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A new code of conduct is a catastrophe for parish councils, says Peter Luff MP ...
A new code of conduct is a catastrophe for parish councils, says Peter Luff MP

Neatness and logic are generally the enemies of good governance. When you try to impose uniformity, you often destroy what is most valuable.

So it is no surprise that the government's attempt to impose logic and uniformity on organisations as inherently diverse as parish councils is having catastrophic effects. I am driven to the sad conclusion that parish councils are being undermined.

Parish and town councils are not adequately consulted. They are not statutory consultees on heavy goods vehicle operator licences, for example.

What now threatens parish councils is the wretched document, the Parish councils (model code of conduct) order.

This is prescriptive and more intrusive as to what councillors must declare than the similar arrangements for members of Parliament. For most parish councils, with a budget of a few thousands of pounds, such detailed declarations are unnecessary.

In the past few weeks, more and more parish council chairmen have said to me that they are thinking of giving up. I understand that 28 parish councils in Herefordshire are considering not adopting the code, forcing local government secretary Stephen Byers to suspend them. At least two in my constituency - Broadway and Salwarpe - have decided to do the same.

Salwarpe's parish council chair formally notified the district council of the unanimous decision of the parish not to adopt the code. His letter said: 'It is a matter of great sadness to all of us on Salwarpe parish council that this situation should have come about. We recognise the importance of the role of parish councils in the life of the community and in the maintenance of the most local form of democracy. We also recognise that all local councils must operate to the highest standards of integrity. However the provisions of the new code of conduct, particularly in the form of the public disclosure of assets and the provisions of the complaints procedure, are such as to create a wholly unacceptable basis for our continued involvement.'

In a debate on parish councils in Westminster Hall in March, the government proved beyond doubt that it failed to understand the nature and purpose of parish councils when local government minister Alan Whitehead referred to parish councils meeting in 'chambers' and having 'debates'.

Such formality may be the rule for larger town councils, but most parishes meet in the village hall, or even in an annex, and have discussions that are minuted. Ministers plainly do not understand the nature of the animals they are trying to regulate.

Parish councils are one of the glories of local government. But if the government persists in its determination to impose this wretched code, many of them will become history and rural England and Wales will be the poorer. Could this be Stephen Byers' lasting memorial before he is sacked in the summer reshuffle?

Peter Luff

Conservative MP for Mid Worcestershire

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