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Parish and Town Council Precepts (Referendums)

Volume 560: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2013

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give effect to Schedule 5 of the Localism Act 2011; to amend section 52ZC of the Government Finance Act 1992 (inserted by that Schedule) to require parish and town councils to conduct local referendums in the event that they choose to increase their precept by 2% or more in the following financial year; and for connected purposes.

Before I came to the House, I had the great privilege of serving as a district councillor for the Worth Valley ward in Keighley. During my 13 years as a councillor, I got to know and respect many of my colleagues from across the political spectrum. I also had a good relationship with many colleagues on town and parish councils across the metropolitan district. Many individuals in the first tier of local government have given decades of public service, and I put on record my thanks for their unpaid and tireless efforts to do good in their communities with the aim of making them better places.

As Members will know, responsibility at parish and town council level is limited. Although they undertake an enormous amount of additional work, they have sole statutory responsibility only for allotments. However, with the support of district councils and other partners, parish councils have often taken on other responsibilities. One example is the excellent work undertaken by Keighley town council, which has taken over Keighley’s cenotaph and town hall square and done a tremendous job. I also cite the excellent consultation undertaken by Oxenhope and Addingham parish councils, which have done extensive, first-rate, highly competent work on planning and potential housing numbers. Finally, Silsden town council has a youth council that has been making a contribution to youth provision in the town, driven by motivated, thoughtful and determined young people doing their bit for where they live.

However, there is a “but”. While I fully support all this work and commend it to others, I question the actions of a few councils. Hawarth, Cross Roads and Stanbury council, and Keighley town council, have raised their precept in recent weeks by 60% and 73% respectively. In the case of Hawarth, Cross Roads and Stanbury council, the argument in favour of such a rise appears to be that the Secretary of State might cap such a rise next year, so it has decided to bank it this year. There are no firm spending intentions, but the council has taken the money without holding a meaningful debate with residents. I acknowledge that it has good ideas in the pipeline, which may merit future increases in the precept, but residents have been taxed for ideas, and I think that residents should pay for services.

Keighley town council has interpreted localism as an opportunity to empire-build. Bearing in mind the fact that its sole responsibility under statute is for allotments, it has taken it upon itself to purchase the old police station in Keighley and offer the town a new civic centre at a cost of £1 million, despite the fact that the town already has a town hall and a brand new community centre within 400 yards of the civic centre. Sadly, the business plan does not service the debt that has been incurred, so residents have to pay a 72.6% increase in the precept. This is a shambles, and it is of the council’s own making. Rather than sting local residents, it should look at its overheads, and address staffing levels and its transport bill, rather than impose an extra burden on hard-pressed families.

No.

I want to touch on the false assertion that these are only small amounts of money, and are not important. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) has fought an effective campaign on a 1p increase on a litre of petrol. There are 2,494 pennies in the council precept in Keighley. Parish and town councils do not have an accountable body, so we have a duty to ensure that the public have a say in any rise in the precept, and a clear understanding of why that rise has been introduced. Many people are struggling, and we should make every effort, however small individually, to reduce the demands on the household purse. I urge the House to support the Bill and give a clear voice to residents who face a rise of more than 2% in their council tax.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Kris Hopkins, Dr Thérèse Coffey, Stuart Andrew, Alec Shelbrooke, Craig Whittaker, Simon Reevell and Julian Smith present the Bill.

Kris Hopkins accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 April, and to be printed (Bill 151).

Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Bill (Amendments, etc.)

Ordered,

That, in respect of the Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Bill, notices of Amendments, new Clauses and new Schedules to be moved in Committee may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a second time.—(Mr Lansley.)