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Page last updated at 10:48 GMT, Sunday, 8 June 2008 11:48 UK

The parish precept

Fergus Hewison

Fergus Hewison
The Politics Show

Parish councils have long been regarded as sleepy institutions that look after the park benches and plant a few flowers in the local roundabout.

But all that could be about to change, if you believe communities secretary Hazel Blears.

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With representation comes taxation

She is heralding an era of 'parish power' and wants to see new town and parish councils established across the country as a means of re-invigorating local democracy.

With representation though - as many people are finding out - comes taxation.

In some areas, parish councils are taking on more and more responsibilities, and in turn, they are pushing up their part of the council tax - the parish precept.

No cap

Unlike other tiers of local government, parish and town councils are not capped, and so can put up the precept by as much as they like.

And some have done just that.

Thurston Parish Council, in Suffolk, put its council tax bill up 214%.

It says this was a one off rise and designed largely to boost its cash reserves on the orders of the district auditor.

Burnham Parish Council, in Buckinghamshire, almost doubled its precept two years ago - largely as a one off charge to help finance its plans to refurbish or rebuild Burnham Park Hall.

In Letchworth Garden City, in Hertfordshire, the parish precept for this financial year has leapt by 206%.

Electorate upset

And so upset are some residents that they want to see Letchworth "de-parished" - that is the town council abolished, even though it was only established in 2005.

A group of residents have now set up the organisation HELP - or Help Eliminate Letchworth Parish Council - to rid themselves of what they see as an expensive and unnecessary extra layer of government.

Matthew Heaton, from HELP said: "Everything is already covered by the district council and the county council.

"We're paying for those services and they're providing them perfectly well and we're not keen to pay for another tier that will charge us again for the same services.

"We also see it as another layer of bureaucracy, and putting in another layer of bureaucracy is just unworkable."

Value for money

The town council itself says it is good value for money and has many plans that will improve Letchworth. But it also needs funds - and time - to establish itself.

"We are a pennies, not a pounds council. We are where democracy begins, not ends. If you believe in community you have to take a leap of faith and handover money and power to our neighbourhoods", says Mayor Philip Ross.

Many parish and town councils also argue that they are being forced to push up precepts to meet the extra obligations that are being placed on them by other councils further up the food chain - councils constrained in their spending by capping levels set by central government.

National examples

In Northumberland, several parish councils are considering taking over the running of their local libraries, currently owned and staffed by the county council.

In Kirkham, in Lancashire, the parish council there is looking at ways it can save the local swimming pool, which the district council says it may no longer be able to afford to keep open.

One option being considered is using parish council funds to help set up a community trust that would eventually run the pool.

Bishop's Stortford Town Council, in Hertfordshire, has already taken on services once provided at district level.

It runs one lot of public toilets in the town, and while the district council does provide some funding, the town council puts in money from the precept rather than risk them having to be closed due to a lack of cash.

Funding should match function

Justin Griggs, from the National Association of Local Councils, admits that in some instances precepts have risen sharply, but points out that parish and town councils are doing much more, and need the funding to match their growing responsibilities.

"We've seen 191 new parish councils created in the last 10 years in response to community demand.

"These are local people that are seeing gaps in service provision, seeing gaps in the representation and voice that's provided to them, and they want an institution of local government that's close to them to provide services, to respond to community needs and be their voice", he said.

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