David Morris MP held a debate in Westminster Hall, in the House of Commons on Wednesday, following a survey of Morecambe residents in which 97% of the respondents did not agree with the enormous rise in parish precept last year.
Speaking in the debate David Morris MP said:
The town council did not carry out a referendum; it carried out an afternoon stall survey on the local prom. It cannot be verified whether any local people were present. The following is from the town council: some 65 respondents, the highest bracket, were willing to give £100, followed by 55 respondents at £50, and 35 respondents at £10. Some 100 respondents were willing to give amounts that ranged between £2 and, in one case, £15,000, which was obviously someone having a laugh at the ludicrous proposals. That is 255 people, if the figure is even true and if they were local people.
I therefore decided to write to every household in the Morecambe Town Council area to ask whether they supported the increase and whether they were ever aware that the increase took place. The rate of return was staggering. Over a quarter of the people of Morecambe responded—26.8%, some 3,919 people—which shows my constituents’ strength of feeling on this issue. I asked people whether they were aware of the rise before their bill hit them: 3% of respondents said yes, and 97% said no.
This is just a snapshot of what they said:
“The whole situation appears ludicrous to me, and I hope you will do all in your power to reverse what has happened”;
“I support regeneration and development, but the timing of the increase, the amount and the lack of notification has taken the decision out of our hands”;
“I cannot believe they took money without consulting first”;
“What right do they have to make that decision on my behalf? It is hard enough paying Council Tax as a single pensioner as it is, and I hope that this extra money we have paid will be reimbursed”
“I have no idea of how this has happened. Yes, I want my money back thank you”;
“It is terrible. No other provider can increase charges by such unopposed.”
On this years further planned increases David Morris MP said:
Last night, my local radio station released an update on the town council’s proposed figures, so I have only had the past few hours to scrutinise them, but they are woefully damning. The town council is now proposing to shift the £1 million community action fund into council reserves, which I believe it will use to borrow against increasing council tax further, using £150,000 towards cutting the council tax precept. The town council suggests a 33% reduction in the council tax precept, compared with last year—in effect giving back what appears to be one third of a massive increase in Morecambe taxpayers’ 2023-24 bills.
David also raised questions about the contract Morecambe Town Council have for the weeding contract for the whole district, with them spending Morecambe Town Council taxpayers to subsidise the service in the whole district, not demonstrating value for money:
Having a special community action fund of £1 million last year, as I explained, on top of the precept itself is a clear breach of the precept rules. In plain speak, it is only supposed to be raised against a current service capacity of service provided. In this case, that has been expanded, with empire building on top of the running costs, which have come to a large amount, and a million quid on top of that. I challenge the town council to demonstrate to my community how it provides value for money when Morecambe now pays for the weeding service for literally hundreds of square miles outside the parameters of Morecambe.
In conclusion David asked the Minister Simon Hoare MP:
I ask the Minister whether we can, ideally, freeze the council tax at the rate from before the 2023-24 hike—which was very high at that time—so that the whole £1 million can be paid back to Morecambe residents. I urge the town council to stop empire building at the expense of Morecambe residents. I had assurances of a meeting to discuss the matter with the Prime Minister a few months ago, and I will be petitioning Parliament with nearly 4,000 responses and concerns from my constituents very soon.
I want to know what the Government are going to do to stop my community being ripped off, and to stop Morecambe Town Council’s behaviour of hiking parish council tax, which is testing the system to destruction. Are there any plans to cap the rate at which parish councils can increase their precept without requiring a referendum? If Morecambe Town Council had carried out a referendum, it would not have been able to do this in the first place. Given that the whole community is against it, why did the council do it? I have also called for an investigation into parish councils by the external auditor, PKF Littlejohn. However, I fear it has no teeth to act—so what are the Government going to do to help with this matter?
There has been considerable media interest in this issue from the national and local media. We in this House must act in any capacity we have to stop this excuse for raising public funding from my community in Morecambe, seemingly to no benefit whatsoever, except to serve those who run the council. I apologise for being emotive about this, but it is a very serious issue for my community.
In response Minister Simon Hoare said:
My hon. Friend has set out a scene in his town of Morecambe that certainly causes me concern. In broad terms, he raises several issues with regard to the overall governance of town and parish councils. We are very hot on governance with regard to this place, and very hot on governance issues when it comes to upper-tier authorities, boroughs and districts; historically, because town and parish councillors do not receive remuneration for their service, they are slightly off the grid. I have been considering the situation with representative bodies of the town and parish councils. He has given me food for thought, and I shall continue my deliberations.
For 2024-25, the Government have consulted on continuing our approach of not applying referendum principles to town and parish councils. That carve-out comes with a clear expectation that town and parish councils will take all available steps to mitigate the need for council tax increases, and that the Government will see clear evidence of that restraint. We would also expect authorities to take the resources that they already have available into account before setting increases.
The point that my hon. Friend has raised, as I understand the mathematics of it, is that last year Morecambe Town Council set a precept increase of £105.14 on the band D bill, which represents a fairly significant rise of 231% on the previous year. That was for the purpose of buying an asset, which my hon. Friend has advised was not on the market; whether it was on the market or not, however, the council has pulled away from that and decided not to buy it.
The question, therefore, has to be: what happens to the precept that the good burghers or Morecambe have paid, which is now sitting, at least notionally, on the balance sheet of Morecambe Town Council? Well, my hunch would be that, if it is not able to pay it back—I think that trying to work out each household’s bill and whether the person who paid the precept is still in the house, as they may have died or moved, could be extremely onerous administratively and possibly counterproductive —it does not take huge genius to think that one could bank that money and explain that the town council precept would be frozen to the point of zero, until that exceptional nest egg accrued from that large 231% increase had been spent.
Speaking following the debate David Morris MP said:
‘I am glad the Minister agreed to launch an investigation into this matter. People in my community have overwhelmingly rejected this tax increase and it is only right that Morecambe Town Council look to return this money to the people of Morecambe as soon as possible. I hope that the Minister is able to advise the Council of their obligations and best practices of how to do this. It is simply not acceptable for the Council to put this money into reserves which they should not have in the first place. They need to stop empire building and start delivering value for money for the people of my community.’