HC Deb 21 January 1999 vol 323 cc1114-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

6.41 pm
Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to initiate this Adjournment debate. I start from the premise of a belief that often the importance of parish and town councils—or, as I shall refer to them, local councils—is undervalued and that the advantages that they offer, not only to their own community but as the basis of representative government, is underestimated.

I should immediately declare an interest: I am a local councillor. I have been a Stonehouse town councillor for the past 12 years, and shall remain a local councillor if those in power will select and re-elect me.

I realise that I am not the only hon. Member who has the onerous responsibility of being a local councillor. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) is a parish councillor in his constituency, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) is president of the Durham Association of Local Councils. Recently, I became a vice-president of the National Association of Local Councils. The Minister for Local Government and Housing once filled that position with distinction. It is interesting how we hon. Members begin our careers.

I should like to give my thanks to all those who have served with me in local government. I should certainly like to thank my own councillors on Stonehouse town council and the two clerks who have been with the council for the past 12 years. I thank also all the other town councils with which I have had contact both before and especially since I was elected to the House.

My constituency has 48 parish and town councils, consisting of the five town councils of Stonehouse, Dursley, Nailsworth, Stroud and Berkeley; 41 parish councils, which vary in size from Cam—which my old friend, Councillor Brian Addle, always assures me is the biggest parish in Gloucestershire —to very small parishes, such as Brookthorpe-with-Whaddon, Standish, Elmore and Miserden. Finally, but not least, it has two parish meetings—which hon. Members who know about such matters will realise comprise the lowest level of representative democracy and meet only very occasionally, when the need arises—at Moreton Valence and Owlpen.

I should like to make special mention of two people who have helped me to compile my notes for this speech: Stephen Wright, the secretary of the Gloucestershire Association of Town and Parish Councils, who doubles as the director of the Gloucestershire rural community council; and Robin Wendt, the chief executive of the National Association of Local Councils.

Local councils tend to be seen as the lowest and least form of democracy and are sometimes parodied as something of a French farce. In "The Vicar of Dibley" they are portrayed as not as serious as they could be. It is easy to think of local councils in that way, but those who serve on them regard their role as important. Although it is not always easy to get people to serve, councils are an important part of the democratic process. When they work, they work very well.

The councils that set out to fulfil their role and take it seriously are many and varied throughout the country. The late Professor Bryan Keith Lucas, emeritus professor of government at the University of Kent, said: It would be difficult to exaggerate the diversity of parishes and how their councils provide for them. That comes from the foreword to the 1997 book "Parish Government 1894–1994", which he co-authored with K. P. Poole.

Lord Faversham, currently president of the NALC, has said that local democracy is a vital element in a healthy state and that parish, town and community councillors can make local councils a relevant, valuable and necessary part of the governance of this country in the 21st century.

We are all aware of the historical importance of parishes. When people say where they come from, they often refer to their parish rather than a large city or a town. Parishes go back way beyond the creation of parish councils. That historical link is good to see. Only in the Local Government Act 1894 were civil parishes formally created. That was reaffirmed in the Local Government Act 1972. Although both Acts were widely welcomed, they were also opposed by some in authority—the landed gentry and the Church in the first example and larger councils in the second, because they saw local councils as a threat. How things move on and sometimes come round.

There is a tremendous range of local councils—10,000 in England and Wales, as well as Scotland's community councils. They vary in size, with the larger ones, such as Bracknell, Dunstable and Oswestry, covering sizeable populations, while the smaller ones cover only 100 or 200 people. Their variety and diversity is their strength.

Local councils have about 50 powers and duties. There is tremendous variation in how they are exercised. Some exercise them widely, while others use them in only a limited way. It is important that however the powers are exercised, the councils are supported and regarded as important. Pleasingly, the powers of local councils were re-established in the Local Government and Rating Act 1997, when the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), gave them new powers over crime, transport and traffic control.

Local councils are an important part of the local government scene. It is easy to parody them as places where people just talk and little happens, but they can achieve a considerable amount and look after their population in many ways. Interestingly, it is the only part of local government in which it is not easy to control expenditure. I always whisper that very quietly as it could be considered to be a door that needs to be shut. I shall move on quickly as my hon. Friend the Minister is looking at me.

Local government—unitary authorities or two tiers of local government—often forgets that there is a third tier or, in the case of unitary authorities, a valuable second tier. Nowadays much emphasis is placed on joint working between the principal authority and local councils, but there is always room for improvement. If the move towards unitary authorities continues and gathers pace, rather than threatening parish and town councils, it may encourage them and further enhance their role. The process will be hastened if, as seems likely, we dispense with some of the councillors on the larger authorities and genuinely try to bring back local decision making and get councillors in touch with the populace.

Although the Government's approach to modernising local government is welcome, it is slightly disappointing that the White Paper "In Touch with the People" does not make much mention of local councils although it recognises that they are an essential part of the structure of local democracy in our country and will continue to play a key role in many of our towns and villages". It recognises that they have a vital role in helping principal councils keep in touch with the smallest communities and making sure that they can work in partnership so that the best decisions are made.

Welcome as those words are, local councillors believe that their role could be further enhanced and their value given greater emphasis. I hope that the forthcoming urban and rural White Papers will stress the role of local councils.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one way to increase the perceived importance of town councils would be to give them a greater say in the planning process? Like me, the hon. Gentleman comes from Gloucestershire, so he will be aware that people's views, expressed through the town councils, are being overridden by unelected inspectors.

Mr. Drew

I shall not take up that challenge, but the hon. Gentleman knows my views on planning, as do many other hon. Members. I concur that there would probably be great benefit if local opinion, which is reflected in parish and town councils, were listened to more carefully, not just as part of the appeal process, but in advance of that process. Certainly when appeals are heard, it would nice for local councils to be given a proper role in the process.

I should like some answers from my hon. Friend about some specific issues, some of which are more important than others. My starting point is what I consider to be the Government's interest and concern for uprating and improving local government structure and the new ethical framework. Local councils support the Government's desire to provide an ethical framework for local government, based on codes of conduct, standards committees and so on. However, there is a belief that the concept is being passed down to them, rather than being created in the context of how local councils can best perform. That does not fully recognise the position of local councils in their own right. The alternative suggestion from the NALC is that local councils in each county area should prepare their own code of conduct in the light of national advice. The Government should be urged to rethink and clarify how that could be taken forward.

The second issue is best value. Again, local councils strongly support the approach of the Government in that regard. The policy intention is that the new regime will apply to all local authorities, including local councils, with budgeted expenditure above a defined threshold. The Government have indicated that that may be set at £500,000, subject to further consultation. Many local councils would allege that that is a low level, and it would be sensible for the Government to consider raising it. It is understood that the Government will consult with the NALC about the issue, and I look forward to hearing the result.

The third issue is community leadership, and again it is proposed that there be a new duty on all manner of local authorities to promote the social and economic well-being of communities. That will apply to the lowest level of local government. It would be sensible to recognise that that can be achieved by those councils in the lowest category, and again we would hope that the remit of such councils would be properly constituted and understood. I believe that it should be the right of every area, if it so wishes, to have a local council—whether that be a parish, a town or a community council.

It is pleasing that although every part of my area is now parished, other parts of Gloucestershire, which were traditionally not completely parished—such as the Cotswolds and the Forest of Dean—are now creating parish councils, which seem to be popular. I hope that the Government will welcome and encourage that, and not see it as a threat to other levels of local democracy.

My fourth point concerns the European charter of local self-government. There was concern, surprise and disappointment among councils that they were not included when the Government decided to ratify the charter. Councils, along with the principal authorities, had looked forward to the signing of the charter by the new Government and to its eventual ratification. They were taken aback when it was not applied to them, and the Government ought to think about the benefits of so doing.

I would link that with the local councils' welcome for the regionalisation of this country. They feel that they can play a part in helping that process. They would not want to have a formal role within regional development agencies, but some disappointment has been expressed at the fact that they have not always been included in the proposals or action plans for the evolution of the relevant chambers. That is not true in all areas and, in the south-west, there is a representation of local councillors through to the regional chamber. However, that is not always the case.

There are some real concerns about funding, as well as about the auditing and accounting regimes—certainly about the way in which local councils can borrow, which has been referred to as loan sanctioning. The restriction in total to £6.7 million a year is seen to be unduly restrictive. My largest town council, Stroud, has been seeking to borrow money, quite justifiably, for a particular project, but it is like waiting for Buggins's turn to get the money. That is neither fair nor reasonable, and I hope that the Minister will comment on whether it will be possible to increase the total amount and consider whether that could be shared out fairly.

The concern among parish and town councils about auditing and accounting is the principal reason for this Adjournment debate. They are concerned, first, about the imposition by regulation of a £5,000 a year spending threshold, above which all local council accounts are subjected to the full audit regime. Secondly, many councils are unhappy with the audit system itself because they consider it to be excessively prolonged, thus increasing fees. Complaints have also been raised at times about a lack of professionalism. Councils do not have the time to do what they want to do to meet the requirements of the Audit Commission.

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McAvoy.]

Mr. Drew

I undertook a survey and found that many councils were concerned about how the audit system was being applied. Many said that they wanted changes. By pure chance, I was sent some information a couple of days ago by Cotswold district council showing that Adlestrop had a precept of £181 a year and an audit fee of £168; one may well ask what happened to the other £13, but it is a question of precepting for a purpose.

Local councils have an important role to play. They are well respected in their communities. With proper training and support, the councillors and clerks can serve their populations well. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider ways in which we can further enhance the lower levels of local government and regard them not as an amusing aside but as an important part of our democratic structures.

7.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on his success in the ballot, and on raising the subject of the role of parish and town councils. It was apparent from what he said that he has great experience of the operation of local councils, especially in Gloucestershire. The role of town and parish councils is a matter of real concern at a time when everyone in local government is rightly considering the way in which their institutions operate and the role that local authorities, including parish councils, play in the democratic structure.

The enactment of the Local Government and Rating Act 1997, with full support from the current Government, reflects the valid role that parishes have to play. The implementation of that Act—the first parish-focused legislation in over 25 years, which the previous Government took through Parliament with our support—has enabled communities for the first time to petition for a parish in an unparished area and has returned the power to district councils to undertake reviews of their parish arrangements.

We have already agreed a number of new parishes and 20 will have been constituted by 1 April. I think that that provides a response to what my hon. Friend said and proves that we see a role for parishes in the democratic structure and that we are already encouraging the creation of more local councils.

When we were elected in May 1997 we pledged to modernise the country and bring government back to the people; and to create a new Britain for the new millennium—a decent society that serves all its people and not only the few. We are now implementing the most radical improvement to our constitution this century, with devolution for Scotland and Wales; a London Assembly with an elected mayor; and development agencies for the English regions.

Our better government initiative, along with the comprehensive spending review and our work on freedom of information, has examined how government can function more effectively and openly; but if we are to achieve change and deliver our pledges we need to mobilise all levels of government and society to work together. Local government at every level has a key role to play if people are to have the quality of life that they deserve. That must and should include parishes.

Local government is essential to our democracy but it is not as strong as it ought to be. One does not have to look far to see the weaknesses: low turnout at local elections—only 26 per cent. last May—and 2 million absentees from the electoral register. Too few people find local government interesting enough to bother to register or vote. We want to encourage the public to become more involved in local democracy and we hope that parishes will use their role as representatives of their communities to encourage local people to take part and have their say.

The White Paper "Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People" put in place an ambitious programme of reform for the next 10 years or more. To implement that programme requires action by central Government and local government, local communities, business and the voluntary sector. I hope that parish councils will play their part. They have an important role to play in local decision making and provide a valuable opportunity for local people to take part in managing their environment. That is especially true in rural areas where parish councils are vital in representing, and servicing at the most local level, small and often tightly knit communities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud referred to the rural White Paper. Thriving rural communities are an integral part of the Government's vision of a fair and decent society. Rural England is changing and we must respond to that change. We have therefore announced plans to produce the rural White Paper this year. It will look at the long-term future for the English countryside and at how a wide range of policies can support rural communities in the future. Work will proceed in tandem with the urban White Paper, recognising that town and country are inextricably linked. Consultation will be an important part of the process, so we will shortly issue a discussion document setting out key themes and inviting comments in advance of the publication of the White Papers. The National Association of Local Councils will of course be one of the consultees and is to help us in ensuring the consultation paper is seen by parish councils. I can assure my hon. Friend that any comments made by parishes will be carefully considered.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud made clear, there are wide variations between individual local councils, not least in size. While town and parish councils, and their representatives, play a vital representative role both locally and nationally, most parish councils have a limited role in terms of expenditure, functions and staff resources when compared with principal councils. Therefore, few of the changes we are considering for local authorities as a result of our local government White Paper will affect parish councils directly. Indeed, in many ways, because of their very local nature they are already close to their communities and, of course, as was mentioned, parish councils are unique in that every local government elector for such councils has the right to raise any matter affecting parish business at the annual parish meeting. In that respect, I agree that democracy is already more direct than in the case of other tiers of local government.

Minsters meet the National Association of Local Councils regularly. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Housing spoke at the NALC conference last year and met with NALC representatives most recently only last month where all the issues raised today were discussed in some detail. I shall therefore cover them only briefly now.

I note the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud on the new ethical framework, but the important thing to note is that local codes of conduct will be drawn up in consultation with local councils. As for best value, we are consulting various local government associations, including NALC, to consider the extent to which local councils should be subject to the best value regime. I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend's comments on the wish of local councils to play a positive role in the development of best value.

As I have already said, ministerial agreement to a number of new parishes confirms our view that they have a role in community leadership where a parish is wanted by local people. As for the cost of elections, it is a matter for local discretion as to whether a district council chooses to reclaim the cost of a parish by-election from the parish council. I understand that the Home Office has no plans at present to reconsider the existing legislation.

I do not intend to stray into the planning process, despite the temptation provided by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), but I note that the Rural Development Commission has provided assistance to parish councils through the production of a software package on village appraisals to aid them and others to understand their local community. That will help them to respond to the real challenges that arise from new planning proposals that affect their communities.

I am sorry that the reasons why parish councils are not subject to the European charter of local self-government are not fully understood. Rather than rehearse those arguments, I shall write to my hon. Friend to set out more fully the reasons why the Government reached that decision. As for regional chambers, we believe that it is right that it should be for the chamber itself to decide whether parish councils should be members.

As my hon. Friend is probably also aware, we are investigating the position on loan sanctions as the last two financial years have ended with a considerable balance of unused allocation. We need to be clear for future years about whether there is unmet demand. To that end it has been agreed that all borrowing approval applications will be submitted to my officials until the end of the financial year.

The new audit arrangements have been in place for only two years. They must be given time to settle down. We recognise that some parish clerks will have had difficulties adjusting to the new requirements, but audits should become clearer and simpler as parish clerks become more familiar with the new regulations. No doubt the Audit Commission will welcome NALC's views on the system in practice.

It has been said that the introduction of council tax benefit subsidy limitation would be a potential indirect cap on local council spending. That is not the case.

Although local precepting authorities are outside the scheme, in that they will not make contributions to benefit costs where the local authority sets a council tax above guideline, changes in the local precept may affect the amount by which it exceeds the guideline and, thus, the contribution to costs. The Government believe it right that that cost is met, in part or in full, by the local taxpayer rather than nationally. We expect local precepting authorities to behave responsibly and to take that into account.

We have received a number of representations from local authorities about the impact that parish council precepts may have on district budgets with regard to council tax benefit subsidy limitation. We will take them into account along with others before finalising the scheme.

I am disappointed to hear that there is a reluctance to use the 1972 Act section 137 funding, as that was not our understanding. A number of larger town councils have made use of it, and, of course, the facility is there for all parish councils to use. Certainly a recent study found that the current section 137 arrangements are generally regarded as satisfactory by the vast majority of parish councils, and it is encouraging to see that local councils are increasingly using their section 137 power, and that they are doing so for a wider range of activities.

Mr. Drew

There is some misunderstanding of exactly how section 137 operates. That is an example of where training and support, especially from principal councils, may be worth while, particularly for small parish councils or parish meetings.

Mr. Raynsford

I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I shall write to him. I appreciate his concern for more information and training opportunities. The Government are not averse to helping to ensure that those who play a role in local councils are familiar with procedures and given help in understanding the available options.

I hope that my hon. Friend is assured that the Government see parish and town councils remaining an essential part of the structure of local democracy in our country. I hope the councils will continue to play a key role in many of our towns and villages. For our part, we will continue to consult parishes, through NALC and other local government associations, on the many issues raised by our radical agenda for modernisation.

I take this opportunity to refute accusations of not listening to parish council views. Ministers have listened to comments from NALC on a number of important recent issues and we meet them regularly to hear parish views.

Let me assure the House that the Government recognise that, although parish councils, as an integral part of the whole local government system, do not need a separate modernisation exercise from principal local authorities, they do have a vital role. We hope that they will help principal councils to keep in touch with the smallest communities in their areas, and that they will take on board many of the initiatives that we are progressing with the higher tiers of local government.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Seven o ' clock.