Community Governance Review Working Group Friday 8 January 2021, 2pm, Microsoft Teams Meeting
Present: Councillors Shelim (Chairman), Cannon (Vice Chairman), Davies and Hilton
Officers: Suzanne Martin (Electoral & Information Governance Services Manager), Karen Shepherd (Head of Governance), Mark Pattinson (Corporate Projects Officer)
Also present: Councillor Sandie Webb, (Leader of Chippenham Town Council), Mark Smith (Chief Executive, Chippenham Town Council).
Councillor Shelim welcomed all to the meeting.
Apologies for Absence
An Apology for Absence was received from Councillor Knowles
Discussion with Chippenham Town Council representatives
Members noted that, following a suggestion from the Managing Director, representatives from Chippenham Town Council had been invited to the meeting. Chippenham Town Council was of a comparable size to a proposed Windsor Town Council.
Mark Smith, Chief Executive at Chippenham Town Council, provided a history of the town from the 1400s onwards. The current Town Council had been in existence from 1985 but there was a continuous lineage of Mayors and town clerks since 1835.
Since its establishment in 1985, the Town Council had grown from just one clerk to the current staff of 80 officers and 70 volunteers; it was now the second or third largest town council in the country. The precept generated £3.5m gross and the revenue budget was £4m. The Town Council comprised 8 wards with 24 councillors for a population of 40,000.
Mark Smith explained that the only service a town council had to legally undertake was allotments. Chippenham Town Council had chosen to take on a number of other services including a town museum, a community and arts centre/theatre, a 40acre football facility, and outdoor services such as grass cutting, tree maintenance, sweeping, park and cemetery maintenance. In 2009 Wiltshire unitary council had been established. A two-year process of service and asset transfer from Wiltshire council had recently concluded in June 2020. This had included the freehold of a large recreational park, the Town Hall, Grade One Yelde Hall and the community and arts centre. The Town Council’s aim was to undertake all maintenance within the town aside of statutory services e.g. waste collection.
Councillor Sandie Webb, Leader of Chippenham Town Council, explained that she had become leader 4 years ago in May; Mark Smith had joined as Chief Executive at a similar time. The Town Council’s (unofficial) mantra since that time had been ‘if it’s good for Chippenham, legal and possible we will do it. The process of devolving powers to a town or parish council was complicated and the recent discussions had taken two years.
Mark Smith explained that the Town Council precept had been put up by 37.5% in 2018/19, and by a further 9.8% last year to enable the Town Council to provide all the new services. There were inevitable comments about ‘double taxation’ but the reality was that the unitary authority was unlikely to provide the specific services. Given the current backdrop for local government, understandably the focus of any primary council was the elderly, young people, and strategic highways. Councillor Webb commented that it was important to explain to people what the Town Council would do and why the increase in the precept was necessary.
It was noted that the Band D precept for Chippenham Town Council was £265; for Wiltshire it was c. £1500. By comparison, Band D in Windsor & Maidenhead was £1100, with an average parish council Band D precept of £50.
Councillor Hilton commented that there had been discussions about devolution to parishes in RBWM a few years ago, but there had been limited take up. He asked what was it that persuaded Chippenham Town Councillors to take on more services. Councillor Webb explained that there was a certain amount of history. In 1996 the Town Hall was derelict and there was no museum; there was much work to be done. There was a culture within Chippenham of getting things done if the people wanted it and a history of doing things efficiently.
Mark Smith commented that if you looked at Chippenham as a borough council that had lost its ability to undertake services in the town (rather than a parish council), it was about taking back control of that which the town had lost control of for many years. The Town Council had started at more of a parish level, it was not until the mid-1990s that the aspirations of councillors and officers had combined to expand the remit. Councillor Webb referred to the ‘Wiltshire Super Sevens’. a group they had formed of the larger town councils in the county, including three from Swindon. The Swindon councils had been established in 2015 and were growing at an exponential rate.
Councillor Cannon commented that Chippenham almost mirrored a borough council. A Windsor Town Council, if established, would start at parish council level with just one clerk and its councillors. It would then be down to those Members to determine how it progressed. Councillor Webb commented that setting realistic parameters and aspirations was key. She suggested a Windsor Town Council would fit well with NALC, which was a specialist in smaller size parish councils.
Mark Smith explained the staffing structure at Chippenham Town Council: a Chief Executive, two Directors (Resources, Community Services), 8 Heads of Service – including Democratic Services, Planning, Leisure and Environmental Services. The structure reflected that of a district council with a committee system. Funding came from the precept, fees and charges, and income from leasing commercial property (including the football pitch and arts centre). Some property, for example the derelict town hall, had been transferred from the previous district council. The park/sports field had been purchased following a successful lottery bid. All services were managed in house. The Town Council had opted not to join larger council contracts as it preferred to manage services itself. This also meant the Town Council was not beholden to a contractor where additional work was charged at extra cost. The internal workforce was happy and the flexible structure was beneficial in dealing with challenges such as COVID-19.
When the Wiltshire districts had been abolished, a very large Wiltshire unitary was established (70miles x 50miles across). A gap had therefore appeared for town councils to flourish. There were 253 parish councils in Wiltshire from Salisbury with an expenditure of £6.5m down to small parishes of a hundred houses. Councillor Hilton commented that Berkshire comprised a number of smaller unitary authorities. If Berkshire was a single unitary, larger Town Councils may be more appropriate.
Councillor Webb explained that since 2017 the Town Council had been split 9 Conservative, 7 Independent and 7 Liberal Democrat. The Leader met weekly with the Chief Executive and the three group leaders met fortnightly with Directors. The Town Mayor had a civic/ceremonial role and chaired the council. The Leader had no individual executive power. Usually all seats were contested at election. Since 2013 each Town Councillor had been paid an allowance of £1,300 per year to cover expenses. Training was important, particularly for new councillors. Once elected, the councillors developed a Corporate Strategic Plan to ensure buy-in.
The Chairman thanked Mark Smith and Councillor Sandie Webb for their time in attending the meeting and answering Members’ questions. Councillor Webb commented if a new Town Council was established in Windsor, its Members would be welcome to visit Chippenham Town council in future.
Mark Smith and Councillor Sandie Webb left the meeting.
Members of the Working Group agreed that it had been a useful conversation but noted that Chippenham was much further down the road in the life of a Town Council. A Windsor Town Council would need to start with the basics and then develop.
For the benefit of Councillor Hilton who had not been a Member for all previous meetings, Suzanne Martin summarised the case study of Medway which had considered a new town council for Rochester. A CGR process had been undertaken following receipt of a valid petition. Following consultation with the electorate, ultimately the council decided not to set up a Town council in Rochester. Members noted that undertaking a CGR did not therefore predetermine the outcome that one would be created. Suzanne Martin agreed to forward the Medway report to Councillor Hilton.
Suzanne Martin stated that she was not aware of any town or parish councils being set up that then failed. The CGR process to form a parish or town council was well publicised. Another CGR would be needed to abolish one and it was very rare that this happened. Other options for a parish or town council that was struggling would be to reduce or amend the area it covered or change the number of councillors.
Reminder on next steps
Members were reminded that by end of January 2021, the Working Group needed to finalise the draft recommendations. At the last meeting Members had agreed the warding pattern for a single town council of 21 councillors in 12 wards. Elections would take place in May 2023. It was noted that the proposal of a single town council could be reviewed before final recommendations were made, if feedback from the stage two consultation indicated grater support for two or more parish/town councils in the area of scope.
The outstanding issues to finalise were the consequential matters including an indicative precept and potential office accommodation. The Officer Project Group was meeting the following week. It was therefore anticipated that following that meeting, officers in finance would be asked to calculate an indicative precept.
Members briefly discussed options of office accommodation. The Guildhall was not considered an option as it comprised the Chamber and Ascot Room which were used for weddings and other events, and the Mayor’s Parlour. It was anticipated that an officer from the property team would be in attendance at the Officer Project Group the following week to discuss other options, including if there was any available office space at York House that could be leased to a Town Council. If the council did not have any space it could lease, then the precept would need to be calculated based on current market rent in Windsor.
Members noted that, subject to full Council approval of the draft recommendations at the end of February 2021, dispatch of the consultation leaflet would be alongside the council tax bills in early March 2021.
Date of next meeting
Members agreed that the next meeting should take place on Thursday 28 January at 2pm, at which Suzanne Martin would present a draft set of recommendations.
It was noted that the Windsor Town Forum was due to meet on 27 January 2021. It was agreed that until the draft recommendations were published (mid-February with the full Council agenda), there was no update that officers could provide. Therefore officers would not attend the Windsor Town Forum meeting, but members of the Working Group who also sat on the Forum could explain the current situation. The subsequent Forum meeting was scheduled for 24 March 2021. Given the consultation would have begun by then, this date would be a more appropriate time for an officer update on the process followed by questions from attendees for Member response (similar to that which had taken place at the Town Forum meeting on 12 October 2020). The Head of Governance would advise the clerk and Chairman of the Town Forum.
The meeting, which began at 2pm, finished at 3.28pm.