ANALYSIS: spreading the financial pain - is this what 'localism' really means?
The majority party on Wiltshire Council pledged before they were elected in 2013 to continue freezing council tax. This involved a cut - given inflation - in money available for public services they are charged to provide even before their grant from central government was cut, cut and cut again.
One of the consequences of this perfect storm of austerity is that the fine words and promises woven around 'localism' are being blown away - as costs are simply passed down the chain of government.
Marlborough Town Council has already set aside a budget line of £6,000 from its slightly increased precept for 2015-2016 (that is its portion of households' monthly council tax bills) to cover costs Wiltshire Council will no longer pay - the costs of events such as Remembrance Sunday which require traffic signs and so on. One of the largest Wiltshire town councils has set aside £40,000 to cover this kind of cost that used to be covered by the Wiltshire Council part of the council tax.
Now we learn that parish and town councils will have to pay a quarter of the costs of some traffic improvement schemes. These are the ones organised through CATGs - or Community Area Transport Groups.
CATGs each have a small annual grant from Wiltshire Council (the Marlborough Area budget for 2015-2016 is £13,000 plus a bit left over from the previous year.) The grants pay for relatively small-scale, local improvements and safety measures such as traffic calming, extra road signs, dropped kerbs and so on.
However some works applied for through the CATG process are no longer being funded by Wiltshire Council.
There are new rules on installing 20 MPH zones. First you need a traffic speed assessment - this is no longer paid by Wiltshire Council and will cost the parish about £2,500. Implementation of a 20 MPH zone costs upwards of £3,000 - so the parish council will need a CATG grant but will have to pay another £750 towards the £3,000 - or £32.50 for each household in a 100 dwelling village.
At the Marlborough Area CATG meeting in May, it was proposed that councils should 'precept' for these costs - i.e. councillors will have to vote for an increased precept that all the households they represent will have to pay to cover costs previously paid through Wiltshire Council's part of the council tax bill. The members of the CATG agreed.
'Precept' used as a verb is obviously something we are going to have to live with.
To be clear, when costs are passed elsewhere, Wiltshire Council's council tax take will not fall - the increased parish taxes (or precepts) will be an extra cost to householders.
'Precepting' is now policy. After a discussion at that CATG meeting about Baydon's request for another traffic calming scheme, Conservative unitary councillor Stewart Dobson is quoted in the minutes: "SD felt the [Parish Council] needed to precept towards projects like this".
Taking the financial implications first: this is a change with consequences that will alter the basis of local government. 'Precepting' to pay for improvements in infrastructure might sound fine and reasonable until you look at the variations in the size of parish councils, some of which have a precept that barely covers the costs of their mandatory AGM and mandatory annual audit.
Their precepts are going to have to rise exponentially if this passing of the financial buck down the chain of local government goes much further. Is this what was meant by 'localism'?
Wiltshire has thirteen parishes with fewer than 50 dwellings (the smallest has 19), 53 with fewer than 100 dwellings, and 101 with fewer than 200 dwellings. At the other end of the scale it has only 32 with more than a thousand dwellings - and three with more than ten thousand dwellings.
A town council that has several thousand dwellings (i.e. council tax payers) and owns income producing property or land, is in a very different position compared to a rural parish council with 100-plus homes.
We have been used to our local taxes being spent generally (even equally or perhaps fairly equally) across the county and spent for the general good of the whole community. This is now being undermined.
Wiltshire Council is losing some of its responsibilities (for example as more schools become academies) and is ditching others (for example the schools music service and the devolved youth services) as well as making cuts that necessitate tax raising by parish councils.
We will soon reach the point at which the £1,851,612 spent in 2014-2015 on Wiltshire councillors' allowances, responsibility payments and expenses is seen by voters as a burden too far on the public's money.
Next year, Wiltshire Council is expected to pass other budgets (having first skimmed off some savings) onto local councils. Which ones these will be remains to be decided - just as it also remains to be seen whether these local councils have the expertise to deal with such budgets.
We can also expect that any road closures approved by Wiltshire Council for the 2016 Marlborough Jazz Festival or similar events will have to be paid for by the organisers - whether they are a parish or town council or a local charity.
The second main implication - and perhaps an even more worrying one - concerns the growing deficit in democratic accountability that these changes are bringing. How many members of your parish council were elected?
None of the present Marlborough town councillors were elected. In my own parish (124 dwellings) we can barely make a quorum of councillors let alone assemble a ballot paper of candidates.
Where is democratic accountability going to lie? We keep being told that the government will not ring fence money (like the independent living fund) it passes on to councils because those councils are democratically accountable - we can, they tell us, throw them out at elections if we do not like their stewardship of our taxes.
But do not hold your breath for a rash in 2017 of parish council elections to put democratic accountability back in its rightful place. Wiltshire Council will no longer be paying for parish elections - they too will have to be paid for by the parish precept. It is difficult to see people wanting to become parish councillors if their friends and neighbours have to pay to put them there.
But elected or not, parish councils will be voting still higher precepts to pay for all the things the county-wide part of the council tax no longer pays for. Unless, of course, they or their electors decide to do without improvements and safety measures.
So that, we must accept, is what was meant by 'localism'.
The wider problem is that the existing democratic balance (whether you trusted it or not) has been severely disturbed. It needs attention now before the flow of costs passed down from above becomes a blizzard and responsibilities make a seismic shift.
Coming soon: we report how Wiltshire Council's governance is being challenged amid talk of an alleged 'democratic deficit'.