Withdrawal of Breckland grant could force parishes to raise council tax precepts

Breckland Council. Picture: Ian Burt

Breckland Council. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: IAN BURT

Parish and town councils in Breckland may be forced to increase their share of council tax bills after district cabinet members decided to withdraw grants totalling £305,000.

Last year, the district council issued the money to smaller town and parish councils – a sum made available by the government to compensate for changes in the council tax benefit scheme.

But while that money was specifically allocated to towns and parishes for 2013/14, senior councillors were told that there was no legal obligation to distribute it.

At this morning's meeting, the district's ruling cabinet agreed the grant should be withdrawn for next year.

The decision will leave some parishes with the stark choice of cutting services or making up the shortfall by raising their precepts – the money they collect via the council tax bill to pay for the services they provide in their communities.

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Roger Atterwill, parish council chairman at Swanton Morley, near Dereham, said last year's grant of £2,400 was the equivalent of about 6pc of the parish precept.

'Last year's grant prevented us from putting up the precept by an increased amount. If they have withdrawn it, the only option, unfortunately, will be to pass it on via an increase in our precept.

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'I am not thrilled about it, but we live in difficult times. There is increasing pressure on us to do more as parishes, and things like grass-cutting and maintaining footpaths are being taken on from the district and county councils. They can keep passing things down the line but ultimately parish councils have not got anywhere to pass them on to. The buck stops with us, and if we wanted to maintain services at the current level, we would be looking at a rise of 6pc just to stand still.'

Of the 92 town and parish councils given a grant last year, 61 took the payment as a windfall, and did not use it to offset their council tax precept. But 31 of them did incorporate the money into their 2013-14 budget in order to reduce their precept request.

Ellen Jolly, executive member for finance at Breckland Council, said: 'At the time, parishes were informed that this was a transitional grant which Breckland was under no legal obligation to distribute, indeed, many other authorities did not offer such support. The decision taken today reflects this and will ensure that Breckland is able to maintain its finances in the best possible way to safeguard the district's frontline services while at the same time enabling parishes to develop sustainable budgets for the future.'

Dereham and Swaffham were among the town councils which didn't use the grant to budget for a reduction in their precepts last year.

Neither have yet agreed their budgets for next year, but Dereham town clerk Tony Needham said because the council had budgeted for the £63,000 grant as a windfall last year, its removal would not necessarily force a precept rise.

However Richard Bishop, clerk of Swaffham Town Council, could not rule out either a precept rise or a reduction in expenditure.

He said: 'We did plan for this eventuality last year, but obviously it will mean that we have to look slightly differently at our budget-setting this year. We have just started to go through all our budget headings to see if there are any genuine savings to be made or whether we have to look at the services we provide. It is not a process we want to be doing but we have to challenge every single figure, and asking whether we should be passing on this expense to the council tax payers or are there savings and cuts we need to make.

'It is too early to say whether there will be a larger-than-normal increase (in precept), but this is obviously putting a bit more pressure on.'

Jane Scarrott, parish liaison officer for Norfolk Association of Local Councils said: 'For those towns and parishes who decided last year to reduce their precept, to keep costs down for parishioners, and make up the money they had budgeted for with the grant it could appear that they are raising their precept request significantly, even though what they are budgeting to do is no more than before. In fact, they will only be setting a similar budget to previous years.

'Should they reduce their budget so as not to show a large precept rise then services could be curtailed. On top of other authority budgets being cut this could be lead to greater detriment to parishioners.'

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