Setting the precept is not a glamorous process, but was ably presented at this week’s full parish council meeting by Cllr John O’Brien, who took over the chairmanship of the finance committee last May.

Residents don’t often get to see the amount of work parish councillors put into their voluntary role. Cllr O’Brien spent weeks working with the parish clerk poring over figures across a multitude of accounting headings, creating five year budget forecasts and presenting a range of options for extra liabilities facing the parish in the year ahead.

We voted for a parish Band D precept increase of 12.7%. While this sounds high, it will amount to a weekly increase of 22p per household and around 5% of the total council tax bill for a Band D property.

Value for money

Stansted’s 2020/21 charge still compares favourably with other towns and villages in Uttlesford in terms of value for money and the size of the community. Band D householders will have to pay £101.88 in the next financial year, which is lower than the current charge for Saffron Walden (£168.51), Great Chesterford (£151.89), Great Dunmow (£138.04) and Newport (£111.36). Some of these settlements will also see hikes in their precept this year as they face the same financial pressures as Stansted.

We are likely to remain outside the top five Band D parish council charges in the district – even though we are the third largest community by population size. Our precept is also likely to remain only slightly above the district average – in 2019/20 our Band D precept was £90.40 per annum, compared with the Uttlesford average of £91.50.

Extra liabilities facing the parish this year include:

  • Replacement windows for the Day Centre – the existing ones are rotten
  • Support grant for unadopted roads, which are deteriorating due to rising traffic in the village and drivers cutting through to avoid jams on the main roads
  • Funds to manage the woodland at Newman’s Plantation, which is suffering the effects of ash dieback that could cause significant risks to pedestrians and neighbouring properties
  • Clearing the sustainable drainage system (SuDs) between Stoney Common Road and Shaw Close
  • A contingency for the expansion of the cemetery – we are running out of space in the parish cemetery.
  • An extra part-time member of staff to help administer the parish council

Impact of Austerity

On the last point, more staff are crucial to the running of the parish council, which is seeing its work increase as the population grows and higher tiers of authority devolve financial responsibilities due to austerity measures and their 2.99% precept rise cap.

Take street lighting. Facing cuts from central government and a cap on its precept, Essex County Council decided some years ago to drastically reduce street lighting – something residents in larger villages and towns across Essex found alarming. So, the parish council is spending more than £20,000 a year to keep our village’s streets well-lit and safe.

Essex County Council has also cut the youth service – again, the parish has intervened, spending £10,000 per annum to give young people a safe and secure place to go in our village. This figure is mostly offset by a £7,500 Uttlesford District Council youth club grant – will this be maintained by the new administration at Uttlesford?

Facing similar cuts as it reduced police numbers in the county by more than 600 since 2010, Essex Police shut our police station. Since then, crime in and around Stansted has soared. The parish council has stepped in to jointly fund, with neighbouring parishes, a PCSO to patrol our area at a cost of over £10,000 per annum.

Essex continues to implement cuts and has been looking to devolve responsibility for pot holes to parish councils. Stansted parish council came close to losing its library service under a proposed strategy, which County Hall rowed back from in the face of strong opposition across Essex. This proposal would have forced us to choose between running the library ourselves as a substandard volunteer-led operation or losing the service altogether. We may have to act to cut verges and public rights of way which are becoming overgrown due to cutbacks – leading to extra costs.

The parish council is taking the brunt of central government austerity measures and strategic decisions by higher tiers of local authority. If it doesn’t step in, we will have darker, less safe and shabbier streets and young people with fewer facilities to keep them occupied. The parish council has prioritised quality of life over penny pinching and I think we are getting good value for money.

Other Options

The other proposal we considered would be slightly costlier with an 14.3% rise in the Band D rate – the equivalent of an extra 25p per week per household. This would see the repayment of money used for the new Mountfitchet Exchange building to the Foresthall Park S106 fund – money provided by developers for the benefit of the new estate – over eight years instead of 10.

The Mountfitchet Exchange went significantly over-budget due in part to legal action by a landowner who had easement rights on the land, which led to a six figure payout and additional costs of delays. The parish drew on the fund to cover the costs with the expectation that it is rebuilt to its original level.

I felt residents on the estate were far more interested in the parish council resolving problems such as cutting verges more regularly and ensuring decent play equipment than the fund being repaid two years earlier than agreed.

Others pointed out that investment in the new open space at the Elms Farm development should also be taken into account as part of the fund’s expenditure as this meadow and community woodland would also benefit Foresthall Park residents.