Parish and Town Council Precepts

– in Westminster Hall at 3:47 pm on 18 April 2023.

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Photo of David Morris David Morris Conservative, Morecambe and Lunesdale

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered parish and town council precepts.

This debate is about Morecambe Town Council and the huge parish council tax rise that it has inflicted on my constituents in Morecambe. The rise—reportedly of anywhere between 231% and 237%—is believed to be the highest such increase in Britain, bearing in mind that the base precept for this town council increased by 66% last year and by 50% in 2021-22.

I will not mention any political party or politician, as there are local elections, but I will name responsible officers. I have no political interest in Morecambe Town Council, because the Conservatives do not field candidates for Morecambe Town Council, as it has historically been mired in controversy and accusations of financial impropriety. I do not receive a bill from the town council because, thankfully, I live one street out of the catchment area. I very rarely, if ever, get involved in local politics, but I cannot not get involved in this issue of double taxation and needless spending that has inflicted a cost of living crisis on approximately 17,500 homes in my constituency, which equates to approximately 33,000 people.

As expected, my inbox has been flooded with messages from angry constituents who are paying an extra £100-plus —in some cases, even more—but have no idea for why or for what. I have forensically researched this issue, which is so complex and at times perplexing that I will try to articulate the main problems as best I can. All sources for my research—Companies House, the Charities Commission, media reports and Morecambe Town Council itself—are in the public domain, on the internet. For the Minister, I have printed the 2023-24 Morecambe Town Council budget, before, I fear, it is taken offline after this debate. It looks as if it has been written and amended copious times, because the more I read it the more contradictory information I find.

The main increase and the published reason in the Morecambe Town Council budget are set out on page 26, which includes the proposal for the vote; this concurs with the first report of the town council wanting to buy a large area on Morecambe seafront, known as Frontierland, for its own purposes. I have spoken to several town councillors—some have whistleblown to me and some have already resigned—and they all tell me the same story: they say that they voted on this budget without being given the full papers in adequate time.

There was a question in the full council meeting of the larger Lancaster City Council in February that the print for the billings in regard to the budget was not there, and it was asked why the Morecambe Town Council precept was not listed. It was believed that the precept would stay the same and there was silence from the city council members who were also town councillors. They evidently did not know about this huge increase—or just did not care.

I was told that the recent town council budget was voted on in a rush, and the controversial motion that has caused all the huge increases is set out in the box at the bottom of page 26, and states:

“Proposed earmarked reserve to be collected to safeguard the former Frontierland site for community use”.

The main controversy is that there have been copious reports in the press that Morecambe Town Council wants to buy the Frontierland area but it is already owned by the taxpayer. The city council, which owns it, states that it is not for sale and already has guidelines in place for development interests. Some town councillors who are also city councillors should already know that and make their declaration clear in their respective meetings.

The reports started to mutate, depending on what each political group on the town council had in mind for this piece of land. The proposals range from a park to a housing project to—the latest proposal—a community centre. It would presumably be a very large building, given the acreage of the land. All of these proposals are for land that is owned by the taxpayer and is not for sale. There have also been reports in the media of begging letters to raise capital to buy this land, but I cannot confirm that they are true because I have not seen one. As I have said, the land is already owned by Morecambe taxpayers as it was bought by the city council for £3 million. It is therefore unlikely ever to be sold for £1 million.

There has been an admission in the press that the town council has engaged architects, at the cost of £48,000, to design a community centre on Frontierland—a site that the town council has no ownership of, and it has not even sought or been given outline planning permission. It is needless spending and blatant double taxation. According to the town council clerk Luke Trevaskis in the local press, the council has also created a “£1 million community action fund” to respond to the call from residents for a community project to be delivered on the former Frontierland site.

I understand from section 32(2)(a) of the Local Government Finance Act 1992 that revenues can be raised only from

“the expenditure which the authority estimates it will incur in the year in performing its functions and will charge to a revenue account for the year”.

A parish council cannot create a second reserve fund, but only a reserves fund up to a reasonable safeguarding of the running costs of the parish council. Interestingly, in the town council budget, the clerk has advised 25% to 100% could be claimed, which is extreme. That would be cheap in comparison to the actual increase for 2023-24 of up to 237%.

According to the town council budget, the action fund is a result of a public consultation with 1,600 responses. On page 14 of the same document, the town council published that there were 5,638 responses, not 1,600. Interestingly, on page 13, there is a detailed breakdown of 430 residents and the amounts they are willing to give. On the same page, it is claimed that there were 1,554 respondents. Sixty-five respondents—the highest bracket—were willing to give £100, followed by 55 respondents at £50, and 35 at £10. Some 100 respondents ranged from £2 to £15,000, which was obviously a resident having a laugh at the ludicrous proposals.

A total consultation percentage of 1.3%—or 430 people giving various answers—is not justification to charge my 33,000 constituents in Morecambe a £1 million bill for a vanity project that will never get built. What will become of that money? The answer can be found on page 14, paragraph 5.7 of the town council budget, which says that

“the Council must consider the level of capital receipt required to attract additional grant funding.”

In plain English: the town council wants to have a separate £1 million from the reserves to borrow against, based on the consent of 1.3% of residents. The taxpayer will inevitably be asked for more and more money over the ensuing years. That cannot be right.

Indeed, page 15, paragraph 6.9 says:

“Since 2012-13, the Government has had the power to require parish and town councils to hold a referendum if their precept increases by more than a set threshold. Thresholds are imposed on principal authorities every year. The Government has decided not to require parish and town councils to hold a referendum for 2022-23, however this policy has only been set for a period of one year and it is not known if the Government will impose such restrictions in future years.”

That is a giveaway. To me, it means “get as much out of the local taxpayers as quick as you can, while you can.”

There are irrelevant figures released by the town council, including the costs of the precept historically up to ’22-23, accompanied with volumes of national examples and comparisons that are not like for like. Most notably, there are scant figures demonstrated for the council tax bands across Morecambe for ’22-23. As an example, a band D dwelling for ’22-23 was £44.11. A band B for ’23-24 now costs £130.75. That alone is more than double the cost for a band D dwelling last year. I know, as I have seen a copy of an actual bill given to me by a constituent. Most houses are in band C, which is not demonstrated in the document. The costs are extortionate and this situation is causing a cost of living crisis for my constituents.

Morecambe Town Council has gone from £200,000 expenditure historically to nearly £2 million in the two years since the clerk, Mr Luke Trevaskis, arrived. By law, any amount raised over 200,000 must follow the local government transparency code 2015, which is a requirement of any parish council with gross annual income or expenditure exceeding £200,000. I have been told by a former town councillor that Mr Trevaskis said he would work part time for £16.50 per hour for 20 hours, or do a really good job for £26.50 per hour for 25 hours. That was supposedly to educate the town council. I have been told by former town councillors that he has since drafted his own contract, and his part-time salary is now nearly £60,000. He has had to be named by law as he earns over £50,000. It is clearly a part-time position, contrary to claims that it is full time, as Mr Luke Trevaskis is a serial town parish clerk: he recently claimed that he is town parish clerk to five other parish councils.

I cannot find a 2015 transparency code on the Morecambe Town Council website. I can find a link to the definition of a transparency code, but no detail. I have searched the budget for 2023-24, and the council’s accounts paint an alarming picture. The salaries have nearly doubled in 12 months, going from £185,000 to £360,000 for 10 staff, including two apprentices. That is empire building by officers who have seemingly replicated the larger district council for that small area of Morecambe only.

By law, any officer paid over £50,000 must be named. There are two officers earning that much: the chief officer and the community and events officer. The income from events for 2023-24 is estimated to be £30,000, so why is that officer being paid over £50,000? A £25,000 donation has been given to community causes, but two of the charities listed on the Charity Commission website that Mr Trevaskis claims the council gives to are a food bank that had a surplus of nearly £196,000 in the year ending 2021, and More Music, which had £111,000 retained—presumably in the bank—in the year ending 2022. I cannot see the donation in its accounts, but that is presumably because the year is not specified. It is good to give, but not taxpayers’ money to rich causes. Both charities have reserves higher than the town council, which has reserves of £105,000 for 2022-23. What is going on here?

There are three new officers earning less than £50,000, who are unnamed. There are administration and projects officers, a public realm supervisor, and six public realm operatives, including two apprentices—for what services? This is a parish council and its wages bill is now a whopping £360,000. It costs nearly as much as Lancaster City Council to the taxpayers in that small area. This is high double taxation. There are no names given for any of those titles, and it is rumoured that they are linked to some councillors—in short, nepotism. I cannot confirm that. However, the leader of the main political party on the town council wrote to me criticising my questioning as I was trying to hold this exorbitant spending to account. He naturally gave his open letter to the press and the local radio station, Beyond Radio, before I received it, but it was heavily redacted and he omitted the following important passages:

“The Town Council’s Street Rangers along with dedicated volunteers from the Morecambe”—

I redact his political party—

“have taken over the weeding service (funded by Lancashire County Council for the next 5 years)…Do you expect our Street rangers, weeding service and events organisers to provide their services for free?”

I expect the town council not to give jobs to cronies of political parties, and the taxpayer not to be charged again through the town council’s exorbitant precept for funding that is already in place.

I analysed the statement. Page 9 of the Morecambe Town Council budget shows £63,295 from the Conservative county council per year for weeding. There is an environment committee costing the town council £150,000, with no specification, yet on page 8, under the same category, it states that litter collection and backstreet projects cost £130,000 in 2022-23. Again, it is double taxation. The events officer costs over £50,000. There is an events budget of £100,000, which brings in a projected income of £30,000—a loss of £120,000. That is very telling.

There have at times been accusations of impropriety, and problems with financial matters involving the town council go back nearly a decade. Perhaps the Department can find out who those 10 public officers are—we already know two—and whether they have links to other councillors or officers.

It would not be the first time that there have been accusations of impropriety. There have been reports in the press about office holders in the town council and about self-appointed funding in the past. I alluded to financial misappropriation earlier. There was a report 18 months ago in the Lancaster Guardian with the headline “Independent audit finds fundamental weaknesses and failings within Morecambe Town Council”—I have attached a link for the Minister’s perusal. It was found, after an audit by Internal Audit Yorkshire, that there were serious problems with funds used for payments from different accounts to linked suppliers. Mr Trevaskis, the town council clerk, stated in the article:

“Morecambe Town Council will be considering the matters raised in the audit report and intend to publish the report alongside a statement on October 1 2020.”

A statement was published; it was a two-page apology and an admission of irregularities due to lack of officer scrutiny. The auditor was not paid and a court date was set. Mr Trevaskis appeared at Skipton county court only a few weeks ago, with the chairperson of the town council present, for non-payment to the auditor. I was told that a Daily Mail reporter was also there. The town council defence and counterclaim was immediately thrown out by the judge. The basis of the town council defence for the non-payment was given by Mr Trevaskis, who stated that the audit was not done properly and that there were losses. The losses were not specified; however, this relates to the appointment of another auditor and external work by the watchdog PKF Littlejohn, costing the town council a further £4,359.

This case is estimated to have cost £3,500 plus extra costs, bringing this debacle to around £10,000 in costs to the Morecambe taxpayer. That response was surprising, because a public statement released from the town council and Mr Trevaskis previously concurred with this audit. In the counterclaim to Skipton County Court, he also claimed, and I quote—

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy)

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, I want to check that he is not speaking about a live court proceeding, but one that is already completed.

Photo of David Morris David Morris Conservative, Morecambe and Lunesdale

It is completed; I can confirm that. Thank you for your intervention, Mr Hosie, to make that clear.

In his counterclaim to Skipton county court, he claimed:

“Mr Trevaskis also sits on the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) for its local council award scheme, so has significant experience and knowledge of the requirements of auditing local authorities.”

When this court appearance was reported on Beyond Radio, covering the Morecambe and Lancaster district, he responded:

“Following a recent independent review by the National Association of Local Councils, Morecambe Town Council has also been recognised nationally for its high standards in transparency, responsible governance and exceptional community impact, becoming the first council in Lancashire to receive a quality gold award for its achievements in the last two years.”

Interestingly, there is absolutely no mention of him on the NALC website. The problem with these statements, if true, is that, if Mr Trevaskis is on the award scheme board of the National Association of Local Councils, this would not appear to be an independent gold-quality award for Morecambe Town Council.

This is not the first time that Mr Trevaskis has run a parish council where late or non-payment of bills has occurred. Indeed, his own parish council of Hale, which he ran at the time, had the bailiffs calling for non-payment. That was reported in the Liverpool Echo in August 2019, when it was said that the parish council was in chaos and financial transactions were being done on the back of event flyers.

Mr Trevaskis was also a director of a company called the Cheshire Clerk Ltd. That company has had an application to strike it off, yet it has been stopped from being struck off, as somebody made a complaint to the Companies House registrar in January 2022. He has not disclosed that as an interest as a councillor on his Halton Borough Council website. He has not submitted a confirmation certificate to carry on trading, yet it is still listed as active, presumably until whatever complaint prevented the closure of this company is resolved. That is not good or proper compliance from Morecambe’s proper officer, or chief executive officer, as he prefers to be known.

That is the fifth company over the years of which Mr Trevaskis has been a director. Most appear to have been struck off with no accounts. All companies are operating out of a residential address in Halton, near Liverpool. The house is obscured on Google Earth but, in a different setting, it is plain to see that it is a domestic residence. So why has office space increased from £6,000 to £15,000? I sincerely hope there are no expense claims by Mr Trevaskis for carrying out his duties from a spare room, as that would be subsidy to the other parish councils where he is also clerk.

The town council is now advertising to hire a financial officer, salaried at £30,000-plus. Given the recent court appearances, previous record, and any advice given that has been the cause of this debate, Morecambe Town Council should seriously question the expensive level of service and supposed expertise that Mr Trevaskis is charging the taxpayers for.

With local elections in full swing, again Mr Trevaskis emailed the town councillors—not other candidates standing—a crib sheet of excuses for why the exorbitant budget had to be inflicted on the taxpayers, apparently for their own good, because the candidates are facing fierce criticism on the doorsteps covering the town council. One excuse was to blame the Conservatives for requesting the town council to ringfence £80,000 for Morecambe lights. That is, again, incorrect and purposefully misleading.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy)

Order. I am conscious that this is only a half-hour debate and we are now 20 minutes into it. I hope there will be sufficient time for the Minister to respond.

Photo of David Morris David Morris Conservative, Morecambe and Lunesdale

I am literally on the last two pages. Thank you for reminding me of the time, Mr Hosie.

The excuse was reported to me as breaking purdah, because on page 10 of the budget the amount is £20,000 ringfenced as lower match funding. The other 90%, which comes from the Conservative-led city council for the next few years, totals £425,000.

To sum up, since I became the MP 13 years ago, Morecambe and the surrounding area has prospered. We have had hundreds of millions of pounds in Government investment. Just to scratch the surface, there is the link road, sea wall defences, the prestigious Eden Project North and, very recently, more millions to finish off the majestic winter gardens. That is without going into public service upgrades, new builds and business partnerships. The area of deprivation in Morecambe has reduced by 10% since 2011, according to the Office for National Statistics. That has not been easy, and the antics of the town council put all that at risk, with its ongoing legacy of super-taxation, which is causing a cost of living crisis that is unique to my Morecambe constituents. I call for a Government taskforce to investigate this matter urgently.

Where does one start to sum up? We have what is believed to be the highest council tax rise in the country—237%. Some councillors and officers are not adhering to the Nolan principles. The budget has questionable content and fabricated figures. There is a wealth fund created out of Morecambe taxpayers to supposedly buy land that is not for sale, and architects have charged fees twice for a building that has had no planning permission, sought on land that the town council does not own and is already owned by the city council. There is an intention to borrow against this money, causing more precept rises and a further cost of living crisis for my constituents. We have a part-time clerk on over £50,000 who admits the lack of scrutiny in an audit report, goes to court, was okay and loses £10,000 for not paying the same auditor. We have wages doubling, £25,000 grants given to charities and political parties paying themselves twice from the taxpayer.

What is needed is auditor or an official regulator from the Department to ascertain whether the conduct of the town council is fit and proper and legally compliant, given the exorbitant tax rises and various excuses given to do so. Yesterday, I had a meeting with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who assures me that he will take advice and see what he can do in this extraordinary case. I have full faith in him to do so.

Thank you very much for your patience and time, Mr Hosie. My speech has been long winded, but it just scratches the surface of a very complicated issue.

Photo of Lee Rowley Lee Rowley Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 4:23, 18 April 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I am grateful to my hon. Friend David Morris for raising this issue and organising the debate. This is an important subject. Those of us who have parish and town councils in our patches, or those of us, like me, who have had the opportunity to work with parish and town councils in a ministerial role, know how important they are for local communities. I know what a difference they can make and how much work goes into ensuring that parish and town councils and councillors make a difference in, and improve, their local areas. There are over 9,000 councils in the country, and I am grateful for the work they do, including in my own patch of North East Derbyshire.

This is also an important subject because it is important for my hon. Friend who secured this debate. He is a champion for Morecambe. We hear him in the Chamber week in, week out, being that extremely strong voice for his constituency. I congratulate him on his recent successes, which he outlined—in particular, Eden Project North, which will be transformative for the area that he has the privilege to represent. In the time that I have, let me briefly go through the legal position that town and parish councils operate under. I will then comment on the points my hon. Friend has made.

My hon. Friend speaks passionately and clearly about the challenge of a council tax increase driven by the increase in a precept from Morecambe Town Council. As he is aware, council tax is set by local authorities—in this instance that includes a town council—and they decide what level of council tax they need to raise. The Government set referendum principles for some, but not all, councils each year. Where councils set excessive increases, they have to go to referendum. Increases are usually within the bounds of around 5% for other council tiers.

We have not traditionally applied referendum principles to town and parish councils, but we have said very clearly that all tiers of council should exercise restraint when they are setting council tax increases. This was made clear in the consultation for the local government finance settlement for 2023 to 2024. We stated that the Government continuing to not set referendum principles was contingent on town and parish councils taking all available steps to mitigate the need for council tax increases and the Government seeing clear evidence of restraint. It is the case that the thousands of town and parish councils will face different challenges and perform different functions, but it is also the case—I want it to be clearly noted in this debate—that we expect town and parish councils to be restrained in their council tax increases.

My hon. Friend raises points about powers and in particular the disclosure of information. He references the local government transparency code of 2015. The code is a statutory instrument that contains two elements: a mandatory section and a section of recommendations. The requirement to publish invoices over £500 and to publish procurement card transactions is mandatory. Where that is not done, or where there is a concern that it is not done, we recommend in the first instance that the authority is contacted, following their complaints procedure, and then the monitoring officer of the principal authority is contacted.[This section has been corrected on 26 April 2023, column 6MC — read correction] Finally, there is the opportunity to go to the local government ombudsman if there remain concerns.

A number of points were raised about the approach of the town council to its precept raising and decisions that it is making about how to utilise that precept. Ultimately, because there needs to be enough flexibility in the system, decisions about how precepts are set, how much they rise by and how they are applied is mainly down to the town or parish council itself. However, it is important that restraint is shown. My hon. Friend has made important points, and I agree, having had a superficial look at the budget—which he has kindly provided—that there are a number of relatively odd things happening here. It is a question of fact, which all residents of Morecambe will be able to see by accessing the documentation, that there are significant increases in the amount of spending expected here and the amount of precept being raised. There is an opportunity to comment on that at the ballot box in a couple of weeks. There are also opportunities through the complaints procedures that I have referenced and the principal authorities, which can also be pursued by residents and those who are interested in this matter.

As my hon. Friend indicates, we have spoken several times about this. As a Minister for local government, I know that the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has also taken an interest in this. We will take back all the points from this debate and consider them from a policy perspective. We must ensure that parish councils work going forward. I would be very happy to talk to my hon. Friend about any specifics outside this debate if that would be helpful.

The vast majority of town and parish councils do incredible work, as do councils of all tiers, day in, day out, to ensure that local residents and communities thrive and improve. In any system with thousands of different entities, that cannot always be the case, and where there is challenge, problems and poor behaviour, that absolutely should be raised. It is absolutely the case that light should be shone on it and that transparency ultimately wins the day. I wish my hon. Friend well in the work he is doing to highlight the challenges he sees. I am happy to continue the conversation and thank him for the opportunity to be able to contribute today.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10 (6)).