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Thursday, 24 July 2014

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Should Cumbria's parish councillors be given more power?

The agenda for a parish council meeting might include a stopped church clock, broken glass in a bus shelter and dog muck on the village green.

Craig Nicholson photo
Craig Nicholson, chairman of Stanwix Rural Parish Council

Allotments, cemeteries, bins and public lavatories are among the other nuts and bolts of life which parish councils administer.

This is local government at its most local. Parish councils and their urban equivalent, town councils, have been quietly pottering along for decades, dealing with the nitty-gritty, far removed from Westminster.

But change is stirring in the grassroots. The Government has just published its White Paper on ‘open public services’.

This document is a foundation of David Cameron’s Big Society in which power is intended to trickle down to local communities.

Parish and town councils are set to be given new powers including the ability to licence pubs, bring in parking schemes and look after museums, libraries, parks and leisure facilities.

Whether or not parishes want these powers, whether they would be able to manage them and how these extra services would be paid for are among the questions for which the Government is currently seeking suggestions.

Cumbria has 267 parishes covering the whole county, except Carlisle, Penrith, Whitehaven and Barrow.

Historical and administrative quirks explain why some areas have them and some don’t.

Cumbria’s two-tier system of local government – county council and district councils such as Carlisle, Eden, Allerdale and Copeland – is often criticised for being unwieldy.

Throw in a third tier – parish and town councils – and the red tape can really strangle.

Trevor Allison represents Dalston at county and district level, and nearby Cummersdale at parish level. He hopes that if nothing else, the White Paper’s proposals might help simplify an overly complicated system.

“There’s quite a lot of confusion. People are ringing up and asking who’s responsible for this or that and it’s often not easy to say.

“Street lights can be the responsibility of the county council or the city council, depending where they are. If they’re in Dalston village, it’s the city council. If it’s just outside, it’s the county council. The same with potholes. I hope that somewhere in this process we can make things clearer.”

Litter-picking is one thing Trevor would like Cummersdale parish council to have a budget for. But he is wary of forcing parishes to take on extra responsibilities.

“It sounds all right, as long as parish councils are given the option and it’s not statutory. Larger parish councils might be better equipped. Some of the smaller ones might struggle.

“The majority of parish councillors are retired. Other people can’t afford to spare the time. Perhaps having more powers would encourage younger people to get involved.”

Brampton parish councillor Judith Pattinson is very much in favour of more power for the third tier of local government.

“I’m all for it. I think we do a good job but there’s a lot more things we would like to do that we’re not able to.

“Things like street cleaning. A parish the size of Brampton would cope quite well. It might be different in a smaller parish.”

Brampton Parish Council has a budget in the region of £115,000 a year. Most of this comes from the parish precept which is added to the council tax of people living in a parish. In Brampton, the precept for a Band D property is £55.47.

What do people get for their money? Among other things, parks and open spaces are maintained, hanging baskets are hung, a clerk is employed.

Judith says the only thing parish councillors have in common is a desire to do their best for Brampton.

“Some people have a particular interest in footpaths, or the river, or housing estates. It’s not political. I don’t know most councillors’ political leanings. I think that’s quite helpful. Sometimes politics gets in the way.”

Craig Nicholson is the chair of Stanwix Rural parish council. He would welcome greater powers, if they were matched by increased resources.

“I’m completely in favour of the principle of devolving democracy to street level, if it’s properly funded. It has to be done properly or not at all. If the government thinks it’s going to get services on the cheap, it’s wrong.

“It’s one thing to say ‘Oh, you can take on this, that and the other.’ But unless they’re going to hand you the relevant funding as well, it’s not going to work.

“There’s a concern that if that happened, the government could then blame parish councils.”

Craig would welcome increased responsibility for playing fields and highways. Stanwix Rural’s notable recent work includes communicating residents’ needs to the Environment Agency and United Utilities over flood defences in Crosby-on-Eden.

“We set up the Crosby Drains Forum. If you’re not involved it’s difficult to explain the minutiae. But anyone is welcome to attend our meetings to see what happens.”

Craig knows that many people are less than clear about the work of parish councils. Some confuse them with church parishes.

Perhaps a lack of understanding is one reason why council vacancies are not generally met with a deluge of applicants. But there are other reasons.

“People have very busy lives. When they finish work they just want to put their feet up. Parish councillors are people who care about their communities. We don’t get paid and very few claim expenses, in my experience. We all tend to believe the money is better off in the community’s pocket.”

Cumbria Association of Local Councils is the umbrella body for the county’s third-tier authorities. Assistant chief officer Chris Bagshaw says: “Broadly, our members welcome the government’s proposals. We’re cautiously optimistic. If it delivers some of the things it promises, communities will be better served.

“But parishes are very different. What’s good in Dalston may not be good just across in Aikton. Rural Aikton might not have the same capacity or appetite.”

Chris has yet to hear anyone express interest in some of the proposed new powers for parish councils, such as the ability to grant or refuse pub licences.

“Our members’ appetite is more for delivering services done by district councils which they think they could do better. Street cleaning, grass cutting, gritting.

“It’s the little nice things that make your home feel like home.”

But is it democratic to give parish councils, whose members are often elected unopposed because of a lack of candidates, more power?

“I don’t think you can question the legitimacy of a parish council because its members are not necessarily elected. That election is an open process. Anybody can stand. It’s not the councillors’ fault if not enough people stood to make an election necessary.”

Parish councils appear to have an appetite for greater powers. And the leader of Cumbria County Council is not averse to his organisation seeing some of its duties devolved to the parishes.

Eddie Martin says: “I know there’s a great deal of enthusiasm for this among ministers.

“And the county council is very keen to pass more to parishes. They are closer to the community than we are.

“The main question is whether there is an appetite for parish councils to take on more responsibilities, and whether they have the expertise. But we’re saying to parish councils, what would you like us to do?

“My reservations are just how much do the parishes want to take on and how will it be funded.”

Power and responsibility may be about to trickle down towards the people.

But the county council leader is not the first person to question whether so many levels of local government are working for or against Cumbria.

“In Cockermouth there are three firms cutting grass: one for the county council, one for the district council and one for the parish council. Why isn’t there just one firm doing it? Wouldn’t it make sense?”

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