In April this year the District council contacted Parish/Town councils to inform them that the District Council had been financially impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and that they intended to pay two instalments of 25% as opposed to the 50% instalment that had previously been agreed.
At yesterday’s full council meeting Cllr John Williams, Lib Dem Cabinet Member for Finance, admitted that “the Council had not followed the Local Authorities (Funds) (England) Regulations.” The Regulations state that 50% of parish precepts must be paid within one month of the start of the Financial year (1st April 2020). The Council did not pay the first 50% in full until mid-May, after one month and therefore unlawfully withheld funds.
While it has been claimed that Parish Councils had been “asked” the Conservative Group challenge this, as the email that was sent states “we are going to have to pay our precepts to you in a slightly different way than usual.” The group believes that the words “have to” do not signal a request but a fait accompli. It was confirmed in Cllr John Williams' statement, that if an authority requested to be paid in accordance with the regulations, they had been.
But how many parish/town councils would have thought to check the District Council was acting lawfully? It could be said that the District Council has abused its position of authority, given its size, status and resources in comparison to the Parish/Town Councils.
Cllr Heather Williams, Leader of the Conservative Group at South Cambs
“Opposition councillors, were informed of the decision to withhold the parish precepts after the parish/town councils had been contacted. From that moment on, our group have been concerned that the council acted unlawfully. I personally raised this with the Leader of the Council, and never felt I had a convincing response. Only after Cllr Richard Williams raised the issue at the July full council meeting were we given a true answer, and indeed confirmation that we were right, the council had acted unlawfully. If we as an opposition group, who only had access to information in the public domain, could see that this was not legal then, in my view, there is no excuse for the Cabinet Members and Leader of the council to be unaware the decisions they were making were unlawful. The suggestion that parishes would have to ask to be paid in a lawful way is outrageous, but I must admit relief that our group has finally been listened to, and the public finally know what has happened.”
The Local Authorities (Funds) (England) Regulations 1992 Act has a provision for councils to claim interest on the amounts paid after the due date, so only time will tell if this latest Saga at South Cambs has been laid to rest.