Shropshire Council brings in New Year by pocketing town and parish council cash

How can you trust a public body Shropshire Council when it diverts cash meant for town and parish councils into its own coffers? That’s what it did before Christmas when the cabinet approved a damaging proposal to retain government funds it was told to pass on to local councils.

Ludlow Town Council, which is facing a near 13% cut in its funding, has come out fighting. Speaking to the Ludlow Advertiser on 18 December town clerk Gina Wilding said: “This proposal is unacceptable.” She continued:

Parish and town councils should have a financial framework to assist them in helping deliver local services. This decision is potentially damaging to joint working and the good relationships between local councils and Shropshire Council.

141218_LA_Towns_set_to_feel_grants_cuts_agony

My only disagreement with Gina is that decision is not “potentially damaging”. It is damaging. This decision is nothing other than betrayal of the long standing compact that local councils at all levels work together for the good of the people of Shropshire.

As always, there is a political context. The Conservatives in Westminster don’t want any council tax rises ahead of the 2015 election. Shropshire Council doesn’t want to hike council tax until after the 2017 elections. So the communities department will give Shropshire Council £1.3 million this year to keep its council tax flat.

But the sums in Shropshire Council’s budget still don’t add up. With part-privatisation projects like ip&e – the council’s private company – making a loss and with many social costs soaring, the council is struggling to balance a budget. It’s even handing money intended for the needy back to the government [1].

Shropshire Council is now consulting on whether it should keep the money meant for town and parish councils in its own coffers. The consultation will end after town and parish councils have set their precepts for next year. The councils must guess whether to gamble on the decision being reversed or carried through when they set their precepts, which they must submit to Shropshire Council before the consultation closes. Everyone knows this is yet another sham consultation, just like those we had for the Youth Centre, the Coder Road recycling centre.

Speaking to the Ludlow Advertiser, the Shropshire Council cabinet member overseeing this debacle, Mike Owen, said “there is no legislative or mandatory requirement” to pass this funding on to town and parish councils. That doesn’t mean that there is not a moral imperative to pass on the money. Communities department minister Brandon Lewis has written to Shropshire Council’s leader Keith Barrow telling him to give the money to town and parish councils or defend his actions in public. We have yet to hear that defence.

Ludlow Town Council will not decide on its precept until the beginning of February. To keep on a level playing field, the council will need a 12.7% hike in the precept to replace the £34,000 that Shropshire Council has pocketed from our town. Faced with ever growing demands as Shropshire Council steps back from providing many public services, the town council will be in a tight financial corner.

I am struck by Mike Owen’s comment to the Advertiser: “By no longer paying this grant to town councils and parish councils… It will help us achieve our savings targets for the year.” That’s the way Shropshire Council thinks these days. It thinks only about itself and has forgotten that it only exists to care for our county.

It is time for Shropshire Council to engage with and embrace our county, not to withdraw further into its bunker at Shirehall.

[1] Shropshire Council has returned £63,311 of its Discretionary Housing Payment funding to the Department of Work and Pensions. With use of food banks growing, I can’t believe that this money wasn’t needed in the county.

More information

Back in 2012, the government quite rightly decided to simplify the way that housing benefits are paid, but the changes left town and parish councils out of pocket. At the last minute, after vocal protests from town and parish councils around the country, the communities department topped up unitary and district council grants with the Council Tax Support Grant.

The full list of grants made and estimates of those cancelled for all Shropshire parishes under the Council Tax Support Grant: Allocation of council tax support grant to parish and town councils.

The decision will also be considered by the Performance Management Scrutiny Committee (next meeting just scheduled for 21 January 2015). No one should expect that this committee will do anything other than rubberstamp the proposal. Shropshire Council’s cabinet will then consider the responses to the consultation on 11 February and they will be presented to full council on 25 February. Unless the cabinet decides to withdraw the proposal, the council is bound to vote in favour of the move. Of course, there could be an unheard of rebellion of Shropshire Conservatives against their leadership standing up  the towns and parishes they represent but don’t hold your breath on that one.