Could a town council be fit for purpose AND affordable?

Some very pertinent comments and observations on the subject of a town council for Spalding, but there is a need to always keep in mind the cost of this. Are the people of Spalding prepared to see the charge of £23, currently identified as the Spalding Special Expenses, double, just for the pleasure of saying, ‘we have a town council’?

I say double, because even though the SSE stands at £209,000 and doubling it would take it to £418,000, which seems excessive, one has to use a worse case scenario, in order not to get a very nasty shock once any town council is established. I would anticipate the need to employ at least three full time staff for a town the size of Spalding. Given that one of our towns has just employed a new parish clerk at a cost of some £27k, to which they will need to add 20% at least, to cover employment costs, it doesn’t take much to see that the numbers roll up very quickly.

I also have a suspicion that, once any town council was in place, SHDC non-Spalding members would soon start to identified items of Spalding based expenditure, that they felt should be on the town council’s books and not on South Holland District Council’s.

Don’t get me wrong, when I first joined the district council, I was amazed to find that Spalding was unparished and that the district council controlled everything via the SSE. As I was in the privileged position of being the chairman of the newly resurrected STF, I did ask for the possibility of a town council to be explored. Even back then, a figure of £40k had been spoken of previously. This on a SSE, at the time, of approximately £85k. This figure was however questioned by some members, who believed that SHDC had manufactured that number as a scare tactic, in order to kill off the process. This at a time when the council was controlled by independents – I’ll leave it at that.

Recently, I did look at this issue again and even wrote to several town councils in the area, asking if they could give me some idea of their running costs. Unsurprisingly, none of them wrote back – parish and town councils have a reputation for being less than transparent in such matters. One council I did look at more closely, in order to draw some parallels, was Sleaford. According to their master plan, Sleaford has a population of around 17000, approximately half that of Spalding – Sleaford Town Council has a staff of SIX and 17 elected members. I don’t know how much SHDC would wish to charge a town council for office space, but I do know that it would not be free.

Wimbledon is showing on the TV as I type this, so I could be tempted to claim game, set and match on this question, simply based on affordability. However, things are never that simple. One has to accept that the will of the people could well outweigh purely financial considerations, especially if the right question is asked of them.

Instead of looking for conventional solutions to this perceived democratic deficit and given the financial depression most taxpayers find themselves faced with, is there another way to achieve the desired outcome? The Localism Bill introduced a right to challenge, perhaps a group of local people should start looking at ways of using this as a cost effective way of addressing this issue, in part at least.

A town council for Spalding?

As request here are some intial thoughts on the question of a council for Spalding.  To start the ball rolling, I have reproduced an entry I made in January 2008.

Spalding Special Expenses – Here we go again!

We had a special meeting of the cabinet today, mainly to approve various financial papers.  One of these was a consultation document on the Draft General Fund Revenue (GF) account.  Just like all things financial in local government, including the names they call things (GF!) the information (sorry data, information suggests useful data that makes sense!) is pretty impenetrable, unless you happen to be an accountant.  In my case, having the numeracy skills of a flip flop doesn’t help, so I’m normally the one asking the stupid questions.  Anyway, one of the items in the document was the Spalding Special Expenses and this is the prompt for my latest ramblings.

Spalding doesn’t have a parish or town council, but it does have the equivalent of a parish precept called Spalding Special Expenses (SSE).  This amount makes up a very small part of a Spalding resident’s council tax bill, but actually generates a great deal of debate at this time of year.  The proposed increase this year is about 4.17% or 1.6p a week, making the average total SSE this year £21.49.  Chicken feed most people would say, but even a small amount collected from a lot of people adds up to quite a bit of money (approx £183,000).   However, the underlying issue is how this figure is arrived at, who decides it and what it should be spent on.

The final decision rests with the district council, because Spalding doesn’t have a parish or town council and this is where the debate really gets going.  We have a Spalding Town Forum made up of elected members and some local organisation representatives.  However, it has no executive powers and can only make recommendations to the district council, which can of course choose to ignore them.

Should Spalding have a parish/town council?  I joined the district council in May 99 believing that Spalding should indeed have its own council, after all, how could so many people, 22,000+ then, be so under-represented compared to all of out smaller towns and villages?  However, now that I’ve doing this for a while, I’m less sure of the merits of this, especially when it comes to unravelling the finances, setting it up and paying the admin costs.  A major cost would be employing a clerk in the same way parishes do.  How much? £10k, £15k, £20k, who knows until it actually happens?  Finding a place to call home (an office) could cost anything from £2k to £10k.

What will the people of Spalding get for their money if they had a town council?  Apart from direct control over some very limited areas of council business, maintenance of Spalding Cemetery, Monks house Lane, Hailey Stewart and the provision of Christmas decorations to name a few, not a great deal as it stands!  However, once you have a parish or town council, theoretically the sky’s the limit (that’s a scary thought in itself).  

So, as far as I’m concerned the jury is still very much out on this issue and given the lack of feedback from the public of Spalding, I think it’s going to remain out for some time to come! 

If you want to know more about the issue of creating a parish/town council see: http://www.nalc.gov.uk/About_NALC/What_is_a_parish_or_town_council/What_is_a_council.aspx

Spalding Special Expenses Account –  Published for consultation purposes

  

 

Original 2007/08

  

Draft 2008/09

  

  

  

 

Budget

  

Budget

  

Variance

 

 

£

 

£

 

£

SpaldingCemetery  (see note 1)

 

45,280

 

47,170

 

1,890

Spalding Allotments

 

9,720

 

11,600

 

1,880

   Ayscoughfee (excluding gardens)

 

6,470

 

7,240

 

770

   Halley Stewart (see note 1)

 

31,150

 

41,330

 

10,180

  Thames Road(see note 2)

 

11,990

 

8,430

 

(3,560)

  Fulney Road

 

9,120

 

9,550

 

430

  Monkshouse Lane(see note 3)

 

21,260

 

26,010

 

4,760

Contribution to Voluntary Car Scheme

 

7,700

 

8,000

 

300

Christmas Decorations

 

16,260

 

17,400

 

1,140

Contrib. StMary & StNicolasParishChurch

 

650

 

680

 

30

Contribution to footway lighting (note 4)

 

2,030

 

0

 

(2,030)

Administrative Support

 

3,630

 

3,740

 

110

Bus Shelter maintenance

 

410

 

410

 

0

Spalding Town Centre Promotion (see note 5)

 

4,000

 

2,000

 

(2,000)

Crime prevention (see note 6)

 

2,000

 

0

 

(2,000)

Total Expenditure

  

171,660

  

183,560

  

11,900

Funding

To be funded from Council Tax

 

171,660

 

183,560

 

  

Tax Base

 

8,320

 

8,540

 

  

Band D equivalent

 

20.63

 

21.49

 

  

Council Tax Increase                                                 

 

3.06%

 

4.17%

 

 

  

Balance Brought Forward

 

 

 

2007/08

 

2008/09

 

 

 

 

(36,000)

 

(36,000)

Earmarked for crime prevention

 

 

 

 

 

12,880

Agreed minimum balance 5% expenditure for contingency

 

 

 

8,580

 

9,180

Available Balance

 

 

 

(27,420)

 

 (13,940)

Notes

1. Tree works for Halley Stewart and the Cemetery have been estimated at £3,000 and £8,000 respectively.

2.  A spiking machine for the grounds (£6,000) has been added to Halley Stewart Playing Field.

3.  Maintenance of the Pavilion at Monks House and Legionella testing (£3,900) has been added  to the playing field budget.

4. The budget provision for footway lighting has been removed, since no new lights are currently being planned.

5. The Town Centre promotion budget has been reduced to £2,000, so that the spiking machine can be funded this year and council tax increases maintained.

6. The Crime Prevention budget has been reduced to nil for 2008/09 and balances will be used, should the Herring Lane Car park income not be sufficient to pay for the maintenance of CCTV.  In prior years this budget has not been called upon.