Examination of Witnesses

Part of Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:15 pm on 23rd June 2022.

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Jonathan Owen:

We are really keen to see the detail on some of the other aspects of the neighbourhood governance review. The White Paper held out for us real promise to ensure that the opportunities of devolution and levelling up were really seized, so I hope you will not mind if start off by encouraging you to consider how you can build aspects of that wider review into the Bill. We are particularly keen to see the review conducted within quite a reasonable timescale, to be involved in the process and to make sure that any proposals that come out of it are enacted. We would quite like to see some sort of placeholder clause put in for street votes, to say that the neighbourhood governance review will be completed within a certain time and the agreed proposals enacted. I do not know whether that is possible, but I really do think you might miss an opportunity if you do not engage fully in that review and implement some of its actions.

The key things for us are about making it easier to set up parish and town councils. At the moment, about two thirds of the country has a parish, but only about a third of the population, which means that two thirds of the population are missing out on having the first tier of local government supporting community empowerment and helping them address the big challenges that we face. Many of you will be aware of the research done by Onward. Its social fabric index showed that places with parish councils tended to have a stronger community identity and so forth. I think there are some real opportunities that need to be picked up either as part of the Bill or as part of that wider neighbourhood governance review.

The other big area for us is funding of the sector. At the moment, our councils are not necessarily able to access some funding streams, such as the community ownership fund and other things. It would be good to look at making it possible for them to access that funding. An interesting example of that was how, through the covid pandemic, a lot of our 10,000 councils stepped up really early, as you will be aware, to set up volunteering arrangements and support local communities. Many of them did really great things, but many of them lost out from lost income. You were able to compensate the principal authorities but unable to compensate parish councils that had lost out. To be honest, principal authorities were reluctant to devolve much of the funding they received down to our level.

I think you should consider using the Bill to put in place a mechanism whereby you would be able to fund local councils directly. That could be really helpful to this Government and probably to future Governments when another big problem happens, such as the pandemic, so that you would be able to reach down to communities throughout the country and provide some financial support or lifeline as necessary.

On the street votes, we will be interested to see the detail on that and, again, picking up on my other point on neighbourhood planning, we just need to make sure that that complements and does not replace the wider neighbourhood planning role.

Finally, returning to the last question on digitalisation, the holding of remote meetings has been really useful in the last couple of years. We have seen evidence that lots of members of the public have attended parish and town council meetings because they are able just to attend for the one item that interests them, which is often a planning matter. Enabling councils to meet remotely and have engagement remotely from residents would be really good.