I have visited many of the parish and town councils in recent months and plan to meet the remainder in the months ahead. The government has put the principle of “localism” at the heart of its agenda and I want to make sure that it works in practice as well as in theory. This is especially important in Cornwall because we are a dispersed county with a single unitary authority so we need strong town and parish councils as a counterbalance.
Localism means a radical transfer of power downwards: from national government to Cornwall Council, from Cornwall Council to the parish councils and from parish councils to local groups who can get things done. If you give institutions power, then they will develop greater responsibility. If we want to attract talented local activists to stand for election on parish councils then we must give them the tools to do the job. Serious people have no interest in attending a talking shop that gets ignored.
Under the last government, there were a lot of disappointed hopes. Some parish councils say that the old Cornwall Council paid lip service to localism but refused to let go of the purse strings. It is crucial that we get it right this time. The problem with previous attempts is that the balance of power within the relationship was wrong. Local authorities regarded parish councils as mere “stakeholders” to be listened to and talked at. The only way to change this is to change the law so that there is a presumption in favour of parish councils that gives them a proper negotiating position.
Everything the government has done has been aimed at driving this culture change. In future, parish councils will be able to put forward their own plans and put them to a referendum of local residents. If supported, these parish plans will take precedence over the opinions of Cornwall Council planners. A developer who has strong local support will be able, in some circumstances, to by-pass the planning authority altogether through a local referendum.
The government is also going to allow communities to keep all of the council tax on new homes that are built and match that pound for pound with an additional bonus. This creates a powerful incentive for local communities to build housing for local need (but no more). But Cornwall Council will only be able to build the houses it plans, if it gets the agreement of parish councils. This, at long last, gives parishes the negotiating position they need. They should demand their share of the new council tax bonus in return for their agreement to accept some new housing and they can use that money for the things the community wants. This would boost the authority of parish councils, giving them more money and ensuring that they can never be dismissed again.
George Eustice can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.