Last Friday, Shropshire Council leader Peter Nutting wrote to Robert Jenrick, the minister for local government, asking for support for town and parish councils because their finances have become stretched during the Covid-19 emergency. But Nutting refused to pass on any government money to parish councils. This is not the first time Shropshire Council has hijacked money destined to be used to support parishes.
The language of Nutting’s letter is extraordinary. He declares that Shropshire Council is “my council”.
Peter, the council is not yours. It’s ours. Councils are democratically elected bodies not sole ownership businesses.
The letter gets more bizarre. Nutting declares: “To me I see that parish councils are the ones that add the jam and the cream to the cake we principal councils bake.” That is a sentence of florid prose on par with “it was a dark and stormy night”. I have never seen expressions like it in council letters where formality is the rule of the day. But everyone is obsessed with baking these days.
There are good points in the letter. Shropshire Council has at last recognised the important role that parish councils are playing in supporting the county’s most vulnerable residents:
“This current crisis has really emphasised to me the role that Parish Councils are playing in supporting some of our most vulnerable residents, not just through helping them with their shopping or getting prescriptions or walking their dog, but also sign posting them to help that either the voluntary & community sector can provide or that we with social care responsibilities can provide.”
Almost every local government body is struggling financially. The government is pumping millions into councils. But some councils have been the edge of financial ruin for a while because of their dislike of raising council tax, the swingeing cuts to council budgets and the government’s abject failure to resolve how adult social care is funded.
Shropshire Council has received grants of £17,917,708 from Whitehall to help it cope with the Covid-19 crisis. There was no mention of town and parish councils in Robert Jenrick’s announcement of this funding. But in a letter praising the work of parishes, Jenrick said:
“I have made £3.2 billion of additional funding available to councils, with the latest tranche of £1.6 billion including a larger share for lower tier councils.”
But Nutting’s letter makes it clear that he is not making a penny of “his” council’s £18 million available to town and parish councils:
“Shropshire Council’s share of that £1.6bn didn’t even cover our losses so however much I would like to help them, I have to look at the greater good of the county as a whole and protect statutory functions.”
We have been here before. At the end of 2014, Conservative councillors, including Peter Nutting, voted to withhold £1m from town and parish councils despite ministers telling them to pay the money out.
Shirehall has always been something of a black hole. It draws in money but we don’t see much of that locally.
Peter Nutting is now holding back cash that the government thinks could be coming to town and parish councils. He says:
“As Leader of Shropshire Council, I see my role is showing great leadership across the county ensuring Shropshire remains a great place to live, work and invest and my staff are making great strides, but I need those larger Town & Parish Councils to help me bring back that confidence in people to return to trading locally, shopping locally, living our lives locally. Many of those Town Councils are in a great position to show local leadership and help with that regeneration.”
Robert Jenrick presented the daily Covid-19 tonight. He did not offer more money. That means that town and parish councils are on their own.
Although Peter Nutting’s letter, with its purple prose, makes the case for more cash for lower tier councils that money is unlikely to come. The case for town and parish councils helping us emerge from the Covid-19 emergency has been made. But neither national or local government seems to want to pay towards helping localities help local people and businesses.