Big Issue: Stroud Town Mayor Amanda Moriarty on how localism is threatening grassroots democracy
WHEN the Government passed the Localism Bill in 2011, Stroud Town Council, like many of its counterparts across the country, saw it as an opportunity to return to grassroots democracy, a chance for local councils to be inspirational leaders.
It was the chance to move away from central government control.
Local councils are directly answerable to the electorate. If the council tax payer doesn't like what the local councils are doing, they vote them out.
We thought that the golden age of localism had arrived but it was short-lived.
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What we have discovered is that localism doesn't mean less central government control. It means public services being run by volunteers or not at all.
The latest manifestation of this localism is the withdrawal of the Government council tax benefit scheme. The administration of council tax support will now fall on the district council – but with only 90 per cent of funding passed on from the Government.
The complexity of this arrangement and its tardy and ill thought-through implementation has caused chaos for district councils as local authorities try to understand how to administer and manage this new task with cuts in resources.
Due to these changes, many town and parish councils are now partially dependent on a grant from Government. But this money is only a stop-gap measure.
It may or not be available in future years and may or may not be passed on to them by the authority that collects council tax.
Stroud District Council has bent over backwards to fairly administer the grants to parishes. Some parish councils have declined the grant, choosing instead to approve a major increase in their precept – in case the Government decides to cap parish councils in future years.
So in this great move to devolve power to the local level we now learn that central government control may even be more draconian in the form of council tax capping – something parish councils have not had before.
Parish council precepts are a small amount of the overall council tax bill, amounting to less than 10 per cent. Yet we provide vital services which are at the heart of communities.
Now, thanks to the changes in the council tax benefit scheme, there is no certainty for the future and our carefully thought-out budget projections are now meaningless.
As a Quality Council, we consult widely on our programme and ensure that we make things happen, often in partnership with the district and county councils. We carry out annual residents' surveys to ensure that the priorities of the electorate are our priority.
We have set money aside for community groups hit by cuts in grants and funding to ensure that we do all that is possible to enhance and protect the well-being of Stroud.
Does Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, intend to make town and parish councils like ours limp from year to year, unable to make long-term financial plans or commitments due to the loss of control over our income?
Or is it his plan to cut parish and town council budgets at a stroke by withdrawing the Government grant, thus 'localising' his programme of cuts and passing the blame to councils that are doing their best to maintain services?
It is time the Government acknowledged that there are 9,000 parish and town councils around the country with dedicated councillors working for free to improve their local communities.
We have been providing public services with "volunteers" long before the Localism Bill was even thought of.
Parish and town councils are a part of our democratic legacy and something that we should be proud of.
With one swift move, the Government has ended 100 years of parish and town council independence.