Localism Bill

Memorandum submitted by Keighley Town Council (L 83)

Executive Summary

Keighley Town Council supports the principles within the Localism Bill and wishes to see the initiatives that it contains materialise in the way that the Bill intends. However, from past experience, the intent of an initiative does not always translate into practice.

Principle Authorities are often fearful of the loss of any power and control of funding. This will probably be exaggerated in the current climate of spending cuts and possible redundancies.

Whilst the Bill goes a long way, in some areas, to ensuring that this will happen, in other areas it relies on the will and actions of the Principal Authority, which is not always forthcoming.

It is felt that certain areas require more clarification and in some cases more specific regulations to ensure that the Principal Authorities comply with the intent of the Bill, and have therefore made comments and suggestions, using the experiences of the Town Council as a guide.

Members of the Town Council hope that you will consider these comments and suggestions during your scrutiny of the Bill in the hope of achieving a result that will result in the ensure that the objectives of the Bill work in practice.

1. Introduction

1.1 Keighley is a large market town, situated between the Yorkshire Dales and the Pennines. It is looked upon as the major commercial and shopping centre for the area covered by the old Borough of Keighley, as well as attracting shoppers from a wider local area.

1.2 In 1974 under Local Government Reorganisation the Borough of Keighley was swallowed up by.Bradford Metropolitan District Council. During the intervening years the whole of the old Borough became parished and in 2002 Keighley Town Council was formed.

1.3 Keighley Town Council was formed by Order of the Secretary of State in 2002. The Parish has a population of 54,000 and is split into 15 wards, which are served by 30 Town Councillors. At the request of the general public the Town Council was formed on a non-political basis and while individual members may have their own political persuasions these are never brought into decision making.

1.4 The Council elects annually, from within it’s membership, a Town Mayor and Deputy Town Mayor, who fulfil the civic role within the town and surrounding areas. The Council has 8 committees, all with delegated responsibilities and budgets.

1.5 Since it’s inception the Council has gained and been re-accredited with Quality status, runs approx 400 allotments and manages the Town Hall Square gardens. It also annually organises a large music event and, in conjunction with the Deputy Lieutenant and the Royal British Legion, the town’s Remembrance Day ceremonies. The Council has recently published a Town Plan, which won a "Plain English" award and is currently working on a £1m+ project that will bring a major town centre listed building back into community use and as this is the "critical building" in the second round bid for a Heritage Lottery Grant it may help to bring a further £2.5m investment into the town.

2 Localism Bill

2.1 Keighley Town Council are looking forward to taking the opportunities provided by the "Localism Bill" and have every intention of becoming an active participant in the "Big Society".

2.2 The Council supports and welcomes the general principles, within the Bill, to devolve more responsibility in decision making to local people. However, it is concerned that relying on the goodwill of the upper tier authorities may not produce the required results and unless specific regulations are included devolution may not happen in practice. Devolution in the area, however, has meant that powers and money in the past has gone to a local authority quango, the Area Panel, not via the Quality Parish Councils, as envisioned in previous legislation.

2.3 Local Councils are in an ideal position to support and enable the aims of the Coalition Government. As the tier of government that can really claim to be "local" the Parish Councils are in an ideal position to support and enable the community. They are already in place and in most cases have the experience in dealing with different layers of government and other bodies. To use them as "enablers" would fast track the "Big Society". However to do this they must be given the powers required and the financial support needed, as currently no funding is received from central government.

2.4 As a larger Town Council there are concerns as to the clarity in some areas of the Bill, as to our position and the possible financial effects.

3 Call for evidence

3.1 Community Empowerment

3.1.1 Right to veto excessive Council Tax rises

Under the current drafting no qualification seems to be given to the term "larger Parish Councils".

If these larger Parish Councils are included this will cause certain problems. The Principal Authorities are the billing authority and therefore the parishes would have to rely on their direction as to the cost of a referendum. As it is the Town Council is currently having great difficulty in finding out the costs of elections so this could be a problem. As the parishes currently receive no funding from government any cost would have to be raised via the precept. In the Town Council’s case, the cost of a stand-alone election could be £120K and it can be assumed that a referendum would cost the same amount, which would equate to 30% of its current precept. To factor this into the Council’s budget would obviously produce a ridiculously high increase, therefore triggering a referendum. Nt to factor it in would mean that if the need to support a devolved service (see 3.3.2) caused an unusual increase and triggered a referendum the cost of this would effectively prevent the Council from performing it’s usual functions.

3.1.2 Community Right to Challenge.

The Town Council welcomes the right to challenge and support the duty to respond placed on local authorities, as in the past this has not happened. However as the local community may be competing against major companies, previous or current suppliers or even the local authority, in the procurement process regulations help must be put in place to ensure a level playing-field and the timing of the procurement process must be such as to not give bias to any of the parties but be sufficient to enable local bodies to put together a bid.

3.1.3 Community Right to Buy

Again we welcome the right to buy, but with certain constraints. Communities should not be expected to buy back current local authority assets that were theirs pre 1974; this is in effect historic double taxation. Any time limits set within the process, must take into account the community and Parish Council processes and resources ie: timing of meetings, staffing levels, need to raise funds, to enable them to fully participate in the process. There are also major concerns that before these processes have been put in place many local authorities will already have sold of the "family silver", due to the current budget cuts and following financial effects.

3.1.4 Local Referendums

Whilst the Town Council supports the principle the cost implications are of concern and the resulting effect on budgets and precept levels. The Town Council would, therefore, suggest that a higher figure of at least 10% be seriously considered so as to discourage frivolous petitions.

3.2 Decentralisation and strengthening local democracy

3.2.1 General Power of Competence

The Town Council looks forward to the opportunities that this will provide. However, as it will only be available to "certain Parish Councils" it is suggested that this is linked to Quality Council status. This would ensuress that the Council, as a whole, is working at a certain level of competence and has the required level of communication and inter-action with its local population.

3.2.2 Predetermination

The removal of this will enable Councillors to better represent the views of the local population and stop some councillors actively engaging it to avoid a difficult, unpopular or "whipped" vote.

3.2.3 Standards Board

The abolition of the Standards regime will avoid costly, time consuming, often indecisive actions that have a particularly bad effect on morale. Court action, in the case of "personal interest" would act as a deterrent. The introduction of a voluntary "Code of Conduct" is welcomed. However, the introduction of a duty to promote and maintain high standards of conduct must also come with a power of enforcement, which may be used as required. In the interests of local democracy it should be possible for the public to de-select a local councillor, via a referendum of their local area. If this is already made possible, under the referendum clause of this bill, it should be made clear that this is an option.

3.3 Finance

3.3.1 Timing of the issuing of the Precept

During the next 4 years Parish councils may want to support a service that has been cut or severely reduced by the upper tier. Under the current system of the precept being issued to the upper tier prior to their release of the budget, this will be very difficult. The Town Council is at this moment in time unaware of which services will be affected. As the Town Council sets its budget it will be unable to factor these in and therefore will be financially unable to support services in the coming year.

3.3.2 Confirmation of Local Authority Grants to Parish Councils.

Some local authorities choose to financially support devolved services with a grant, rather than reducing the Council Tax in the parish. To enable the Parish to complete its budgeting process within the current time limits the local authority should have a "duty" to provide a preliminary figure by 30th September. Keighley Town Council has never received a preliminary figure from Bradford, even though it states in the Parish Charter that it should. The amount of one grant is not known until it appears in the bank to cover the year starting the previous April. Due to forthcoming cuts this practice could lead to budget deficits for Parish Councils.

3.3.3 Community Infrastructure Levy

The linking of the money raised to the local area from which it was raised should be much stronger otherwise, as is the case with much S.106 money in this area, it may be used to benefit another part of the district and have no benefit for the locality that has taken the excess pressure on infrastructure. This could be achieved by giving Parish Councils the right of approval as to the designation of any CIL raised within their area. The same requirements should also apply to the "New Homes Bonus" regulations which should be included for Parishes, within a Metropolitan District, to receive part of this bonus.

3.3.4 Government Funding

The Town Council considers that if some of the government funding, currently received by Principal Authorities, came directly to Parish Councils it could be directed more effectively and precisely at local need, rather than authority wide initiatives that in a widely diverse area are not always appropriate in every locality.

February 2011