Lymington Times – 16 February 2002
Parish Councils face soaring costs and declining membership as a result of Whitehall red tape, New Forest East MP Julian Lewis said this week.
"Parish Councils in the Forest, on the Waterside and elsewhere play a vital role to giving a say to local people about local issues. But now they face being regulated out of existence",
said Dr Lewis, who has written to Local Government Minister, Nick Raynsford, to spell out his concerns. In his letter, Dr Lewis said that one constituent had told him:
"It seems that the present Government is determined to do away with Parish Councils".
The MP pointed out that a consultation paper in November had outlined proposals for "quality" Parish Councils.
"In order to obtain new sources of funding, Parish Councils will be obliged to meet rigid centrally-set targets. The Government is effectively imposing a blueprint of rigid conformity on Parish Councils, but I believe this approach is wrong. Councils should be given freedoms automatically, rather than having to 'earn' them. Only if councils fail should such freedoms be curtailed."
His letter continued that the Local Government White Paper had signalled the introduction of new red tape.
"Many Parish Councils will now be subject to the bureaucratic Best Value system. The White Paper concedes that the costs of audit and Best Value will be up to £30,000 per year per Parish Council, and Parish Councils on average could face higher audit costs of at least nine percent."
Referring to mandatory codes of conduct under the Local Government Act 2000, Dr Lewis told the Minister:
"Many Parish Councils are concerned that these new regulations are too Draconian, especially considering that Parish Councils do not control sizeable budgets.
"There is great concern about the proposed register of Parish Councillors’ interests, including their employment, business and any property they own; the requirement to register any gift or hospitality over £25; and the requirement to disclose any personal interests or interest of their spouse or relatives, and withdraw from the room if those interests are discussed."
Dr Lewis's letter concluded:
"The code fails to distinguish between major and minor breaches. Overwhelmingly Parish Councillors are honest and well intentioned. The introduction of such strict rules may cause some to give up their voluntary work and discourage others from standing. What is needed is a much lighter touch and Government interventions should be risk-based and not indiscriminate."
Speaking later, the MP stated:
"I value the work of our Parish Councillors but I fear these regulations could result in fewer people willing to become involved in Parish Councils across the country. If that were to happen, we might see the Labour Government trying to abolish them altogether."