THE full cost of the biggest shake-up of local government in Swindon in almost 20 years has been revealed for the first time.
Residents look set to be faced with increases of up to 11.3 per cent when their final council tax bills arrive in the coming months.
Even those in the least affected areas will still see their tax go up by more than six per cent.
The increases in Swindon look likely to be among the highest in the country.
Last week, the council’s cabinet approved a budget that will see the part of the council tax it controls going up by an average of 4.99 per cent across the borough.
The Government has instructed local authorities to avoid ‘excessive’ increases and to achieve this, a cap of 4.99 per cent was introduced.
Three per cent of that must be spent on providing social care services to vulnerable adults while the remaining 1.99 per cent can go towards general expenses.
Faced with the mounting cost of social care and the need to save millions of pounds from its budget in the coming years, Swindon Borough Council has decided to impose the full 4.99 per cent increase.
Those in the previously unparished area will pay 3.1 per cent more and those in the areas with existing parish councils 7.2 per cent more.
In addition, the amount that residents pay towards the police and the fire service will also go up.
But it is the final part of the council tax bill, the parish council precept, that has seen this year’s bills rocket to record levels.
In November, councillors voted to introduce new parish councils to cover the 59 per cent of the borough that was not already parished.
They did this to pave the way for a transfer of frontline services that the council said it could no longer afford to provide - everything from cutting the grass to running community centres and more in between.
The decision has seen parish council budgets increase to levels equivalent, in some cases, to the size of a small town.
The new Central Swindon South parish alone will be responsible for a budget of more than £2m.
In response to this realisation, every parish council in the borough has had to demand more money from its residents - some have had to put the precept up by 50 per cent.
Parishes are not subject to a cap on their tax increases. Critics of the parishing project have accused the administration of using this fact to get around the Government’s limits on excessive hikes.
The five areas set to see the most significant increases were either newly parished or split from each other under the controversial plans.
Worst hit is Blunsdon, with an increase of 11.3 per cent, closely followed by the urban parishes of south and north Swindon central, with jumps of 10.8 and 10.6 per cent.
Even St Andrews, where it was argued that a split from Blunsdon would be in the interests of residents, will see a hike of almost nine per cent.
Labour leader says residents are paying for Westminster cuts
Labour opposed the parishing plans at every turn, but the group’s leader has placed the blame not on the local council, but on central government.
Coun Jim Grant said: “What these council tax increases show is that the Conservative government’s cuts in Westminster are having a real impact on people’s pockets.
“After years of tax cuts to the wealthiest in the country, it is now the group of people Theresa May called the ‘just about managing’ who are being hit the most by these large tax increases.
“And people are receiving these large council-tax increases at a time when inflation is increasing, which will also have an impact on people’s pockets.
“I do not blame the local police, fire service and councils for these increases.
“The Government has stripped so much funding from local public service providers that they face the choice of either using the tax raising powers they have, or not providing essential services to help keep people safe and their neighbourhoods clean and tidy.
“It is a lose-lose situation.”
Tories stand firm in the face of criticism
The Conservative councillor whose job it is to set the budget has defended the decision to offload services to parish councils, despite the huge tax rises that residents will see as a result.
Russell Holland, the cabinet member for finance, said: “While it is a matter for parish councils to decide what is right for their area, we are grateful for all the hard work that they have put in as they prepare to take on some services from the borough.
“While this will mean that there are some changes, we believe that this is the best way to secure sustainable services for the future.”
The move represents the most significant change to the way that Swindon is governed since it split from Wiltshire Council in 1997.
The council argues that something had to be done in the face of unprecedented financial pressures brought about by the ever-increasing cost of adult social care and ongoing reductions in central government funding.
Services that couldn’t have been envisaged as being the responsibility of parish councils now sit firmly in their remit.
Despite a lengthy effort to persuade residents that the proposals would usher in a new era of local accountability, there is still little evidence of public support.
At the many public meetings on the issue, the case was put to residents that either the parishes paid for the frontline services they value, or they simply would not continue.
Claims by the opposition that residents could see precepts in excess of £100 were rebuked, but as the list of parish responsibilities has grown in the months that followed, those worst fears have become a reality.
And after the borough council had made their final decision, it was left to the parish and shadow parish councillors to make the best of a challenging situation.
Parish councils face unprecedented challenge
Sine November, councils across the town have been faced with financial decisions the scale of which they perhaps never imagined making.
In Blunsdon, the forced split from the former Blunsdon St Andrews parish saw the precept rocket from £18 to £89 per year overnight.
Parish chairman Ian Jankinson said: “We had fantastic economies of scale in the old parish – without the new services we achieved the lowest precept in the town over the past four or five years.
“When the borough council pursued a split of the parish, the councillors fought against it for 14 months. Sadly, we lost.”
While Blunsdon’s per household charge has been adversely impacted by its lack of population density, the opposite can be said for one of Swindon’s new parishes.
Central Swindon South stretches from the town centre all the way to Badbury Park.
Residents in the densely populated and mainly urban parish will be paying 10.8 per cent more in 2017/18 than they did last year in the previously unparished area.
“The precept is higher than we wanted but we don’t believe the council should have gone down this route in the first place”, said parish chairman Chris Watts.
“Because they pushed it through so quickly, even though some of us asked for a year’s delay, we weren’t given enough time to look for competitive quotes or even look to TUPE staff over.
“We had no choice but to go with the figures given to us by the council.”
Coun Watts said the shadow parish council felt it was important that the precept they set did not tie the hands of those who will be elected to take over in May.
It is the exception to the rule among those parishes directly impacted by the parishing reconfiguration.
The overall increase for residents in the new parish will be just over six per cent in the coming year.
Chairman Dale Heenan said: “Nythe Parish Council did not support its expansion, but we have worked hard to set a budget that includes Liden and Eldene and continues the good foundations of the last two years, whilst at the same time keeping the council tax to one of the lowest in Swindon and Wiltshire.
"The 14p a week increase for a Band D property will see local residents in Nythe benefiting from a parish being able to do more.
“Residents of Liden and Eldene will see better maintenance of their green open spaces and an amount has been set aside towards helping Eldene Community Centre.
“No one area will be subsidising another and we have been transparent through the budget process.”
Parish Council elections will be held across Swindon in May.
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