wargrave parish council

An Open Letter to the People of Wargrave

Dear Wargrave residents,

Five months ago, I became one of your parish councillors. I confess, that I had little idea what Wargrave Parish Council did before then. I knew more than most, probably, knowing what the technical function of a parish council and having more than average familiarity with local government. But still, the day to day, meeting to meeting tasks. They were a mystery.

So what now? What about five months on?

Well, for starters, I know just how hard the councillors work. Unpaid, largely unappreciated, they do more than simply the two meetings a month. I can’t speak for other councils, but Wargrave sends a councillor to look at every planning application. We only give recommendations, which the Borough Council as the planning authority doesn’t always agree with us. But a great deal of professionalism goes into every decision.

In the last five months I have had a few notable personal highlights and achievements:

  • Every employee of the council is paid above the living wage. I was all set to make a stand on this at the budget meeting, but gratifyingly found I didn’t have to. Where government drifts towards, Wargrave boldly leads the way!
  • We have made a stand against further development in the flood plain. Every year the Thames floods, and yet there seems no end to the planning applications to concrete over yet more land, making the situation yet worse. Wokingham’s record on backing us up has been disappointingly poor, but we do what we can.
  • Hundreds of pounds of grants have already been distributed to worthy causes across the parish. Reading through the requests for grants I was shocked by just how many charities go about their work helping residents without a word of recognition. We might not be able to give much, but I am hugely glad to give what we can.

So in that light, I am extremely sad to be having to tender my resignation. Yes, as of tomorrow my time in Wargrave (six years) and indeed in Wokingham borough (seven) will be at an end as Ashleigh and I move to central Reading. I have already attended my last meeting and given my resignation to the council and its clerk.

This letter is for the residents who I have been representing.

It has been an honour to sit on your parish council. I have enjoyed the experience immensely, and it is a fantastic day to contribute to the community. There is now a vacancy on the council, and I would strongly urge any resident with the spare time to consider filling it. But above all, your councillors work very hard, and do a very good job. You are very well served by them.


Matthew S. Dent
Former councillor, West Ward
Wargrave Parish Council.

Uncle Eric’s Parish Precept Pickle

scheming eric pickles

It’s that time of year again — all across the country, local authorities are setting their budgets for 2013/14. From the big county councils and unitary boroughs, right down to the tiniest of parish councils, and Wargrave is no exception.

Last week, I and the other councillors on Wargrave Parish council debated and discussed our own budget. Decisions were made on the rates charged for services like the youth centre, and spending on upkeep of areas within our remit. We also made a decision on the precept, the element of council tax set at parish level.

Now, Uncle Eric (Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles) has already said that local authorities of city, borough and council level have to hold a referendum if they want to raise their council tax by more than 2% (a blog will be forthcoming in the near future on that, believe me). This doesn’t yet apply to parish level, but there are fears it will do  next year.

Anyway, in the course of setting the precept for the next financial year, an interesting problem has come to light in the drafting of the Localism Act.

Almost all parish councillors will live in the parish. Most will pay council tax in the parish. Some may even own property in the parish. Thus, they all have a personal and pecuniary interest in the level of the precept.

In the normal course of parish council business, if I have an interest in a matter under discussion (say, a planning application by my neighbour, which will potentially impact upon the value of my own house) I must declare it and leave the room for the duration that it is under discussion.

The old parish council code of conduct, under schedule 1, paragraph 10 of the Local Authorities (Model Code of Conduct) Order 2007, contained an exemption from the declaration rules in the case of setting the precept:

You do not have a prejudicial interest in any business of the authority where that business — … (c) relates to the functions of your authority in respect of— … (vi) setting council tax or a precept under the Local Government Finance Act 1992.”

However, that code of conduct was replaced under the Localism Act 2011. Now the provision dealing with declarations of interest is as follows:

(2) If the interest is not entered in the authority’s register, the member or co-opted member must disclose the interest to the meeting, but this is subject to section 32(3).

The member or co-opted member may not — (a) participate, or participate further, in any discussion of the matter at the meeting, or (b) participate in any vote, or further vote, taken on the matter at the meeting — but this is subject to section 33.

As you may notice, the exemption for setting precepts is gone. But it does mention s33 of the act, so what does that say?

(1) A relevant authority may, on a written request made to the proper officer of the authority by a member or co-opted member of the authority, grant a dispensation relieving the member or co-opted member from either or both of the restrictions in section 31(4) in cases described in the dispensation.

(2) A relevant authority may grant a dispensation under this section only if, after having had regard to all relevant circumstances, the authority — (a) considers that without the dispensation the number of persons prohibited by section 31(4) from participating in any particular business would be so great a proportion of the body transacting the business as to impede the transaction of the business…

So an exempting disposition can be granted, but it has to be done so specifically. Hence the Wargrave Parish Council clerk rushing around forms for us to sign so that we could decide the budget, last week. So when we approve the new budget tomorrow, it will be entirely legal — but how many parish budgets across the country won’t be?

Most people won’t have read the Localism Act, and won’t notice this change. Indeed, the lack of comment on it suggests that it might have escaped the notice of many who really ought to know.

To me it looks like either Uncle Eric has laid a cruel and unusual trap for parish councils, or he has no idea what effect his flagship piece of legislation has. Neither of which is encouraging…

Farewell 2012

2013Well, what do we make of 2012? It came, it stayed a while, and now it’s off on its way again.

I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed with it, standing at the precipice of 2013 and looking back. Part of it is, as Julian Ware-Lane said, that we have had another twelve months of fairly disasterous Conservative governance — including a double-dip recession and probably putting us on track for a triple-dip.

There was also the profound disappointment of the, ahem, “end of the world“. T.S. Eliot’s prophetic line turned out to be a bit off, as rather than a whimper it came with a cynical spasm of bad jokes.

There were good points, naturally. Most notably, after over a damned year of searching I am now gainfully employed. It’s such a relief to actually a) have something to do all day, and b) have money coming in and being able to plan ahead. I know I’m one of the lucky ones, and for that I am grateful.

I have also become a parish councillor, which sounds a whole lot more important than it is. But it gives me a say over local planning applications, and I am already resolving to take a hard line on building on the floodplain. This year has been beset with flooding, and paving over more drainage areas will only make the situation worse.

This is usually the part where I make pledges for what I’m going to do in the new year. Whilst I have some ideas of what I want to achieve, I’m not going to lay them out here. Simply, I’ll only say that I want to be happy. A noble aim, I think.

So have a good new years, my readers. And I sincerely hope that your 2013 will be even better than your 2012.

Introducing Wargrave’s newest parish councillor

I’m a real glutton for punishment, apparently. Not only have I started a new job today, but I have also been co-opted onto Wargrave Parish Council, as a representative of the West Ward.

This isn’t going to get too much menti0n on this blog, I wouldn’t have thought. For one thing, politics doesn’t really come into parish matters — which revolve, for the most part, around parks and planning. But it does give an interesting perspective on local matters and living.

So there we go. After two unsuccessful elections bids, I am finally Councillor Dent! And farewell to my Monday evenings…

Council Tax Revisited

Cllrs Bob Pitts and John Halsall were full of praise when Tory Wokingham Borough froze its share of council tax. Will they be criticising their parish-level colleagues in Wargrave for raising theirs?

The other week, as Wokingham’s local budget drew closer, I had a look at the fallacy inherent in the Conservative obsession with council tax cuts/freezes at all cost. There were a lot of things I had to say about it, chiefly calling for a more nuaunced look at the issue than the “cuts good, rises bad” dichotomy that they stick to.

But in my holding forth on Wokingham’s budget, I’d overlooked this little gem in The Henley Standard. Henley has a town council, under South Oxfordshire District Council, so it makes sense that the Standard would focus on town/parish council level. Here’s what they say (emphasis added):

“The biggest rise is in Sonning Common at 20 per cent, or £6.67 a year extra. Other rises include Peppard at three per cent, Wargrave (2.49 per cent) and Watlington (one per cent). Benson Parish Council is reducing its precept from £69.14 to £68.57 per household.”

I reckon a lot of readers will be particularly shocked at the percentage figure for Sonning Common, but I’m not going to pass judgement on it directly, as I don’t known enough about the parish’s situation. The fact that Wargrave faces an increase interests me.

The thing is that council tax has a number of constituents. There’s the part that goes to the local authority, but for Wargrave residents there are also the precepts charged by Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service, and the parish council, as well as the likes of police authorities. It’s already widely known that the Borough Council have taken a one-off government grant to freeze their share, and so have RBFRS.

But parish councils get no such grant, so if they are to freeze or cut their precepts, then they have to bear the pain of it themselves. That isn’t to say that they shouldn’t cut or freeze precepts, but it does seem a bit of a cheek for the Conservatives in power at grant-gifted Borough Council level to be laying into Woodley Town Council for not cutting their precepts.

I don’t really know that much about Wargrave Parish Council’s activities and expenditures. They did have a non-functioning website, but that now seems to have died off completely. As such, I’m not going to lash out with fire and brimstone at them for daring to raise precepts, as I suspect they play a significant role in the excellent biennial Wargrave Festival, and there may be very valid reasons for a minor increase.

However, the two Conservative councillors who represent the village at Borough Council, Bob Pitts and John Halsall (both of whom live outside of the parish, though still within the ward- in Ruscombe and Remenham respectively) both lent considerable rhetorical support to the local budget, praising Wokingham for freezing its share of council tax. Given that Wargrave Parish Council is conservative with a small c if not with a capital C, and given that Mr Halsall will be standing against me for re-election in May, I wonder whether they would support the parish councillors, or damn them as their colleagues did Woodley Town Council?

There is room for both hypocrisy and idiocy here.