North Yorkshire residents facing charges for contested by-elections

Residents living in some areas of North Yorkshire could be faced with paying higher council tax demands to fund contested parish council by-elections from next year if a cost-cutting proposal is approved next week.

The proposed move follows North Yorkshire Council agreeing to shoulder the estimated £70,000 cost of the scheduled four-yearly elections of town and parish councils where there are more candidates than seats, which is a cost over and above what the seven district and borough councils funded.

However, North Yorkshire’s executive will meet on Tuesday (July 18) to consider introducing by-election charges to parishes to realise savings of about £25,000 a year as it continues to tackle a £30m deficit in its first year, despite having made savings and raised council tax.

By-elections for parish and town council vacancies can occur at any time, due to death, disqualification, or resignation of a councillor and introducing charging for all such by-elections would ensure the cost of the poll is met by local residents of the area through the parish precept.

Nevertheless, rather than levying a precept to carry out functions such as grass cutting, some parish councils, such as in the Yorkshire Dales village of Reeth, raise the funds through parking and staging markets.

The cost of holding parish by-elections is dependent on numerous factors, but could run to thousand of pounds, which is a significant cost to split between residents in smaller parishes.

An officer’s report to the executive states town and parish councils have the power to finance the cost of their elections when setting their local precepts.

It states: “Without a recharge policy in place, all North Yorkshire Council taxpayers would bear the burden of the cost of parish elections through the North Yorkshire Council precept, regardless of whether they reside in one of the areas where there is an election.”

However, concerns have been raised about the potential impact on democracy and candidates potentially being discouraged from standing in order to avoid the need for a poll and therefore any recharge costs.

In addition, fears have been raised the potential additional cost of paying when more than one candidate wants to serve on a parish authority could act as a deterrent to some smaller parish councils promoting vacancies and discourage potential candidates from standing for election.

The officers’ report states: “Electoral administrators across North Yorkshire have been unable to find any evidence demonstrating that parish by-elections
decrease due to recharges.

“There is no evidence of recharging parishes having a detrimental impact on parish level democracy.”

The authority’s leader, Councillor Carl Les, said the unitary authority was facing an extra cost of paying for the scheduled parish council elections because it viewed the role of parishes in representing communities as important.

He said: “We are not asking them to pay for scheduled elections, which is different from what the district councils did, however, where there is a by-election it is being proposed we would charge them for the administration of the by-election.”

Councillor Stuart Parsons said the proposal was surprising given the number of parish councils that were struggling to get a full complement of members, the relatively small amount of savings it would achieve and the statements of the Tory administration about valuing local democracy.

He said: “North Yorkshire Council needs to enable parish councils to function, and at the moment, an awful lot of parish councils do not raise money through a precept as they do not believe they should be onerous on the residents.

“There should be nothing that is a barrier to local democracy. If a parish councillor steps down parish councils and residents may well wish that not more than one person puts themselves forward, or else they will have to pay for a by-election.”