I’m delighted to be here today.
I’m from Keighley and I started my political career in local government – from the outset, I had to team up with my local parishes – they earnt my respect very early on as it was clear that they knew their local communities inside out.
Now is a particularly exciting time for town and parish councils, as you have a crucial role to play in building localism.
Delivering services locally can mean people receive better services – local councils can draw on local knowledge; community support and engagement; and efficient organisation.
We’re empowering parish councils.
We’re removing the requirement for external audit for smaller parishes with turnover below £25,000.
Qualifying councils have the general power of competence. This includes the power to trade. Parishes can stop looking over your shoulder to Whitehall.
We have removed the ‘2 signature rule’ governing parish payments.
We’re going to put in place legislation to put it beyond doubt that you can send agendas and meeting papers electronically, if that is your preference.
On parish polls, we have listened to your calls to modernise them. A public consultation on this will be published before Christmas.
At the same time we are empowering your electorate.
The Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 is now in force giving rights to the public to use modern communication methods to report on council meetings. I know that this has created a degree of tension, but we should never shy away from the fact that we represent local people.
New transparency rules will enable electorates to see how councils are using their money.
That means the relationship between town and parish councils and their electorate is crucial.
That relationship is the foundation of better local delivery that the parish tier can achieve. I know that members of parish and town councils spend considerable amounts of their time working for their local area and this should be recognised.
Challenges and expectations on parishes
In the first year of local Council Tax support, the government made an estimation of how much of the grant funding ought to go to parishes – around £40 million. I was encouraged to see that billing authorities passed down over 95% of that money last year. It shows that local authorities recognise the important role parishes play in local democracy and in delivering local services.
However, I am extremely disappointed to see that billing authorities are planning to pass down 20% less this year.
I expect billing authorities to continue to passing funding on to town and parish councils and have written to the 31 local authorities who have indicated they have no intention of passing down any funding this year.
It simply cannot be acceptable to local taxpayers if parishes are left with no choice but to increase Council Tax precepts or scale back services to fill the void. Billing authorities and parishes must work together to ensure they secure the best outcome for local tax payers – and be answerable to them if they don’t. Billing authorities need to understand and appreciate the amount of work that you undertake at a local level, and you have my support in challenging them to recognise this.
Referendum principles - ability to raise Council Tax a strength of parishes. We have said we are prepared if necessary to apply referendum principles to higher spending town and parish councils from 2015 to 2016 onwards. This has not changed. But I have heard your message that timing is important.
All tiers of government are facing the challenge of tackling the deficit. We know you can deliver services innovatively and efficiently.
There isn’t a tension between keeping tax down and wanting parishes to do more. It’s because we need to keep tax down, be efficient and deliver services better that we want parishes to do more.
Opportunities and powers for the parish tier
We are changing the rules, and helping campaigners, to make it easier to set up new parish councils.
When I was leader of Bradford, I helped to set up several parishes, and virtually all of Bradford is now parished – people straight away felt empowered and engaged at a local level because of this change. However, 6 in 10 people in the country aren’t covered by a parish council. We’ve already helped 27 campaigns. There are over 30 live campaigns for new town and parish councils in previously unparished areas. We should expect to see town and parish council tier receiving increasing attention as a result.
The Localism Act gives parish councils a range of powers to help address the problems they want to address. Town and parish councils are showing what can be achieved.
Already many are taking control and having a greater say over what goes where in the neighbourhood.
We surveyed parishes over the summer. Of those who responded, there have been significant increases on last year in the numbers doing neighbourhood planning, taking action on assets and taking on services from local authorities.
Around 1200 communities have taken their first step with neighbourhood planning, with over 130 plans published for consultation, and 33 neighbourhood planning referendums.
More than 1500 assets have now been listed using the Community Right to Bid, 500 of which are pubs. As well as my local government role, I am also Minister for Pubs. The fact that you can now secure a local pub, such an important part of the community, as an asset, is very powerful. You at a parish council level can make this happen. I’ve visited excellent examples in Salford and York which are owned by their respective communities, and are used by their entire localities for gatherings and meetings - one even has its own micro brewery too!
Shops, sports facilities, community centres, football stadiums (including Old Trafford and Anfield) and green spaces have also been listed.
There is huge potential for more parishes to make use of community rights.
My politics started in local government so I really do understand the hard work and effort you put into the running of your local communities, and I want to say thank you to you all for this. We respect what you’re doing, and although isn’t always possible for me to give you everything that you want, my door is always open, so please don’t hesitate to engage with me.