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Pickles: A Fair Deal for Town and Parish Councils

Address to the National Association of Local Councils

In addressing you today I wish to make two points:

The first is that Conservatives strongly support parish and town councils.

We support you on the basis of your mandate and advocacy for your local community.

We will do all in our power to make your community service easier.

We will wind back Labour's overbearing command state from parish and town councils - but more about this later.

We do not see you as the Government's branch office

Secondly, there is a need to achieve more in large towns and cities - we wish to see an expansion of Town and Parish councils in urban and inner city areas, because rejuvenation must come from within and have a strong element of local accountability. I believe the National Association of Local Councils has a vital role to play in this aim.

True localism: Parish and town councils shaping and guiding local communities

Before there was new Labour and new localism there were town and parish councils.

And when New Labour is but a distant memory there were town and parish councils

True localism is local advocates for a local community.

You entered public service not because it would end in Downing Street, or be part of some great ideological struggle, but because you wanted to put something into your community.

The driving forces behind local communities are not edicts and diktats from Whitehall but the sheer energy and commitment and innovation displayed by local councillors.

Like all generations before us, we have the ability to shape and render the society we wish to hand over to the next generation.

Parish and town councils have a particularly important role shaping the growth of their local community.

Yet in 2003 many of this shaping comes under what the Government allows councils to do under Labour's freedoms. Freedoms that fit in with the other Blair's concept of language in double-speak

Eric Blair (George Orwell) would recognise that these are not true freedoms at all.

In truth. The Government imprisons councils.

You are told you are free.

When in reality those freedoms are your prison warden. Ensuring you stay within boundaries set by the Government. Innovation is restricted. Councils are prisoners on licence of central government.

I want to see central government retreat from its command state.

· Retreat from telling you what local councils can and cannot do.

· Retreat from the burdens, the targets, the statutory plans, the tick-a-box culture.

· Retreat from the clutter of centralism.

Labour cannot be trusted

I have a confession to make. I had listened to what Labour had to say about local government when they were in opposition. I agreed we quite a lot of it. I was prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt.

But after six years it turned out to be "sound and fury signifying nothing"

The process has been good for me, because it has given me some empathy with Labour Backbenchers - For I too know what it feels like to be betrayed by New Labour

You cannot believe a word they say. Especially when it comes to local government.

And I will give you an example. Indeed, a saga.

It relates to local government finance and obviously impacts upon you.

Capping and council taxes.

In November last year Minister Nick Raynsford announced that councils graded as excellent by the comprehensive performance assessment will not be subject to reserve capping powers.

In December, Nick Raynsford announced the provisional local government finance settlement.

I could see that council tax bills for Band D homes were going to hit the £1000 bill mark. Hitting families and pensioners and those on fixed incomes.

And I said so in the House of Commons.

It was and is quite clear to the impartial observer that the fiddled funding saw money transferred from Tory councils to Labour councils.

Council tax, especially in the south was going to skyrocket as councillors tried to protect public services. The ultimate stealth tax. Fiddled by Whitehall for local councillors to take the blame.

The Government pooh-poohed Conservative claims as scare mongering.

We continued to warn that the result of the government's fiddled funding, combined with Labour's ethos of burdens and targets - council tax was going to not only hit the roof. It was to put a large hole there.

And you know what happened…

Council tax bills went out in April.

Band D council bills hit over £1000. Council tax went up 12.9 per cent - three times the rate of inflation.

As councils and councillors struggle to keep up with Labour's spending demands council tax has gone up nearly 70 per cent since 1997.

The Government did nothing.

Seven months later in October - only when we have the sight of pensioners preparing for jail and Chief Police Officers warning of the break down in law and order has the government stirred.

Not acted to restore the funding to councils. Not acted to remove burdens and targets and the grime of centralism.

They feared they had been rumbled.

And in a moment of crisis they turned to their greatest ally - spin.

They blamed the councils. They blamed councillors. They blamed us. We are apparently part of a conspiracy to undermine values. Councils putting up local taxes to undermined the Government. If you like, role reversal to Labour Councils in the Thatcher years. But if that was the case, Ministers would be able to cite examples of Conservative Councils giving donations to right wing causes or flooding our school libraries with Michael and John go hunting and shooting,.

So they blamed everyone else.

And now they will shift the blame further by renouncing their promise on no more capping and have reverted to the cap council tax.

I don't trust or believe Labour anymore when it comes to local councils. And frankly, nor should you.

You don't fit in with their project. You are an inconvenience.

Whether it is the code of conduct, best value, the audit regime - Labour finds parish and town councils a nuisance

The Government's aim is to mould and shape parish and town councils into little boxes to fit neatly within Labour's project.

Little cubes that are the same in Devon as they are in Lancashire. Little Whitehall franchises up and down the country.

The same size, delivering the same services regardless of local need or want.

Little boxes that only exist because the centre grants them life.

Little boxes all full of ticky-tacky that all look the same

It is more subtle Labour's last attacks on parish councils. But just as deadly

In 1999 Labour called for parish councils to be replaced with 'neighbourhood forums'.

Labour then said that parish councils should include 'neighbourhood managers' - rather than elected representatives.

In 2000 Labour's Environment Minister said he was worried about the ability of parish councils to represent rural people.

Last year former Labour Cabinet Minister, Mo Mowlam called for parish councils to be abolished to make way for regional assemblies.

Just recently in March this year was forced to Labour revealed secret plans to eradicate parish boundaries from Ordnance Survey maps. Winston Smith would have been proud

The Conservative Approach - A Fair Deal

These plans and plots are to be compared and contrasted with the Conservative approach. Conservatives who will deliver a fair deal for you.

Conservatives who value the work of parish and town councillors.

But we fear Labour's regulations, interference and red-tape will restrict the role of parish councils and result in a large-scale reduction in the number of people willing to be involved.

We will deliver a fair deal for parish and town councils. We will deliver a fair deal for the thousands of parish and town councillors.

What we will do? Put it simply - it is a question of trust

Trust the people to make their own decisions on standards of conduct

Trust the people to ensure that their parish and town councils operate to accepted standards.

Trust the people to run their own villages and towns.

So what policy commitments will we make to you?

For the local government sector we will abolish comprehensive performance assessment.

We will abolish Best Value. Under Conservatives, parish and town councils will not be subjected to the introduction of Best Value.

Statutory plans…

Most will go to the dustbin. Where they belong.

For town and parish councils we will remove the code of conduct.

On this point I will suggest that if the National Association for Local Councils was to recommend a voluntary code of conduct for the larger councils then that, is a matter entirely for you to decide.

But I will not allow good people to be forced out of voluntary roles because of bad laws.

We will have a giant bonfire of the Quangos

I am drawing up a list that will see on average at least one Quango abolished for every week of the first Conservative Government.

They will not be re-named or replaced with Conservative versions.

Their powers will revert to councils and local communities.

Conservatives want to see a power shift of function not form.

And this real revolution involves you. It involves all of you in this room and your colleagues back home.

While Labour are effectively imposing a blueprint of rigid conformity on parish councils Conservatives believe in diversity.

All town and parish councils should be given freedoms automatically. It is insulting for Labour to suggest that the freedoms should be 'earned' through compliance with central government. Your actual existence should guarantee such rights.

Accountability and responsibility

And if you or your town or parish council make mistakes then like the rest of us, you learn and move on and bear the consequences

And if you keep on making mistakes then it should not be the fear of some distant bureaucrat in Whitehall that should concern you.

The best system of accountability will be the wrath of your community. The people you live and work with.

I can think of no better system of accountability.

· Responsibility by association,

· and accountability by the ballot box

Only at the last resort. When governance is dissolved and responsibility absolved should there be intervention from Whitehall.

The best remedy will be to ensure that you don't the mistakes in the first place. Conservatives support training and continuous improvement. Public perception of standards and expectations of service continue to rise. And councils must meet that challenge.

But any system must be voluntary and must not be seen as a burden on service.

Why should clerks with many years of sound service be obliged to undertake courses?

Surely their attendance should be voluntary and should not reflect upon the funding status of any parish council.

Enhanced role of town and parish councils

I genuinely believe in the vibrance all tiers of local government.

For too long, local councils have been treated as an extension of Whitehall - bodies through which centrally decided policies are administered rather than local communities being able to use powers and resources to decide policies of their own.

Tied up in so much red-tape, the talent of local councils is wasted as they are turned into the agents of Whitehall rather than the strong local voice wanted by local people.

The next Conservative Government will not be characterised by the power wielded but the power yielded.

Conservatives will not only wind back Labour's command state from your daily operations but also want additional reforms.

Conservatives not only want to see power and responsibility transferred from Whitehall to county, district and metropolitan councils but even further. Where councils and communities agree and were it is practicable I envisage a devolution of power from district and county councils to parish and town councils.

We do see a greater role for parish and town councils.

But only if the councillors and their community want a greater role.

Town and parish councils can be so much more. You can do so much more as advocates for your local community.

Growth of Parish and Town Councils

Conservatives not only want an enhanced role for existing town and parish councils we want to see new parish councils not just in rural areas - but also in urban areas, both in towns and cities.

We want to make it easier for new parish and town councils to be established.

In recent years our televisions have been throwing towards us lifestyle programmes concentrating on the retreat from urban life.

Families and stressed out city types are shown to escape to the sanctuary of small towns and villages.

Part of this is a retreat from a crumbling urban society. Failing schools, rising crime, deteriorating hospitals, inner cities in decay. Communities not just breaking down but dissipating.

One of the main attractions for this urban flight is wanting to belong to, or feel part of a community.

We need to do more in our cities and large towns to encourage the sense of community that we find so strong in the country and towns. A sense of community that comes through your work. A community supported by parish and town councils.

Labour will establish a taskforce. Recommendations will precede John Prescott's intervention. He will throw taxpayer's money like confetti at various schemes. Schemes will fail. Followed by a Government review. Conducted by another taskforce.

I think we could use parish and town councils as good basis to start urban regeneration. By getting the individual members of the community involved in the community we will help to develop a sense of ownership.

Damian Green, our Shadow Education Secretary of State has already announced Conservative policies that will allow communities to take over failing state schools and establish independent schools.

Establishing town and parish council models in inner cities will help those communities regenerate.

Conclusion

But we do need to do much more.

The Conservative Party is currently undertaking a major review of all of our policies dealing with local government.

In the next few months I will bring forward to you further proposals that build upon themes outlined in this speech.

I would welcome any written contributions that you as councillors and guardians of your community that you may wish to make. This offer is made regardless of your political affiliation or lack of affiliation.

· If you want a fair deal for parish and town councils.

· If you want a massive reduction in the clutter and grime of centralism.

· If you want parish and town councils to be trusted and respected

· And you want your councils to be unshackled but empowered then come with me as we tear down John Prescott's rambling and unstable empire.

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