'Power to the parishes' in shake-up

A RADICAL plan favoured by Government ministers to hand greater decision making powers to parishes and local communities once county councils are abolished has been backed in Suffolk.

A RADICAL plan favoured by Government ministers to hand greater decision making powers to parishes and local communities once county councils are abolished has been backed in Suffolk.

The proposal is based on the French system of communes, and would deliver one of the Government's key third-term objectives of enhancing civic responsibility at neighbourhood level,

Parish and town councils are the lowest tier of local government but instead of sweeping them away as irrelevant in the 21st Century, ministers in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister have surprised rural England by proposing to beef up their powers.

The plans are expected to be included in the forthcoming White Paper on local government reorganisation, which will propose replacing county and district councils with large all-purpose unitary authorities.

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The surprise in the package is the emphasis being given to local decision making, which includes delegated budgets to spend on community priorities and a new right of community ownership.

In Suffolk, all communities except Ipswich and Lowestoft have their own parish and town councils. A referendum is to be held in Lowestoft, similar to the recent successful `yes' campaign in Bury St Edmunds, on giving the town its own council while Ipswich currently does not need one because the district council has identical boundaries with the town.

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However, if Ipswich is absorbed into a large unitary authority, it's likely the borough would be given its own town council.

Mary Mitson Woods, the Chief Executive of the Suffolk Association of Local Councils (SALC) - the umbrella organisation for parish and town councils in the county - said giving her member organisations greater powers would be welcomed.

“Smaller parish councils could raise a rate for spending on priorities in their local areas. Town councils could be service hubs, delivering services for unitary authorities.

“Take Saxmundham as an example. It is a recognised social and business centre for its surrounding area and it could well be given the power to operate a one-stop shop housing a range of services from libraries and policing to health and social care.”

She added: “Parish and town councils are moving with the times. Sudbury, Grundisburgh, Newmarket and Bury St Edmunds have been awarded quality partnership statues and others are striving to attain it.

“Local government change is inevitable. Let's get on with it. We need early publication of the Government's proposals to end the uncertainty. But it seems that the days of county and district councils are numbered and the favoured option is unitary local government.”

David Miliband, the Minister for Communities and Local Government in the ODPM, is keen to finish the job set in motion by Edward Heath's Conservative government 31 years ago, which replaced county and borough councils in the north and midlands with all-purpose unitary councils.

He wants it to spread to the 34 English counties, introducing large unitaries while at the same time giving powers to parish councils as an acknowledgement of the isolated nature of rural counties.

“We want to empower people through a national neighbourhoods framework, local neighbourhood charters, a rules of the road for local behaviours and a range of options for neighbourhood action.”

However, Bury St Edmunds MP David Ruffley said it sounded suspiciously like a soundbite to gauge reaction before concrete proposals were made. “I am all for localism but you cannot graft onto English society a commune model which has taken hundreds of years to build in France.

“Let's not forget the recent example of the health service. Power was handed from large health authorities to primary care trusts which were too small to function properly and have ended up millions of pounds in debt.”

Mr Ruffley also warned against introducing the “professionalisation” of parish councils, whose members served full time and were paid allowances and expenses.

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