In my job as Minister for Local Government I talk to lots of people making important decisions about our everyday lives.
In many cases, those decisions – such as where housing development takes place, how a school is run or how often the bins are emptied – have a greater impact on our day-to-day lives than anything decided in Westminster.
One minute I can be talking to a metropolitan mayor with a budget of many millions of pounds and the next a parish councillor with responsibility for a few hundred pounds. And what I’ve learnt as a minister is that spending power is no guarantee of results. What matters is effective representation and our most local of councillors – parish and town – need no lessons in being close to their communities.
It is that closeness to the people they represent that is the strength of local councils and, as I see it, my role as minister is to give parish and town councillors the power and opportunity to do an even better job.
That includes not burdening them with excessive bureaucracy. One of the first things I did as minister, working with colleagues in other departments, was to ensure that the new data protection regulations – GDPR – did not force parish councils to nominate/employ a data protection officer to police the new rules about the information they hold.
Then, in the recent Budget, I was delighted to see my work with the Treasury come to fruition with the Chancellor’s announcement that public toilets (often run by parish councils) should qualify for 100 per cent Business Rates Relief – what my department officials like to call relief on relief!
Another Budget measure I am proud to have successfully argued for is the £8m of grants made available to cover the VAT charged on refurbishment of village halls. This will be a huge boost for many of the ambitious upgrading projects that are in the pipeline but communities may be struggling to fund.
A measure which pre-dates my time as Minister but I am keen to foster further is neighbourhood planning which gives parish councils greater power to influence the planning process by, for example, indicating preferred sites, types and styles for future development, be it housing or commercial.
Also well established now is the Community Right to Bid for buildings or land deemed to be a community asset important to the social interests of that community. In our part of North Yorkshire, it has been well used with 21 Assets of Community Value having been registered so far.
Great examples include the community pub initiative at Exelby, near Bedale, where the process has been important in rescuing the Green Dragon from closure, and tennis courts in Stokesley and allotments in Bedale which the communities are keen to protect from possible redevelopment.
Because I passionately believe in the work of small local councils I am now reviewing the guidance that helps communities create new ones. There are parts of the country which are “unparished”. I want to ensure it is as easy as possible for those communities which wish to form new councils to represent them to do so.
One final point about the role of parish and town councillors. We should never forget they receive no payment for their work. They are fantastic community servants and deserve our respect and thanks.