Parish revolt amid fury at threat to services

FEARS that town and parish councils would be forced to take on essential community services, potentially adding huge amounts of money to their annual precept, led to a large-scale revolt.

The rebellion came prior to county council leaders announcing on Monday night’s Area Committee North meeting that these services would not have to be taken on by local councils in the coming financial year, as previously believed.

In an act of defiance by town and parish councils, there had been threats of resignation and calls to report the county council to a local government minister.

At the monthly meeting of Alnwick Town Council on Thursday, there was anger over the way in which the unitary authority had given them the choice of paying for the likes of public halls, toilets, grass-cutting and street cleaning or risk seeing the services downgraded or even halted.

That would mean having to budget for the extra expenditure – in Alnwick’s case, an extra £300,000 on top of the existing precept of £123,000.

And they were furious that a decision was expected almost immediately, with the county council due to decide on what to cut back on next month and any agreed service transfer to be fully adopted from April 1.

Coun Gordon Castle, Alnwick town and county councillor, led the backlash, saying: “They have put us in an impossible position. Here we are, a few weeks before the county council will meet and we’re being asked to take a pig in a poke.

“We should not take into account any additional services in setting our precept, because we don’t yet have the full facts and figures of just what we’re being asked to take on.

“To ask us to do so is simply premature.”

Coun Castle said the proposal was also contrary to messages given to town and parish councils as late as last November, when the unitary said it intended to phase in transfers of services gradually.

Town councillors unanimously agreed to reject the county’s proposal, with the exception of grass cutting, and instead write back to ask for further information.

In earlier letters sent to town and parish councils on December 23 and January 10, county officers revealed that a number of services would either reduce or stop altogether, subject to approval by the county council at its budget meeting in February.

It acknowledges that not all of the services relate to every town or parish council, but adds that they should consider adoption of any or all of these services.

They state the alternative could be ‘a lower level of service provision which may, in some circumstances, mean no provision’.

Amble Town Council faced the prospect of increasing its precept by an additional £165,000 and there was fury at last Thursday’s monthly meeting.

Coun Helen Lewis described the proposed actions by the county council as being carried out in an unprofessional manner, lacking accurate figures and detailed information.

She told the meeting that a letter should be sent to Local Government Minister Grant Shapps, with copies to Sir Alan Beith MP and the county council’s chief executive and leader, as well as copies being sent to other town and parish councils.

She said: “The Government should be looking into this. It is horrendous.”

Coun Robert Arckless, ward member for Amble, said he was shocked by the figures involved which would result in an enormous increase to the precept, and although this may be acceptable over a longer period of time, it was ridiculous to expect town and parish councils to assume these services over a short period.

Members agreed to hold a special meeting of the town council – due to take place tonight – to consider the precept.

They opted to delay the precept decision until after the Area Committee North, as they hoped the position would be clearer by then.

At Rothbury Parish Council last Wednesday, the plans were also met with anger and disbelief after the figures revealed they would need to add another £80,000 to their current £28,000 precept.

Coun Steven Bridgett, ward member for Rothbury, described how a number of the so-called extra services on the list provided by the county were already paid for by the parish council, meaning they would essentially be charging the taxpayer three times for the same service.

He also questioned the figures that the county had come up with such as a £17,000 bill for looking after two public toilets.

Chairman Coun Peter Dawson said: “I would be very unhappy about taking extra services on, but who is going to do it?”

Coun Fendley said: “I want to know what my attendance allowance would be and what kind of clerical support I would get.”

He also said that he would resign if the county forced the parish council to take on the extra services and raise the precept.