No good deed goes unpunished. Even amidst the ever increasing level of cynicism, it is hard to doubt the motives of those willing to serve on parish and town councils. They are not paid. They can hardly be regarded as motivated by the glamour – or wishing to notch up some points for some wider political ambition. Often it is the same people who not only volunteer their time to attend meetings as parish councillors, but who also work on making the various events and projects that have been agreed to become a reality. All the digging and cleaning and baking is done with good cheer – and it is nonetheless worthwhile for that. Yet in seeking modest but tangible way to enhance their local communities, it often seems that their efforts are obstructed.
So I am pleased that the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in the Budget some ways in which the sabotage to their blameless efforts will be ended.
As a result, Rishi Sunak, the Local Government Minister, was able to point out some good news in his speech to the National Association of Local Council this week.
First of all was the effort to maintain public lavatories. There were several jokes in the Chancellor’s Budget statement in the Carry On film tradition. But the issue for our villages – not least those that rely on tourism – is not entirely trivial. Yet when parish councils try to maintain them, rather than let them be closed and boarded up, the parish councils are hit with a bill for Business Rates.
“You told me that many of you wanted to bring much-needed public lavatories under parish control without being stung by business rates – we’ve listened and worked with the Treasury, and I’m sure all of you will have been absolutely delighted with the Chancellor’s announcement in the Budget on Monday: 100 per cent business rate relief when parish councils take over these facilities.
“It’s something that my officials like to call the “relief on relief”
Similarly, where village halls have been maintained or restored, the effort has been penalised rather than rewarded. Again, this perversity has been addressed. As Sunak added in his speech to the conference:
“You also told me that many of you wanted to refurbish your village halls, many of which were built a century ago to commemorate the sacrifice of World War One. Again, we’ve listened, and at Budget the Chancellor outlined plans to provide £8 million of funding for grants equivalent to the VAT chargeable on such refurbishment projects.”
Sometimes, when a local authority has decided to close a tennis court or a playground, it is the plucky efforts of a parish council that has stepped in to take over and maintain the community asset – typically running it better as well as at a much lower cost.
While central Government can establish a Minister for Loneliness and a Commission on Loneliness, the parish councils can actually do something practical. This was a point Sunak acknowledged:
“I know that parish councils will play a pivotal role in understanding loneliness and its pressures on society. It’s something I saw just last week at a coffee morning in the village of Welbury in my constituency. The event was just the kind of community-spirited thing that can really break down barriers that can lead to social isolation and loneliness – reaching out not only to the elderly, but also young mothers in that community.”
None of this means that parish councils get everything right. Sometimes their decisions can be matters of intense controversy – not least on the response to proposed development. However, as I have noted before, the Neighbourhood Development plans (which very often parish and town councils are instrumental in bringing forward) have actually resulted in more new homes – in return for some local say over where they be and what they should look like.
So a good week for the Big Society. Some quiet victories for some of the quiet champions of the community.