Parish councils dodge accountability and hike tax

Rothbury villagers in Northumberland are furious at their Parish Council for hiking its precept from £22,413 to £52,000, almost an extra pound a week on top of their Council Tax. ‘This 132 per cent increase is on top of a 50 per cent increase in the previous year,’ says one local resident, ‘almost 300% in approximately two years.’ Imagine if every layer of local government did the same!

At the start of the year, a majority vote by Rothbury Parish Councillors decided that the budget for 2014-15 would be set at £52,000, despite some debate within the village council. ‘Many people are struggling financially at the moment,’ said one councillor opposed to the rise. ‘We have got a large ageing population in the area and I have a big concern about increasing it. I think it is far too much and I think it will be highly criticised by the electorate.’

The increase comes shortly after the government said it would cap parish precept rises at a maximum of 5 per cent. It has led to other parish councils forcing through big increases. ‘There is no mechanism to cap parish or town councils at the moment,’ says the Town Clerk for Barnard Castle in County Durham, which put through a near 8 per cent increase earlier this year. ‘It would need to be made law by the Secretary of State. We need to understand that in the next 12-months they could still impose a cap and we would be restrained in coming years.’

There is a growing feeling among residents across the UK that parish councils are acting beneath the radar of public scrutiny. ‘No written budget has been publicised as to why such an increase has been agreed,’ says one Rothbury villager. ‘The proposal was apparently introduced only during the course of the Jan 2014 meeting, without advance notification via agenda. It also refuses to allow access to its past accounts, its formal minutes, all clearly contrary to legal public right of inspection.’ So much for open and transparent government.

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