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Last Updated: Friday, 30 April, 2004, 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK
West: What on earth are parish precepts?
Paul Barltrop
Paul Barltrop
Editor, Politics Show West

So the West's councils were not capped. A big sigh of relief. The region still sees some huge differences in what local councils charge.

Begging box
Want to pay more local taxes?

But some of the greatest variations attract little public attention and no government anger. Why? Because they are parish and town councils.

In the sleepy towns and villages of the rural West country, parish and town councils form the front line of democracy.

They are often overlooked. Their powers are limited and their responsibilities narrowly defined, but they do make a real difference and can add a lot to council tax bills.

Parish councils date back to the 19th century, elected replacements for the medieval "corporations" that had until then run the hamlets of England.

They have the power to raise taxes known as precepts.

What is their power?

The powers and the purse of a town council vary greatly from place to place. Most run a town hall, cemetery, parks and play areas.

Some are nothing more than a group of local worthies who give their views on planning issues and act as a mouthpiece for local residents, others are more ambitious.

Take Wootten Bassett, near Swindon.

Valuation Band
A - 0 to 40,000
B - 40,001 to 52,000
C - 52,001 to 68,000
D - 68,001 to 88,000
E - 88,001 to 120,000
F - 120,001 to 160,000
G - 160,001 to 320,000
H - more than 320,000
Value at 1st April 1991

The current mayor, Marion Sweet, is proud of the way the council is moving the town into the 21st century.

"What we are trying to do is provide for the town. We have over 11,000 residents.

"All we are trying to do is make sure that the services that come under our legal powers are provided."

Most expensive parish council

Malmesbury
Malmesbury costs locals 66.50 a year

But Wootten Bassett has a dubious honour. It is the most expensive parish council in Wiltshire.

In some villages, such as Chicklade or Inglesham, there is no charge for average Band D council tax payers. In Wootten Bassett it is a whopping 168.52.

Marion Sweet says there are legitimate reasons: "We have entered into a few partnerships and been left holding the baby.

"We have been re-evaluating and looking deeply into all of the funding, it took three meetings to pass a budget for this year."

Wootton Basset
... Wootton Basset will set you back 168.52

Rather than sleepy villages, perhaps it is better to compare it with a similar sized town, like Malmesbury, just a few miles away.

Here, even though they have a dedicated tourist office, play areas and buildings to maintain, the precept is almost 100 less than in Wootten Bassett.

Too many costly projects?

Charles Vernon, the Mayor of Malmesbury, is not impressed by what the neighbours say.

He thinks the town is involved in too many costly projects.

"The strange thing about local government finances is that every parish can raise a precept which is not capped."

So what do Wootten Bassett's residents get for their extra 100?

The answer is simple, a proactive council which does not hesitate to take action.

For example they spend 15,000 on picking up litter each year, and have invested in close circuit TV.

"The CCTV has really made a difference in the high street," says Marion Sweet.

"Anti-social behaviour has been reduced, and we are reducing crime continually."

Perhaps you do get what you pay for.

Watch the debate on Politics Show West.

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SEE ALSO:
Meet presenter David Garmston
21 Feb 03  |  Politics Show
Capping may cut council tax bills
29 Apr 04  |  England


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