Speech: National Association of Local Councils conference 2018

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Introduction – importance of parish councils


Thank you Sue for that kind introduction, and thank you for all of the vital work you do, strengthening local government.

Firstly, I’d just like to say how fantastic it is to see so many of you here. I just spent some time outside speaking to people and there’s a real sense of excitement and energy. This is ‘parish power’ in action.

The subject of today’s conversations – ‘shaping the future’ – is one that is close to my heart.

Since taking up my role in January, I’ve been inspired by NALC’s ability to bring people together and represent us. And I really welcome your leadership on the ‘Big Conversation’.

I’m personally delighted to be small part of that conversation.

In my ministerial role, I speak to everyone from Metropolitan Mayors to Church Wardens. I’ve seen how local government can be an incredible force for good. Not faceless bureaucracies, but mirrors of our places and our people.

And the message I often hear is: the closer the locality, the greater the trust. But I know that trust comes with great responsibility too.

I remember something the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said recently, which will resonate with all of you. He said: “I have never had demands so acute as when I was a parish priest”.

So it is with local government – a lot is demanded of you.

And from my own constituency work, I can tell you, it’s often those issues closest to home that can keep me awake at night.

And those responsibilities for you are growing further still, in a sign of the confidence that people have in your abilities.

When it comes to neighbourhood planning, for example, parish councils are now leading the way.

From helping to make buildings reflect local tastes and preferences to directing development to preferred sites, neighbourhood plans have been transforming communities – and helping to alleviate our housing crisis in the process.

We’ve also seen how parishes can help our vital community assets flourish – from our village halls to our tennis courts.

I’m so pleased to see the numerous examples of parish councils using the opportunities afforded by the Community Right Bid, nominating cherished local spaces and buildings as Assets of Community Value.

Year on year, as the take up of this Community Right grows, I want to ensure that how this scheme operates improves for town and parish councils, community groups, local authorities and asset owners.

That’s why we are working with partners at Power to Change and mySociety to promote a new online platform, launched in September, called Keep It in The Community, to strengthen how the scheme works by providing a digital directory of all of the Assets of Community Value that have been successfully listed across the country.

And I’ve seen the benefits in my constituency first hand, where one of our local communities in Hudswell has taken over a local pub, the George and Dragon. It’s now won Yorkshire pub of the year 3 years in a row, so it’s clearly a winning formula!

The Star Council Awards are a perfect reflection of just how much we achieve at a local level. Because, for all the talk of structures and processes, we’re only as good as the people who represent us.

People who are dedicated to improving people’s lives every single day through their hard work and dedication. So, I’d like to say a big thank you to all of you in this room and our committed public servants up and down the country for everything that you do.

And I’d like to just take a moment to celebrate, in particular, our Star Council Award winners:

  • Northwich Town Council (from Cheshire, which won Council of Year)
  • Councillor Nick Penny from Gloucestershire (Councillor of the year, from Coleford Town Council)
  • Clerk of Year Jayne Cooper (from Gnosall Parish Council, Staffordshire)
  • The County Association Project of Year, which was won by West Sussex Association of Local Councils
  • Young Councillor of Year, Melissa Boyden of Asfordby Parish Council (Leicestershire)

Please join me in saying thank you and congratulations to all of the winners.

Your voice in government


With all of the tremendous work that you are doing, I’m mindful of my responsibilities to all of you. And I very much see my role, as Local Government Minister, to be your voice in government and your champion in Whitehall.

And I want to be completely honest with you: I won’t be able to win every single battle. But what I can promise you, is that I will always make your case and fight your corner at the highest levels of government.

And I hope that you can see the results of that already.

Shortly after I got this job, you told me that some elements of GDPR would be a significant burden on parish councils. We’ve listened and worked closely with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure the new GDPR legislation exempts parish councils from needing a data protection officer.

You told me that Parish Polls needed reforming – we’ve listened and we’re now updating the rules to modernise them and ensure they better meet your needs. I hope to introduce new regulations on this as soon as parliamentary time allows.

You told me that many of you wanted to bring much-needed public toilets under parish control without being stung by business rates – we’ve listened and worked with the Treasury, and I’m sure all of you will have been absolutely delighted with the Chancellor’s announcement in the Budget on Monday: 100% business rate relief when parish councils take over these facilities.

It’s something that my officials like to call the “relief on relief”!

You also told me that many of you wanted to refurbish your village halls, many of which were built a century ago to commemorate the sacrifice of World War One. Again, we’ve listened, and at Budget the Chancellor outlined plans to provide £8 million of funding for grants equivalent to the VAT chargeable on such refurbishment projects.

And lastly on community governance, you told me you wanted communities to have a stronger voice and the ability to more easily create new parishes. I’ve listened, and today I can also confirm that I’m actively looking at how we can strengthen the guidance.

Because your voice is being heard. Your voice matters. And I will continue to listen to you and support your mission to build better and stronger local government.

Digital


People in this country turn to that most local of levels for that anchor and representation in the places they call home. Your ultra-local knowledge is essential in building that bridge between people and government.

As a result of that, I believe you have a vital role to play in shaping the services people use every day – services that are increasingly moving online. And I believe you have that local knowledge we need to redesign and run our digital services.

It’s something that’s at the heart of our new Local Government Digital Declaration – which I recently announced at the Local Government Association conference – a joint initiative between my department (MHCLG) and the Government Digital Service.

It’s about relentlessly focusing on the needs of our citizens to deliver digital services that are centred on the user.

I was impressed to learn during that process, that the village of Scruton in my own constituency in North Yorkshire – a small parish with an annual turnover of around £20,000 – has had a website since 1998. To put that into perspective, it wasn’t actually a legal requirement to have a website until 2015!

It goes to show that small councils can be innovative and creative too. In fact, your smaller size and entrepreneurial spirit give you the potential to be more agile that your larger neighbours.

That ability to feed back, interact and shape services has to be the new norm – and it’s something I was particularly inspired by during my time studying, working and living in Silicon Valley, California.

Because you can now use data in any number of ways, from developing an app to report fly-tipping, to building a platform to monitor local wildlife.

And I’m pleased to say that we are supporting these kinds of opportunities through our new £7.5 million Digital Innovation Fund – which parishes can also sign up to.

Loneliness


Whilst technology can bring local government closer to people, I’m also mindful of one of the great paradoxes of this era: in this time of unprecedented connectivity, sadly many people in our country are lonelier than ever.

There are people who can go for days, weeks or even a month without seeing a friend or family member.

Up to a fifth of all UK adults feel lonely most or all of the time – it’s shown to be as unhealthy for you as smoking.

It’s why the Prime Minister recently launched the first ever cross-government Loneliness Strategy.

It represents the beginning of what we hope will be a long and far reaching social change in our country.

The Prime Minister also appointed the first ever Minister for Loneliness, who will work collaboratively across the Commission on Loneliness and our partners in charities and businesses across the UK.

But we all know that we’ll only be able to get to grips with these kinds of challenges when we think locally.

At a central government level, we tend to ask: “What can we do about loneliness?”. But at parish level, you tend to ask: “How can we help Helen, or James, to feel less lonely?”

It’s that kind of emotional intelligence that parish councils have in spades.

I know that parish councils will play a pivotal role in understanding loneliness and its pressures on society.

It’s something I saw just last week at a coffee morning in the village of Welbury in my constituency. The event was just the kind of community-spirited thing that can really break down barriers that can lead to social isolation and loneliness – reaching out not only to the elderly, but also young mothers in that community.

And as the government continues to prioritise tackling loneliness, I look forward to hearing from all of you and from NALC about how, working together, we can overcome this great generational challenge.

Conclusion


Because when it comes to shaping the future, I have no doubt that many of you will be at the heart of that change – and we in central government have a lot to learn from all of you.

And that’s why NALC is so important.

Helping to sew together that patchwork so it can become greater than the sum of its parts; raising the bar; inspiring people across the country – and shaping the future.

So thank you for everything you do.

It is a true privilege to represent you. I am proud of everything you do. And I’m so excited to see what you achieve in the future. Thank you very much.

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