Reader's Letter: Proposed merger may disadvantage Handforth residents

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All three elected town or parish councils involved in the Cheshire East Council (CEC) proposal to merge Chorley, Handforth and Wilmslow have already voiced their opposition to the proposed merger. In view of this, it is perhaps surprising that CEC have persisted in progressing the proposal to the stage of public consultation. However, it has to be admitted that the process of public consultation is necessary for a truly democratic approach to deciding whether or not the three parishes should merge.

It is our view that none of the various parameters (electorate size and housing development data; local elections nominations data; parish/town council workload; pre-consultation survey responses) used to decide the fate of parishes is fit for purpose. Indeed the poor quality of the parameters used to decide the fate of parishes undermines the very basis of the proposed merger.

Tenuous arguments have been advanced to suggest that Handforth and Wilmslow represent the same community or that Handforth is dependent on services only available in Wilmslow. However such arguments are not supported by credible evidence. Handforth Parish Council has a proud record of (independent) service to its local community and the past disagreements within that Council should not be used to argue for its dissolution by merger with its larger neighbour, Wilmslow.

If the proposed merger of Handforth with Wilmslow and Chorley were to go ahead, Handforth would be represented by only four seats on an expanded Wilmslow Town Council totalling 20 seats. It therefore seems likely that Handforth's influence over planning matters including negotiations for the spending of S106 or CIL money would be greatly weakened.

The Local Government Boundary Commission Guidance on Community Governance Reviews page 32, para 114 states that "Grouping or degrouping needs to be compatible with the retention of community interests. It would be inappropriate for it to be used to build artificially large units under single parish councils". It would therefore seem to us that the CEC proposal to merge Handforth with Wilmslow and Chorley does not accord with The Local Government Boundary Commission Guidance on Community Governance Reviews.

In conclusion it seems to us that the proposed merger of the three parishes may be very much to the disadvantage of residents of Handforth. For a more detailed critique Handforth residents are encouraged to visit Handforth Town Council website: https://handforthtowncouncil.gov.uk/archive/Documents/Merger-Of-Parishes.pdf

Roger Small (Chair)
Alan Murdoch (Vice Chair)
Handforth Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group

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Comments

Here's what readers have had to say so far. Why not add your thoughts below.

Howard Piltz
Wednesday 8th September 2021 at 12:40 pm
I have long felt that Cheshire East Council gives the WILMSLOW area a very low priority and therefore that all decision making affecting this area should be vested SOLELY in WILMSLOW Town Council with CEC serving only as a service provider.
In any boundary changes I would include Styal and Alderley Edge as they are very much part of our community and Styal in particular needs the weight of a larger council against the expansionist Manchester Airport
Toni Fox
Wednesday 8th September 2021 at 8:25 pm
I have no opinion on this either way and no longer being a resident or Councillor of Cheshire East the outcome will no longer affect me, however, I would like to offer some food for thought having been involved in the initial process.

May I suggest that it would be helpful if Dr. Small could provide a breakdown of the income and costs of running Handforth Parish Council and Chorley Council thus highlighting the net balance that is currently available to spend in the local community?

If they were to be merged with Wilmslow how much more money would be available to spend on matters that are important to residents?

Given that Handforth Parish is largely, or wholly, comprised of Independent candidates and the recent success of Independent candidates at Wilmslow Town Council, it is not unreasonable to anticipate that at the next elections in 2023 (if the merger went ahead) that Independent candidates would have a majority on the merged Council.
Thursday 9th September 2021 at 12:51 pm
I think that cost argument is not the over-riding factor here. The key word in Local Government is clearly local. Having people who live in the village and with the demise of the controlling group, that are committed to improving the lot of the Village and its residents is almost independent of cost. A good example of this is the setting up a local help group of fifty volunteers to provide shopping and prescription pickup during the pandemic. This was organised by Ward councilor Smith and Parish councilors Smith, Samson and Moore. It cost nothing but people’s time. Further more Cheshire East’s assertion that Wilmslow and Handforth is a community is laughable.
Toni Fox
Thursday 9th September 2021 at 4:20 pm
Sadly the ongoing reduction of grants by the Government to Local Authorities is inevitably having a negative impact on the services it provides to residents. Town and Parish Councils have the opportunity, if they wish, to offer financial assistance for some services - the new initiative for paying for highways improvements being a prime example.

My understanding is that Handforth Parish Councils' annual income is £90,000 however it costs £50,000 a year to run it.

Potentially therefore an additional £50,000 a year could be made available to spend on residents.

Is there any reason why such excellent initiatives as the one mentioned by Mr Moore could not continue in a merged council?
Stuart Redgard
Thursday 9th September 2021 at 5:43 pm
I am against this merger and have been ever since I first heard about it. As someone who lives in Wilmslow, my opinion is that Chorley, Handforth, and Wilmslow are all separate communities. I, therefore, support the argument being put forward by the authors of the letter.

It is my understanding that all three Town/Parish councils are against the merger. Handforth Parish and Wilmslow Town Councils have also only existed for just over 10 years. They were created after a public referendum on whether to have one council for Handforth Styal and Wilmslow or three separate councils. The electorate chose to have three separate councils. So why do a group of unelected council officers believe that they know how the communities operate and what their separate needs are better than that of the electorate?

I hope that the electorate of all three parishes choose to complete the consultation survey and make their feelings known.

With regard to cost, I can only assume that the "new" council created from the merger of the three would have the same workload and therefore require the same number of support staff. Wilmslow Town Council already has one full-time and two part-time members of staff. I believe that Chorley Parish Council employs a part-time clerk but I do not know how many staff Handforth Parish council employs and on what basis.

The electorate of Handforth and Chorley also have less representation per elector on the proposed merged council compared to the current arrangement.

Basically in my opinion it's a bad deal for the electorate of Chorley, Handforth, and Wilmslow and I hope the proposal does not go ahead.
Toni Fox
Thursday 9th September 2021 at 10:13 pm
Cheshire East Council was required to carry out a review to ensure that community governance arrangements continue to reflect local identities and facilitate effective and convenient local government. It was not a choice to carry out the review, it was a requirement from Government.

Sadly, as with the demise of Macclesfield Borough Council, finance is one of the optimum considerations in changes to governance.

Whilst currently these areas may be considered as separate communities, the threats that they face are all the same - lack of funds and pressure for more development.

Together we stand, divided we fall......
Saturday 11th September 2021 at 10:46 am
I think Stuart Redgard is spot on with his analysis of the situation. Out of interest Chorley and Handforth share the same Clerk. Apparently Wilmslow Town council are already suggesting they would need extra staff. There will be no real saving in cost just a poorer service for Handforth.
Toni Fox
Saturday 11th September 2021 at 7:28 pm
Residents deserve to be able to make an informed decision rather than one based on supposition.

Unless there is evidence to support that additional staff would be needed, and unless you can explain why Handforth would receive a poorer service, your comments Peter are disingenuous and misleading.

The current evidential information available suggests that an additional £50,000 could be made available to spend on schemes that will be of benefit to residents.

If you have different evidential information perhaps you would like to share it.
Roger Small
Tuesday 21st September 2021 at 3:05 pm
Toni Fox states that, since she is no longer a resident or councillor of Cheshire East, the outcome of the Cheshire East Review of Local Governance will no longer affect her. That seems true enough. However, she also states that she has no opinion either way as regards the proposal to merge Wilmslow, Handforth and Chorley. This I find very difficult to believe. As a self-professed member of the Local Governance Review Committee Toni must surely have expressed an opinion during the drafting of that committee’s report. The nature of that opinion becomes very obvious from the four (!!!) comments that she has now lodged concerning the “Reader’s letter”. Toni is clearly in favour of the merger and she should therefore retract her statement that she has no opinion either way. Toni is a former resident of Handforth and a former member of Handforth Parish Council and, as such, her admission (see her third comment above) that Wilmslow, Handforth and Chorley are currently considered as separate communities seems at variance with her presumed wish to see the three communities merged. However, her support for the merger clearly has a financial basis, for she recommends a comparison of the income and running costs (available for inspection on the Handforth Town Council website) of Handforth Town Council.
I would like to remind Toni that the above Reader’s letter relates to the CEC Review of Local Governance and not to any local cost-cutting exercise. I have carefully read through the Local Government Boundary Commission's Guidance on Community Governance Reviews and can find no reference to the making of financial savings as a tool for deciding whether parish mergers should occur. The same is true of the recently-issued document, Cheshire East Community Governance Review - Part 2. Furthermore, I cannot recall reference to financial savings as a decision-making tool in any other CEC-issued document relating to the present Review of Community Governance. Suspecting that the cost of running a local (parish/town) council is not a material issue in the conduct of a Review of Local Governance, I sought the view of Brian Reed (Head of Democratic Services and Governance Cheshire East Council) on this matter. Brian kindly replied by means of an e-mail (received 21st Sept 2021) in which he states “The review (of Community Governance) is certainly not motivated by any desire to see savings. Parish councils set their own precepts and control their own financial destinies.”
The true nature of the CEC Review of Community Governance is succinctly expressed in Section 3 of the public consultation document issued by CEC which states that “CEC has to ensure that parish governance arrangements are:
i) reflective of the identities and interests of the community in that area
ii) effective and convenient (this relates to the ability of parishes to provide services for its residents”
That Handforth Town Council is effective in providing services for its residents and that a merger with Wilmslow would not reflect the identity or interests of Handforth residents is discussed in detail on the Handforth Town Council website (https://handforthtowncouncil.gov.uk/archive/Documents/Merger-Of-Parishes.pdf). Is Handforth Town Council convenient for its residents? According to the Local Government Boundary Commission Guidance on Community Governance Reviews (page 21, para 63), “if they (local councils) are to be convenient they need to be easy to reach.” Handforth Town Council currently meets in the Youth Centre on Old Road – a site conveniently close to the heart if the village. What would happen if the base of Handforth’s local council were to be moved to Wilmslow? Given the present poor quality of public transport in the Handforth/Wilmslow area and the poor (pay and display system; low number of parking places) parking provision at the Carrs, moving the base of Handforth’s local council to Wilmslow would be very inconvenient for Handforth’s residents and the participation of Handforth residents in the affairs of their local council would therefore be expected to decrease. In my view this represents another argument for opposing the proposed merger of parishes.
Toni Fox
Wednesday 22nd September 2021 at 10:28 pm
Roger,

The points I made (as a former resident and Councillor), and one that I hope you would agree with, is that residents have a right to be aware of all of the facts and implications in order to make a fully informed decision.

Whilst financial savings, meaning more money could be available to be spent on residents, may not be a consideration for the Committee, it is a fact never-the-less that this would be the outcome if the merger went ahead.

To correct and respond to your other points.

I was one of a number of members of the Governance Review Sub-Committee, not a member of the Committee that approved the recommendations currently out for public consultation.

Section 3 of the public consultation:

(i) There are different local communities and groups within most towns and villages most clearly defined by the variety of Facebook pages that are available. Having a merged Town and Parish Council does not mean that these communities or groups will cease to exist, or, that they will not be represented by their elected councillors.

(ii) With respect, there is little to no physical public attendance at either Handforth Parish Council meetings or Wilmslow Town Council meetings aside from Neighbourhood Plan members.
Stuart Redgard
Friday 24th September 2021 at 5:28 pm
Toni Fox

A breakdown of the income and costs of running Handforth Parish Council and Chorley Council are all contained in the Annual Returns available from each council on request.

If they were to be merged with Wilmslow no more money would be available to spend on matters that are important to residents without an increase on the precept.

Your understanding of a potential £50,000 cost saving is a theoretical one not an actual one as is not based on actual evidence. It may be that the cost of running the merged councils gives no saving.

The current evidential information DOES NOT suggest that an additional £50,000 could be made available to spend on schemes that will be of benefit to residents.

On what evidence are you basing this supposition? Please share it by getting the actual figures rather than what you think they are?

You are correct when you state that Cheshire East Council was required to carry out a review to ensure that community governance arrangements continue to reflect local identities and facilitate effective and convenient local government. However, the proposed merger does not reflect local identities and facilitate effective and convenient local government.

Finance has got nothing to do with reflecting local identities. The electorates position 10 years ago was clear. They considered Handforth and Wilmslow as two seprate communities with differing identities. That’s why Handforth and Wilmslow now both have separate a differing neighbourhood plans. These plans were developed in the majority by volunteers from each neighbourhood.

Finance has not been put forward as one of the optimum considerations for this change to governance.The document has made no reference to the threats that they face.

Wilmslow Town council has a surplus of funds running into several hundred thousand pounds.

There are no threats of more development. Development has been fixed by the adopted local plan and by having a 5 years housing supply plan.

THE THREE COUNCILS ARE STANDING TOGETHER. They are ALL Against the merger. The local govenance system is not divided.

Yes, residents deserve to be able to make an informed decision rather than one based on supposition. What the document produced by the committee states is a supposition that Wilmslow and Handforth act as one community. They clearly do not as evidenced by the adopted local plan. Wilmslow and Handforth are both identified as Key Service Centres. Not one Key Service Centre.

I would have hoped that in making the recommendations the authors of the report had been aware of all of the facts and implications to enable the electorate to make make a fully informed decision. They obviously were not.

With regards to public attendance at Wilmslow Parish Council meetings; As a regular attendee of the meetings of Wilmslow Town Council from its very first meeting, your statement is factually incorrect. I don’t recall you ever attending a meeting at which I was present. How many meetings of Wilmslow Town Council have you actually attended?
Pete Taylor
Friday 26th November 2021 at 10:32 am
It seems that perhaps now the statement THE THREE COUNCILS ARE STANDING TOGETHER is no longer the case, see here:

https://www.wilmslow.co.uk/news/article/22082/handforth-councillor-urges-residents-to-support-merger-with-wilmslow-and-chorley

If some Handforth Councillors have changed their minds, what are their reasons?
Stuart Redgard
Friday 26th November 2021 at 11:42 pm
Peter.

The three councils are united. It is one CEC ward councillor for Handforth that is in favour of the merger.

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