The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) recently published the Local Government Finance Settlement Technical Consultation which includes proposals regarding council tax referendum principles for local parish and town councils.
There are two important parts of the consultation affecting local councils: firstly the government is minded to extend referendum principles to a number of larger, higher spending local councils; secondly the paper states the government is aware that increases in precepts continue to concern local tax payers and is therefore prepared to consider extending referendums to ALL parishes.
It goes without saying this is a significant threat of council tax referenda principles being extended to our sector, hence the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) and Society of Local Council Clerks (SLCC) are working closely together on this important issue. It is in this spirit of co-operation that we are writing jointly to you asking you to help and support our advocacy as we cannot emphasise enough how vital it will be for councils, county associations and branches to play their part in our collective campaigning effort.
There are a number of things we have done already and have planned which we wanted to update you on:
• NALC's press release published in advance of the consultation (which was covered by local government magazine LGC) sets out in more detail NALC's initial reaction to the proposals, points on which we will elaborate further in final responses to the government where we will be setting out our opposition to these proposals in the strongest terms.
• SLCC published a news story on the consultation on its website, asking clerks to bring the consultation to the attention of councillors and ensure that as many councils as possible respond.
• The chairman of NALC Councillor Ken Browse wrote to the local government minister Marcus Jones MP on the day of publication seeking an urgent meeting with him to discuss the consultation proposals and related issues; his office responded the same day and a meeting will take place on 10 October.
• NALC has published a consultation briefing in the members area of the website seeking feedback from councils on the proposals to inform and shape the NALC response; NALC's head of policy and development, Justin Griggs, is leading for NALC and can be contacted at Justin.firstname.lastname@example.org
• SLCC's Development Manager Steve Parkinson is leading for SLCC, you can email him direct at Steve.Parkinson@slcc.co.uk with any particular issues clerks believe SLCC should be raising. Steve suggests that the matters your council may wish to consider in making its response are:
1) At parish level, a referendum is expensive and is disproportionate to the council tax increase. It could cost as much as £3 per band D property to ask residents whether to spend more than £5.
2) Even if residents vote no in a referendum, the council will still need to meet the cost of it. The referendum cost alone would probably lead to a rise of well over 2%.
3) You may want to highlight cheaper, more effective ways that local councils already consult and involve their local residents.
4) Parish councils are more accountable, their meetings are open and accessible to local residents and, uniquely, they are also accountable to them through the parish meeting.
5) Parish councils often put their precept down as well as up. You may have an example of where your council has raised its precept significantly for one year and then dropped it back to the previous level, to fund a new asset or project.
6) Your council may have had to increase its precept to cope with a reduction in the level of council tax support grant passed on by your principal authority. You may want to point out the impact of this.
7) There are huge variations in size, complexity, levels of deprivation, social makeup and the services provided by Towns and Parish Councils. No simple formula can equitably take these very different circumstances into consideration.
8) Breckland is one of only three district councils with a band D council tax below £100 and all three of those had increases in excess of 5% last year. The council also appears to be benefiting from New Homes Bonus to meet its funding needs, something not available to local councils. The area also has some very active parishes, at least 10 of them have band D council tax higher than Breckland DC itself, suggesting that some local services are not delivered by the district council. Overall, there appears to be little logic in selecting Breckland as a benchmark for parish councils which operate under very different circumstances.
9) Your council may be discussing, or perhaps already taken on devolved services from a principal authority or are engaged in preparing a neighbourhood plan. You may want to highlight the effect of this on your precept and give examples of how the community benefits.
10) Extending referendum principles to all local councils would be detrimental to those less active councils that currently have very low band D council tax. It would make it much more difficult for those councils to begin doing more for their community and provide services similar to neighbouring councils that raise more council tax.
11) Parish and town councils have not benefited from other funding such as Revenue Support Grant, New Homes Bonus, Non-Domestic Rates or Council Tax Freeze grant. Council tax generally accounts for a much greater proportion of income at parish level than it does for principal authorities.
12) You may want to consider how the proposals to exempt devolved services might affect any transfers that your council is considering and whether they are fair and reasonable.
• Last week NALC wrote to the Local Government Association's (LGA) Resources Board seeking their support given LGA opposes council tax referendum principles for all types of authority.
• NALC has also met with the chairman of the CLG select committee Clive Betts MP to brief him and is following this up by writing to him asking for urgent session of the committee to examine the proposals in more detail.
• Over the coming days and weeks NALC will be engaging with MPs, Peers, local authority organisations and other stakeholders to brief them on the proposals and seek their support.
But we really do need your support too! We have asked those 120 councils likely to be affected next year to complete a short survey to help provide an evidence and information base for the case NALC and SLCC is preparing. There are several ways in which you too can get involved and help us:
• If you have a good relationship with your principal council/s do contact the chief executive and/or council leader to ask for a meeting to discuss the likely impact of the proposals, ask them to oppose the proposals in their own response to the consultation – do contact Justin if you need any help or support with this.
• Many county associations are holding their annual general meetings over the coming weeks and we would urge you to ensure your council attends and is represented. NALC is circulating an emergency motion/statement to county associations on this issue and asking for their support; the motion was unanimously supported at the Essex county association AGM last week with councils also urged to respond to the consultation and write to their MPs.
• SLCC's National Executive Council will be discussing SLCC's response to the consultation at its meeting on 12 October and you may wish to comment to your branch's representative in advance of that meeting – you can find your representative's contact details by logging on to "Your SLCC" portal on the home page of the SLCC website.
• On the Friday of the forthcoming SLCC conference Jonathan Owen will be focusing on this issue in his presentation; John Connell, head of the big society and community rights team at DCLG will also be there that day and colleagues will be able to direct any practical concerns you may have with the proposals. If you have not yet registered for the conference and wish to attend these sessions, the early bird day delegate rate of £95 (Only £50 for smaller councils) closes on 30 September. Click here to take advantage of this offer.
• NALC's annual conference on 19/20 October and larger councils conference on 30 November will also feature sessions on local government finance and provide an opportunity for clerks and councillors to engage with government – while the annual conference is now full you can book a place at the larger councils conference here.
• We would particularly urge your council to write to your MP about the proposals setting out: the important work of your council in improving the community; the impact of the proposals on your community and your current and future work delivering local services, especially onward devolution from principal council .