By Policy Analyst, Jeremy Hutton
At the TPA, we consider it our duty to call out wasteful spending of taxpayers’ money wherever we see it, whether that be foreign aid largesse, councils gambling on commercial properties or the government ploughing ahead with exorbitant projects like HS2 or the Stonehenge tunnel.
Simply put, public money is wasted at every level of government, from the heart of Westminster right down to the humble parish or town council.
Given how small some parishes are - Ringway near Manchester, for example, is home to fewer than 100 residents - it should come as no surprise that parish profligacy often goes unnoticed. But the recent media storm around the antics of Handforth Parish has shone a spotlight on the capability of many of the elected representatives responsible for managing parish cash.
In an especially egregious example, we learned that Pailton Parish Council borrowed over half a million pounds to renovate and reopen a dilapidated pub. If the venture doesn’t meet the council’s ambitious income forecasts, ratepayers will be on the hook for a mighty 161 per cent increase in their parish precept. Let’s remember that parishes do not have the same caps on council tax rises as other councils, meaning almost unlimited liability for taxpayers.
Since my colleague Harry Fone wrote about this for ConservativeHome, we have been flooded with similar examples.
Trowbridge Town Council has the dishonour of being Britain's most indebted parish council. To fund a new civic centre, councillors borrowed £5 million. For a small council, this seems bad enough. However, compounding the pressure on taxpayers is the decision to repay that loan over half a century at an interest rate of 4.7 per cent. According to local councillor Antonio Piazza (who opposes the council’s high debt), after interest the total cost will be just shy of £13 million pounds.
A Goxhill resident messaged us about a massive 142 per cent precept increase there. For band D residents in 2021-22, this means their annual payments will increase from £67 to £164. Unlike Pailton and Trowbridge, this is not to pay for a flashy infrastructure project, but is a result of poor planning which failed to account for contingencies. In 2018, fed up with the council’s poor performance, some residents went so far as to request a vote of no confidence be held, although this was declined.
Residents in Aspley Guise meanwhile have the opposite problem. Locals have been saddled with a council which in recent years has proven unwilling to spend the tax it collects. In 2021-22, the council plans to spend some of the cash it has hoarded away albeit alongside a 15 per cent rise in the parish precept this year.
A frequent symptom of these examples of grotty governance is a failure of democratic accountability and proper scrutiny. In the case of Pailton, out of four councillors, one voted for, one against, one abstained and the chair gave the tie-breaking vote of approval. In Trowbridge, Cllr Piazza has expressed concern that elected councillors simply lack the experience and knowledge to make responsible decisions concerning significant capital projects. This might explain why they signed off a deal that sees them pay more in interest than they borrowed in the first place. In Aspley Guise, there is altogether a democratic deficit. Of twelve councillor seats, only eight are filled and the public, according to a local borough councillor who contacted us, have largely given up trying to sort the parish’s finances out.
Where parish councils are failing to conduct good governance, or are otherwise getting in over their heads, there must be some recourse to right the ship. In the case of infrastructure loans, parish councils should be expected to face additional conditions - in much the way that borrowing by upper tier local authorities is in need of further restrictions. ? Where council seats go unfilled, should parish councils be subject to increased external scrutiny to ensure a plurality cannot break open the piggy bank without a meaningful democratic majority? Or maybe they should just call for Jackie Weaver...
Ultimately, the problems of the UK’s many parish councils are varying and may seem trivial when newspaper headlines talk about figures in the millions and billions. However, at every level, taxpayers are in need of proper representation. And as these examples make clear, they are frequently failing to receive it.