond your borders.
Like in Ilfracombe in North Devon where they’re digitally mapping their resources. Or Haverhill in Suffolk where they are bringing local business and public agencies together to equip young people with the skills local businesses need.
If you don’t know where to begin my department is here to help.
So we’re proud of our parishes.
You’re out there in your communities revolutionising public services.
Bringing your civilising influence to bear on all around you.
We’ve given you the power but now we’re looking for you to deliver.
So be vigorous, be innovative, be independent.
Above all never forget the people you serve and you won’t go far wrong.