Special Charging Orders

Part of Orders of the Day — Local Government Finance (No. 2) Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 5th April 1982.

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Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Opposition Whip (Commons) 8:45 pm, 5th April 1982

I am disappointed and depressed by the Minister's reply. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) will no doubt wish to reply to the Minister. However, as vice-president of the National Association of Local Councils, and having been concerned about this issue for a long time, I am amazed that Ministers in successive Governments are still unable to devise a solution to what is a relatively simple problem. It cannot be an insoluble problem, otherwise those district authorities—they are not in the majority—which now transmit the earned element of the rate support grant to their parishes would be unable to do so.

If a district council can devise a way of calculating the right amount of money and transmitting it to the authority, surely the Department of the Environment can find a way of doing so. Heaven knows, it has overturned, changed, modified and refined the system of rate support grant so many times over the past few years that its officers must have been able to address their otherwise overburdened minds to this relatively limited but specific problem.

The Minister has confused some aspects of the situation. He referred to parish council requirements and needs as if local councils were seeking additional government finance with which to support their services. That is not the case. We are talking about simple justice and ensuring that Government grant already paid to district councils on the basis of parish council precepts actually gets to the parish councils, whose precept earned it in the first place. We want to ensure that the money that the Treasury allows for local government goes to the people who should get it. We are not talking about additional resources.

Nor are we talking about 10,500 parish councils. There are only 8,600, many of which do not levy a rate. We are referring to the active parish councils. We are not even including some councils who raise ½p and 1p rates. We are concerned with councils that raise a larger sum. I ask the Minister to consider the injustice and ludicrousness of the position. For example, the inhabitants of a parish might decide that they need a desirable amenity in their village—perhaps a bus shelter or playing fields. A combination of voluntary effort and public funds brings that about. That is the unique feature of parish councils. They draw together voluntary effort and public funds. Ministers should be encouraging, not discouraging, that. The council gets its playing fields but has to raise a 4p or 5p precept to do so. That inevitably affects the rate support grant calculations that bring grant to the district council. Meanwhile, a neighbouring parish, which has an inactive parish council, does nothing.

However, the district council decides that it does not want other people running the playing fields in its areas and that it would rather be in charge of them itself. When the rate support grant arrives in the treasurer's office the district council duly pockets the whole amount that was effectively earned by the precepting of the active parish. At the end of the day the district council says "By the way, we shall have a district council playing fields project", and the parish that was not prepared to lift a finger to help itself also benefits. The district council will say that it will provide the playing fields, with district council funds, using the precept that was earned by the parish that was helping itself. By that process it will believe that it is teaching the council that it would be far better off if it did not have a parish council at all.

I remind the Minister that some district councils inherited parishes from rural parts of the districts that made them up in the first place, and some district councils do not like the elements of local democracy, especially mixed urban and rural areas where the urban centre calls the tune, not the parish that was formerly in the rural area. Some district councils are determined to depress and shut out parish councils altogether.

That is a ludicrous thing to do to the very element in local government that can minimise rate-borne expenditure and can combine voluntary and rate-borne efforts effectively to provide community services. It is ludicrous that after years of examining the problem, civil servants in the Department of the Environment, numerous though they are, have still not produced a worthwhile basis for a solution satisfactory to Ministers. It is ludicrous that Ministers have been so dilatory that they have not demanded, before the next local government Bill comes before the House, a solution in the form of an amendment that will be acceptable to all.