CONTROVERSIAL plans to impose new parishes across the whole of Swindon have been given the final go-ahead following a heated meeting of the full council.

The proposals represent the most significant change to the way that Swindon is governed since it split from Wiltshire Council to become a unitary authority almost 20 years ago.

Currently, 41 per cent of households in the town come under 16 existing parish councils.

But from April next year that will increase to 100 per cent with three new councils being introduced to cover the unparished urban area.

Unprecedented financial challenges led members of the borough council to decide they can no longer afford to pay for services such as street cleaning, grass cutting, litter, graffiti removal and minor maintenance while still meeting their legal obligations to care for vulnerable people.

They have already begun the process of transferring responsibility for providing and funding these services to existing parish councils.

But in order to offload that burden across the whole town they have opted to create new councils in the previously unparished areas.

The proposals have been deeply unpopular, with residents and political Parties alike slamming their imposition in the face of fierce opposition.

Introducing the proposals before a packed council chamber on Thursday night, the leader of the council, David Renard, said: “This is the conclusion of a 12-month process, extensive meetings have been held across the whole borough on a number of occasions with revised recommendations.

“I understand that there is a variance of views over where boundaries should be and whether there should be parishes.

“Therefore, inevitably with a report that is as far reaching as this there will be conflicting views.

“On balance, the report before you is what is in the best interests of the borough and of protecting the services that people value.”

Labour councillors took their seats wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘no new parishes’ and as did people in the public gallery.

Labour group leader Coun Jim Grant gave an impassioned speech in opposition to the proposals.

He said: “There is no mandate for this council to pass this community governance review – it will lead to a council tax increase through the back door.

“It will lead to a layer of bureaucracy that nobody wants and it will mean the poor in this town getting poorer.”

He recalled how in May’s local elections, Labour had stood on a platform pledging no new parishes without a referendum – he argued that their strong performance in areas set to be affected by the plans showed their position echoed public sentiment.

He said: “You’ve had over 600 responses, of them 95 per cent were either against parishes or wanted a referendum.

“The Labour group have arranged 15 public meetings attended by around 1,000 people. At those meetings, fewer than ten people were in favour of this parishing plan.

“Nobody has voted for it, nobody has asked for it, and everybody in this town is against it.”

The debate that followed went on for almost two hours, with many councillors wanting to have their say.

Support and opposition to the plans was divided down Party lines - although some Conservative councillors admitted to having had early doubts, they all spoke of being persuaded during the course of the consultation process.

The proposals were passed by 29 votes to 26, with one abstention.

What will this new layer of government mean for me...

How will this change affect me as a Swindon resident?

If the transfer of services goes smoothly and according to plan, then residents should not notice a significant difference from day to day. Grass should continue to be cut, litter cleared and local parks and shared spaces kept in good condition.

Will it cost me more money than I pay now?

In short, yes. The council tax will rise, with a new charge added to the bill, the parish precept. The council estimates that it could be around £45 for a Band D property but it could be even more, maybe £75 or more.

When will the changes come into force?

Shadow authorities will be set up, initially manned by existing borough councillors, by January. They will oversee the transfer of services from the borough and determine how much precept they need to pay for them.

Who is allowed to stand as a parish councillor?

It is hoped elections will then be held in May next year to allow residents to vote for the parish councillors who will represent them moving forward.

Any member of the public will be able to stand in these elections if they wish to get involved in the running of their communities.

What happens if no parish councillors come forward to sit on the new councils?

Given the size and population of the area to be parished, there is a large pool from which to find prospective parish councillors.

The council hopes that enough people will wish to get involved that finding sufficient numbers to hold elections will not be an obstacle.

However, given the levels of opposition it does remain a possibility.

In the event that there are gaps on the new councils, it will be left to the borough to co-opt people on to the council. Where this has happened in the past, the existing borough councillors have been asked to step in and fill the void.

What’s in this for Swindon Borough Council?

The cost of providing care for vulnerable people will soon take up over 80 per cent of the council’s budget. By offloading the cost of providing local services to parish councils they will be better able to meet that demand with their ever-shrinking funds.

Why can’t the council just raise borough council tax?

The answer is that they already are, they’re also making full use of an additional two per cent rise just for adult social care costs.

However it still isn’t enough and if they wanted to charge more still they would have to put it to a referendum. It is not a vote they are likely to win and therefore moving the financial responsibility to new parishes leaves them in a better position to weather the financial storm they are in.