SWINDON Council’s Conservative administration has defended its controversial decision to refuse parish councils a share of a £9.9m Government grant intended to plug a cut in council tax income caused by benefits reforms.
Council tax benefit will be replaced with council tax support in April and one effect is that homes receiving the new benefit towards the charge will no longer be included in council tax calculations, reducing the amount of council tax income.
To offset this impact without the need for councils to increase council tax or cut further expenditure, the Government gave extra cash to authorities which send out the council tax bills, and encouraged them to share some with parish councils.
Swindon Council gets £9.9m, of which £167,000 would have to be handed out to mitigate the impact on parishes. But cabinet decided to keep it to itself, meaning parish councils either have to reduce expenditure and/or increase their precept on council tax, which is paid by parishioners.
Coun Dale Heenan, the cabinet member for strategic planning and sustainability, has defended the move in the face of criticism from some parish council chairmen, saying Swindon Council expected parishes to make savings, as Swindon Council has done, to provide the same services at no extra cost in non-parished areas.
He said: “It’s tough times at the moment across all tiers of local government, and parish councils have to make savings. “And, rather than give them one-off additional money this year, the expectation was that parish councils would find these savings themselves, rather than put off savings for another year.
“All the borough council does is collect the money on their behalf. And, instead of giving them additional money, we’re simply asking them to find savings in this year’s budget. That’s all it’s down to.
“Some parish councils have risen to the challenge and agreed freezes, even though they don’t have additional money, and there are others, like Stratton, that have taken the view they have to put up council tax.”
A report to be presented to cabinet today when leaders will formally endorse the decision, shows the average tax income reduction across the parished areas in 2013/14 is 6.2 per cent, compared to 13.8 per cent across non-parished areas.
Coun Heenan added the change was announced by the Government last summer and no parish council had raised any issue with him, But he said the council was always happy to work with parish councils on the issue.