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Confusion over parish funding for West Berkshire libraries

Legal restrictions may prevent many councils from contributing

FUNDING for West Berkshire’s threatened libraries has been plunged into doubt over a “narrow interpretation of the law”.

West Berkshire Council has asked town and parish councils to pay a combined £150,000 to help to keep them open.

However, with less than two weeks until the district council makes a decision on the future of its libraries, it has been forced to admit it is unlikely to reach that target.

This is because it has been hit with the news that some parishes may not have the legal power to make a financial contribution, following advice issued by The Berkshire Association of Local Councils (BALC).

Under the Local Government Act, local authorities – which include parish councils – may only spend money on what they believe will bring direct benefits to their area or to all or some residents.

A parish may not incur expenditure, however, unless the direct benefit will be commensurate with the expenditure to be incurred.

The issue is complicated further by recent legislation called the general power of competence, which allows councils “to do anything that individuals generally may do”.

This means that local authorities are not required to identify a specific benefit for their area when using their power.

With only a handful of the 59 parishes that the district council has requested funds from having the general power of competence – which is defined by the parish council having a qualified clerk and a certain number of elected councillors – uncertainty remains as to whether the majority of them are able to pay.

Indeed, confusion over the interpretation of the guidance was debated at a recent meeting of Cold Ash Parish Council with councillors deferring a decision until the legalities had been cleared up.

Responding to the situation, West Berkshire Council’s member for culture, Dominic Boeck (Con, Aldermaston), said he was disappointed with BALC’s “narrow interpretation of the law”.

“Their advice is they can’t meet our request,” he said. “Our view is BALC’s interpretation of the law is a very narrow one. We don’t agree with their interpretation.

“A lot of councils are saying ‘we want to support you but we have this advice’ and understandably parishes are concerned.”

Mr Boeck said that guidance from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had indicated that councils and communities should come up with innovative ways of maintaining a library service.

“Our request to the parish and town councils is exactly the sort of initiative that the Government expects of us,” he said.

“If parish councils are minded to support us with a cash contribution, and we sincerely hope that they will support their library service, they should speak to officers and we will be able to give them advice.

“I’m disappointed that BALC are taking such a narrow view.”

When asked about the contributions received, Mr Boeck said: “We are not going to make the whole £150,000.

“There are some parishes who don’t levy a precept at the moment and there are some that are very concerned about the BALC advice.”

BALC declined to comment.

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