Whatever side one is on in the EU referendum nobody can deny it has generated a great deal of debate and interest among the general public. The hundreds of thousands of people who are, as I write, seeking to register to vote on 23rd June is evidence of a public wanting to make its voice heard on a single issue which they know will affect them.
Referendums can be good things for important single issues. Used sparingly they can focus and engage the public in a different way to general/local election where a number of different issues are in play. A referendum concentrates on one single issue and the public can focus of this one issue and get involved.
While not on the same scale I believe that a referendum of the issue of parishes could galvanise the local Swindon public into similar levels of engagement.
This coming Wednesday the council are to have an emergency meeting to debate whether to have a referendum on whether new parish councils are to be created. The current council wants to create parishes in the areas of Swindon which are not currently parished. The purpose of this is that services currently paid for out of our council tax can be transferred to a new parish which would relieve the council of both the responsibility and the finance of those services – those services include street cleaning, grass cutting, minor pothole repairs.
The council says that they can’t afford to provide these services as government cuts to local government means there is less money for council services. Of course, the council could raise money to protect these services by raising council tax but to do so they would have to have a referendum if they wanted to raise the council tax by more than 4%. They have calculated that they wouldn’t win a referendum thus they won’t seek to raise council tax.
But, at present, there are no limits on how much a parish council can raise their precept (in effect, a parish council tax). Therefore, the council had the idea of transferring the services they can’t afford to parishes and let the parishes raise the necessary money through their precept without any reference to the people.
Labour locally feels that any increase in local taxation should be subject to a referendum as the people should have their say. However, as important as having their say is that they should understand what the issue is about and what the consequences may be. The issue and the consequences are quite complex and we feel people will get a much clearer understanding if there is a referendum campaign in which all opinions can be aired.
Politicians are going through a very hard time at the moment. Their standing is at an all time low and public trust in them is disappearing fast. In order to reverse this trend it is vital that politicians respond positively to what people are telling them. We in Swindon Labour feel this is the only way local representatives can regain that trust of the people.
It may well be that parishes will offer a better services than the council currently offers. Equally, it may be the case that parishes will offer better value for money than residents get for their current levels of council tax. If the council believe this then they should not be afraid to take their arguments to the people. This may be the only way to save grass cutting, hedge trimming etc. If the people want these services saved then surely they will vote for them.
In the recent local elections Labour stood on a platform of supporting a referendum before any imposition of parishes. We won the popular vote across the whole of Swindon and in the areas where parishes would be imposed we won over 80% of the vote. In the council’s own consultation process the public have rejected the parish proposal. If the public are going to regain trust in politicians so we can lead our communities then we are going to have start to listen to what the people of those communities are saying.
To fail to take notice of these things will simply give people more reason to be cynical about, and lose faith in, the body politic. We, as a society, cannot afford to allow this happen. Our society is built upon a democratic system which elected politicians represent the wishes of those who elected them. If we ignore the wishes of the people we only create a vacuum in which extremists ideas and politicians flourish.
A referendum is an excellent way decide long term decisions which will have a major impact on people’s lives. The referendum on Scottish Independence in 2014 drew a turn out of over 80%, experts are forecasting a similar turn out in the EU referendum. If the Tory council is serious about its parish proposals and a desire to devolve more power to local communities then it will vote with Labour on Wednesday to allow a referendum to happen. If the Tories fail to vote with us then we will know that this whole issue is just a stunt to cover their own financial and political failings.