Parish & town councils face another threat from government for raising their part of Council Tax 'too much'
If local authorities - like Wiltshire's unitary council - raise their council tax by two per cent or more in any one year, the law says they must put the increase to a local referendum. This rule imposed by central government has been criticised for interfering with 'localism' and for undermining the democratic theory that councillors can always be thrown out at the next election.
This rule does not apply to parish and town councils - yet. In 2013 a local government minister threatened village and town councils with the same sanction - if their part of council tax (known as their 'precept') went up by two per cent or more they could face having to call a referendum on the rise.
Now following an investigation by the BBC - which found that for 2015-2016 5,217 parish and town councils increased their precept and 3,659 increased it by more than 1.99 per cent - the government's Department for Communities and Local Government have made the threat again:
"Town and parish councils should protect their taxpayers from excessive council tax increases; if they fail to do so, government has the option of making them subject to the referendum principles in future."
"This government is determined to keep council tax down with average council tax bills set to be less in real terms in 2020 than they were in 2010."
On Tuesday (February 23) Wiltshire Council meets to pass its proposed budget and council tax increase for 2016-2017. They have set their council tax increase at 1.99 per cent to avoid a referendum, but they have accepted George Osborne's invitation to add another full two per cent to help make up for his cuts to councils' social care budgets.
The papers for this meeting include a list of the county's town and parish council precepts for 2016-2017. This includes some startling increases, but they are all based on pretty modest amounts for the current year. [NOTE: all costs quoted here are for Band D households.]
Government ministers would go pale at Ebbesbourne Wake Parish Council's increase of 255.46 per cent in their precept for next financial year. But the actual annual cost goes up from a very modest £9.99 to £35.51. An increase of just over £2.00 per month per household is hardly a major imposition.
There are some Wiltshire parishes that have decided to cut their precept for next year. Clarendon Park have cut theirs by 94.50 per cent - reducing the annual cost from £32.53 this year to £1.79 for next year. And Great Bedwyn are reducing their precept by 4.44 per cent.
In December, Marlborough News Online reported the Town Council's decision to increase its share of the council tax bills for 2016-2017: "The increase had been fixed at 4.34 per cent. But a late addition to the budget of £3,000 against further costs incurred when services are passed down to the town council by Wiltshire Council, put the increase up to 4.96 per cent."
"For a Band D council tax-payer this will mean an annual payment of £156. Over the year that is an increase of £7.40 on the town's current council tax - or an extra 61 pence a month."
The main reason for many town councils - as opposed to the much smaller parish councils - increasing their precept is to cope with services that Wiltshire Council will no longer fund. Devizes' precept is rising by 14.33 per cent - from an annual cost of £125.11 to £143.04, but Chippenham Town Council's goes over the two per cent to rise by 2.75 per cent - from £152.41 to £156.60.
In Marlborough Town Council's case the reasons for such increases is made clear in a statement prepared by the Town Clerk explaining the rise in the precept for 2016-2017:
"Central government has put in place measures that impact hugely upon the resources of principal authorities such as Wiltshire Council where a number of savings and cuts are in place - £25m savings have to be identified over the next year. In turn this financial squeeze has resulted in more services being devolved to town and parish council (i.e. grass cutting and litter picking.)"
"There is no funding to accompany these services or the various asset transfers being offered. Marlborough Town Council is in the process of taking on the George Lane toilets and has expressed an interest in taking on other buildings too."
"Decisions to move ahead with these have been based on retaining them as community assets to ensure that the town can keep on providing services for its residents and help maintain a thriving local economy."
If the government follows up its threats and decides not to allow town and parish councils to raise their precepts to cope with this devolving of needed services, it can only be because they do not want these services to exist - or they want them privatised and paid for by users.
We can, for now, overlook the fact that some town and parish councils would have to raise their precept just to pay for any referendum demanded by central government. But before we go back to an era before there were public toilets - to mention only one service - the government has not yet stated what their ultimate aim is for this part of their 'shrinking the state' policies. Besides public toilets, what else are we going to have to do without?
For the record the increases and decreases - in percentage terms - in the 2016-2017 precept for parishes in the Marlborough area are:
Baydon reducing by (3.02)
Berwick Bassett & Winterbourne Monkton 44.25
Broad Hinton & Winterbourne Bassett 0.13
Chilton Foliat reducing by (1.44)
East Kennett has a zero precept no change
Froxfield reducing by (1.24)
Fyfield & West Overton 5.23
Ogbourne St Andrew no change
Ogbourne St George reducing by (0.63)
Ramsbury & Axford 0.20
Savernake reducing by (1.75)