Towns and parishes working group meets to develop new powers

A working group of town and parish council representatives will meet for the first time next week (Wed September 2) to explore and develop new sets of powers for towns and parishes as part of a future unitary government structure for North Yorkshire.

Stronger together

The group of 23 councillors and clerks from towns and parishes across North Yorkshire has been set up after over 250 town and parish council representatives recently attended a seminar held by North Yorkshire County Council to learn how they could take on new powers to boost grass-root decision making and empower local communities.

The county council has been developing a proposal for a strong single unitary council for North Yorkshire working in a stronger partnership with town and parish councils and parish meetings. 

As the Government is requiring an end to two-tier government in North Yorkshire to secure a devolution deal for a York and North Yorkshire combined mayoral authority, the county council is proposing a single, sustainable council which will end the duplication of a two-tier system and operate at scale to secure maximum efficiency and savings, driving innovation.

However, under the county council proposal the new single council would also be driven by a new dynamic localism that boosts grassroots level decision-making. Town and parish councils would be able to take on additional powers and budget if they want them – such as control of markets and street trading; management of their parks and open spaces; leisure and tourism and arts and cultural provision.

The two areas currently without a town or parish council (Harrogate town and Scarborough town) would also be supported to establish one or more town or parish councils, if that is what local people want.

People, voluntary organisations and businesses would also be given a louder voice via 25 community networks based around market town areas as drivers of renewal and innovation from the bottom up. 

Area constituency committees would oversee their local areas, champion their cause, strengthen relationships with their MPs and make important decisions locally on things including planning and licensing. They would hold a North Yorkshire council to account.

Michael King, the clerk to Whitby Town Council, who has stepped forward to join the working group, has welcomed the chance to explore how towns and parishes can play a more active role in local government. Mr King, who is also chairman of the Society of Local Council Clerks, said: “The opportunities are vast, but the diversity of our town and parish councils in terms of size, scale and capacity underpins all of this, and it is pleasing to hear that it is not a one-size-fits-all, take-it-or-leave it opportunity. It does need to be a dialogue.

“We need to think about what makes each community unique. We are all different. If something is not the same as everywhere else, then that is the thing the town or parish council should be celebrating, delivering or at least commissioning. If the services are universal, then probably the unitary is the right place to deliver them.

“A universal service such as refuse collection is probably similar in Skipton to Scarborough, but towns and parishes can have a real role in place-shaping, whether it be floral displays or children’s play areas or for Whitby it might be having decisions over the harbour.

“We have a great opportunity here for innovation and to play a greater part and we mustn’t miss it. Parish and town councils are not there to do what is left until last. They are there to do what first and foremost defines a local community.”

County Councillor Carl Les, North Yorkshire’s leader, said: “I was a parish councillor for many years and I attend parish council meetings.  Parish councils are the salt of the earth and I enjoy working closely with them. I have been very impressed over the years with the ambition and achievements of Bedale town council which is the nearest market town to where I have lived all my life and I hope town councils will be interested in taking on more powers – but it is up to them.

“We believe this double devolution which passports powers from Whitehall to the town hall and the town hall to the village hall is an exciting prospect. We are seeking more powers from the government, but we want more powers to be devolved to the very local area as well. We want to bring people together to get more things done at a local level.”

Ian Blakemore, a town councillor for Stokesley, said he was aware of plans for making changes and that councillors were considering all the options.

He said: “Speaking as a resident, it makes sense for things such as highways, children’s services and waste to be delivered at scale, so that towns and parishes can get on with the things that matter to them at their local level.

“I sense frustration from members of the public in Stokesley about not being clear which council is responsible for what service and having a single council for North Yorkshire makes sense. However, the increasing number of people who have stepped up to volunteer in Stokesley in recent years shows that there is a real drive to make things happen at the local level, and we now have an opportunity to build on that. Ensuring we have the resource and connections to do that is critical.”

Jan Marshall, a member of Saxton cum Scarthingwell parish council, who has also volunteered to be a member of the working group, said: “Whichever unitary option is eventually decided by Government they will all involve some change in the role of town and parish councils for those that want it, so it is important we are involved now to develop ideas and opportunities from the earliest stage.”

Paula Benson, clerk to Ripon City Council and a working group volunteer, welcomed the opportunity to take part.  She said: “The discussions around how existing services will be provided post this change is something that town and parish councils will be very keen to learn about.  The Localism Act enhanced the powers available to the town and parish sector almost a decade ago and everyone involved will be keen to learn how these proposals build on those changes.”

This story was published 28 August 2020