West Suffolk: Suffolk Association of Local Councils surprised at looming cuts for town and parish councils

Shona Bendix

Shona Bendix - Credit: Archant

A local government watchdog has waded into a row over imminent cuts in funding for West Suffolk’s parish councils.

Both St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath district councils have approved phasing out the council tax support grant for parish councils by 2018, with a 25% reduction every year for four years starting in 2014/15.

The grant was brought in this year to compensate town and parish councils for central government changes to council tax rules, which reduced the number of houses eligible to pay council tax and therefore reduced parish councils’ income.

The Suffolk Association of Local Councils (SALC) has received a letter from Brandon Lewis, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government, confirming the grant size nationally will remain the same for 2014/15, but will be handed to local authorities as part of their overall funding rather than separately.

Shona Bendix, chief executive officer of SALC, said she was “surprised” the councils were phasing out the grant, adding: “If they (parish councils) do not receive a grant in 2014/15, they will be faced with a very difficult decision - to increase their precept demand to previous levels, which will be felt by the public in increased costs, or to implement service cuts.

“This at a time when there are more calls for a localist approach, greater community resilience and devolved services and assets.

“SALC is pressing all local billing authorities, including St Edmundsbury, to be transparent about their plans, to consult properly with town and parish councils about any changes, and to press government to change a system which has unfairly affected town and parish precepts.”

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While St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath never planned on consulting with parish councils over the decision, an email informing councils of the plans in June was not received by some council clerks due to a technical error.

They only found out about the proposals just before they went to St Edmundsbury council at the end of September.

The support grant is not ring-fenced, and Waveney District Council did not pass it on to any of its parish councils.

Dave Ray, St Edmundsbury’s portfolio holder for performance and resources, said: “We’ve had 30% funding cuts over the last three years. We’ve got 47% cuts over the next two years, and up to now the parish and town councils have been totally shielded from that.

“They’ve got to come into the real world of local government, and secondly they’ve got to be responsible and accountable for the money they raise from council tax payers and what they spend.”

St Edmundsbury hosted a parish conference on October 22, where it explored ways parish councils can save money.

Haverhill Town Council is the biggest third-tier council in Suffolk, with precept income this year of almost £750,000, and council clerk Will Austin said the loss would cost the council £129,000 by the time its phased out.

Last year, St Edmundsbury withdrew more than £150,000 of funding for Haverhill Arts Centre, which the town council had pre-empted by raising its precept.

Mr Austin said: “We don’t want to go cap-in-hand every year to the borough council asking for support, but we think it would have been better if it had been phased out over a much longer period.

“They’re subject to huge funding cuts from central government, but I don’t think it was ever the intention that those cuts should be passed onto parish councils. It’s unfair to do this without consultation.

“While the county and borough councils are busy having to make great reductions, that doesn’t mean the demand for their services isn’t diminishing - what we’re increasingly finding is we’re having to pick up the pieces.”

However, Warwick Hirst, a Forest Heath district councillor and Newmarket town councillor, did not share Mr Austin’s concerns.

He said: “Forest Heath is at least going to pay it and is only going to phase it out. I think it’s been handled well. We’re realistic that pressures are coming down the system.”