THE Leader of Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council (TMBC), Cllr Nicolas Heslop, has responded in forthright fashion to plans to form a town council.
As reported in the Times last week, a petition is being set up to obtain the 3,000 signatories – 7.5 per cent of the town’s population – required so that TMBC has to conduct a consultation on the project.
The campaigners say they want a dedicated local authority because ‘in order to thrive, Tonbridge needs its own council to champion its interests’.
But Cllr Heslop, whose borough council is one of the poorest in Kent and recorded a budget deficit of £1million last year, warns that the new body would entail a significant extra expense – and a rise in council tax.
He says: “Those promoting a Tonbridge Town Council should consider the costs as well as any possible benefits. It would need its own premises and staff and a need for another layer of management.”
The campaign group point out that residents have been paying a precept under the new Special Expenses Scheme introduced in April last year – for amenities such as open spaces, children’s play areas and sports facilities – but unlike every other part of the borough it does not have its own town or parish council to administer it.
Cllr Heslop says the town’s precept is small compared with neighbouring authorities: “The Tonbridge Special Expense amount to £50.98 for a [council tax] Band D property and pays towards the maintenance of those facilities provided by parish councils in other parts of the borough.
“The average additional parish charge in other parts of the borough area is £77.67, with six parishes with a precept of over £100.
“So, even with Special Expenses charge, the total council tax bill is still lower in Tonbridge. The borough council, as a larger organisation, carries out these parish functions with the economies of scale that are not achievable in parishes and towns.”
Only three parishes in the borough have a cheaper precept than Tonbridge: West Peckham, Shipbourne and Hildenborough.
Cllr Heslop questions the need to add to the financial burden on residents because ‘there is evidence in Tonbridge of ongoing investment in the local area and an extensive and comprehensive network of local associations and partnerships to address local issues’.
He also played down the ability of a town council to have a voice in planning matters, which is close to the campaigners’ hearts.
A survey of 500 residents last year by the group Keep River Lawn Green, when it was trying to stop TMBC from approving the riverside site’s sale to private developers, revealed the interest in a town council stood at 80 per cent.
Mark Hood, who is a member of both campaign groups, says: “Town councils enable communities to get involved in planning matters at an earlier stage.”
But Cllr Heslop counters: “The powers and responsibilities are defined in law and are limited. For example, town and parish councils have no planning powers but are only consultees on planning applications.”
As well as planning, the campaign is seeking greater control in areas such as ‘youth activities, arts and heritage projects, festivals, tourist facilities, information and promotion, town beautification, open spaces and anti-social behaviour prevention’.
Cllr Heslop responds: “If a town council wished to take on responsibility for matters beyond the normal remit of such councils – like running events and tourism etc – then this would carry additional costs for residents and so would involve an enhanced precept.”
He cites examples of towns who do carry out such functions, like Sevenoaks whose precept for 2018-19 will be £114.95, and Dover at £90.48.