Council Taxes are too high – time for change

Council taxes are too high, and in many places are rising too quickly. I welcome today’s news that a Conservative government would give local electors the right to demand a referendum where they thought the Council Tax was too high and should be brought down. We need such a countervailing power. We need some way of standing up for the taxpayer. I also welcome the news that they want to scrap some bits of regional government at the same time: the more the better.

Why can’t more Councillors and Councils do this? Most of them if asked agree that many voters want a lower tax. I have been consulted this year by some Councillors on the detailed budget making of a local authority (not Wokingham). It has been a useful reminder of just how difficult a task it is for Councillors.

The first problem they need to tackle when budget making is the information they get sent. All the Councils I have know over many years receive budget papers in the same useless form. Officers start on the basis that everything being spent in the outgoing year is a given. They then compile a list of “unavoidable” commitments to add to last year’s total. On goes the revenue consequences of last year’s new projects, the need to make crucial repairs to capital assets which they otherwise have not provided for, pay rises agreed, automatic bonuses, the consequences of government circulars seeking more actions by Councils (whether they are statutory or advisory), and any other item they can kitchen sink. They usually claim Council inflation is much higher than CPI inflation, and put a large figure in for that as well.

This produces typically the “need” for a 6-10% increase in Council Tax for a so-called “standstill” budget. If Councillors accept this work of fiction, they are on the hook for a bruising and ultimately unsuccessful budget process. If Councillors counter by saying they want to do something new in one or two areas, that is extra making the Council Tax increase even higher. If they request a reduction in the proposed tax increase – and they usually do – officers then come forward with “cuts”. These are usually carefully chosen to cause maximum political pain. They typically propose surrogate tax increases – higher car parking charges, planning fees, congestion charges and the like, and insensitive reductions in service, often aimed at the most vulnerable.

In the bargaining that follows the worst of the “cuts” are avoided, the fat in the budget is left untouched and neither side are happy with the result. Opposition Councillors have a field day if the process is public or news leaks out, as they can condemn the incumbents for daring to look at the uninviting list of cuts and charges the officers have dreamt up to try to keep the budget high.

So what should Councillors do? They should do what they do with their own family and business budgets. In tight years all items of spending are under review. The aim is to cut out the least desirable items, not the most sensitive, and to deliver the same or more for less by spending more wisely. To do this the first round of budget papers should n ot present existing spending as a given, but should question why the Council is doing its more marginal things., and question how it can do everything needed more effectively. Councillors should ask amongst other things

1. How much is the budget for Consultants? Why can’t this work b e done in house by existing officers? Why are we often paying twice for the same thing?
2. How much is the Council spending on energy? Would spending on insulation, heating controls and better management of buildings use slash this budget in year? Can the energy contracts be renegotiated on more favourable terms?
3. How much is the Council spending on transport? Can the contracts be better managed? Can more transport be grouped to minimise journeys and maximise use?
4. What is the budget for “fact finding travel” and conferences? Is all this necessary?
5. What is the budget for PR? Why can’t Councillors do more of their own communication, without relying on officers who have to be careful not to be political in their messages with Council money?
6. How many surplus assets does the Council have? Can some of these be sold to cut debt?
7. How good is the Council’s cash management? Can they earn a better return on balances without putting it in an Icelandic bank?
8. How many layers of management does the Council have? Why can’t this be slimmed down through natural wastage?
9. Wouldn’t a staff freeze generally be a good idea to make manning more efficient? Couldn’t the Council cut the number of committees which need servicing, and concentrate on the big issues that matter.
10. Why is the Chief Executive’s office so large and expensive. Doesn’t economy begin at the top?

Councillors are part time, and face clever officers often determined to expand their empires. Leaders need to tell officers many of the present budget papers are not fit for purpose. They need to introduce commonsense budgets, as many of them run elsewhere.

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42 Comments

  1. Posted February 17, 2009 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    I am waiting for a politician to give the people an itemised breakdown of what the bailout funds have been used for.

    How much is it, who got it, why did they get it?

    The British taxpayers have no information on any of it except that the banks have it, yet despite government is giving it, we haven’t a clue what it’s been used for.

    Why isn’t the media asking?

    Why are taxpayers not informed?

    Why is Gordon Brown not being held to account for every penny of our money which he has given to the banking industry?

  2. Colin D.
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    No use Cameron winning plaudits for returning power to local councils but leaving the unelected Regional Authorities in place to take it way again.

    Reply: Agreed – that’s why he is proposing their abolition, as argued here many times.

  3. cuffleyburgers
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Your description of the council budget process is absolutely spot on.

    What you don’t explicitly add is that the same process works at a national level, and in itself is enough to make a compelling case for smaller government.

    Not spending less in each department, but actively withdrawing from whole swathes of activity.

    Unfortunately as long as their is a cynical and incompetent (present company excepted ;-)) political class in charge, this will never happen.

    I hope Cameron will have a damascene moment on crossing the threshold into number 10 and suddenly become a sort of latter day Thatcher, bashing people over the head and laying waste to the quangocracy…

  4. Paul
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    One of the few pieces I’ve ever read which points out the real problem with Local Government – which party is in control is almost an irrelevance.

    The problem is not really the elected councillors, it’s the unelected empire building permanent staff.

    One factor you haven’t mentioned here is the effect of the Standards Board for England, which allows the permanent staff to silence difficult councillors for utterly trivial reasons.

    One thing that is certainly worth bringing in IMO (& I hate quangos) is a similar quango for the permanent staff. At present there is no real route of complaint at *all* – with the exception of the expensive and difficult (impossible ?) to prove malicious intent.

  5. Posted February 17, 2009 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    I can add to that list the need for zero-base budgeting; not every year for all services, but a rolling programme across all a council’s services.

    The evidence from CCT – Planning and Land Act and 1988 LG Act services – is that zero base budgeting brought forward many of the long-run adjustments in the supply curve that led to efficiencies of up to 20%.

    And the Audit Commission have said that unless councils involve local people in the design and delivery of services then they are locking-in inefficiencies and delivering ineffective services.

    The effect of the 2000 LG Act in restricting the executive to ten councillors has had a retrograde effect; officers now look to Whitehall rather than their own members for management and direction, members have found themselves disempowered and the quality of those willing to serve as local councillors has fallen dramatically.

    As Caroline Spellman admitted on the radio this morning, you’re not only reversing the trend since 1997 but since 1979, when central Statism was an unwanted by-product of tackling the loony / rainbow left. In the words of St Paul, test all things, hold fast that which is good. And some reforms – the innovation of zero-base budgeting that came as a response to CCT – are well worth holding fast to.

  6. Posted February 17, 2009 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    In this climate of lay offs, recession and job hunting, where an unemployed man or woman are struggling with the same mortgage payment, the same utility costs and the same food needs but with a Job Seekers allowance of £60.50 per week or £242 per month, versus their former income. Then it seems to me to be a ridiculously low amount given that the government’s own figures say that the minimum level of income required is around £12,000 (£1,000 per month).

    This article by Chad Graham – Feb. 15, 2009 12:00 AM from The Arizona Republic: http://tinyurl.com/dzhf2b describes unemployment benefit in America and complains about the amount they get on ‘unemployment’ yet American unemployed receive far higher levels of benefit than unemployed in Britain.

    Quote: “As the recession worsens, more Arizonans are running into a scary economic reality once they start receiving unemployment: the state’s rock-bottom benefits. At most, a laid-off worker can collect $240 per week. That amount ranks behind every other state except for Mississippi ($210 per week) and Alabama ($230 per week), according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But many Arizonans are not getting that full amount. The average worker is receiving $219.98 per week or slightly less than $880 per month. Unemployment is based on wages earned during a one-year period”.

    $880 Dollars by todays exchange equals: £619. This means that a British unemployed worker would receive £377 per month LESS than his equivalent unemployed in America.

    That’s £377 less for mortgage or rent, utilities and food, so why do the government and other politicians give the unemployed such a hard time? Is it their fault we’re in a recession?
    Quote from a Greek:

    For the unemployed people, the allowance in Greece, is paid once a month, for 25 days. From 01.09.2008 until 30.04.2009 the monthly allowance amounts to 430.75 euros and lasts up to 12 months. For each member of the family allowance is increased by 10%. For the long-term unemployed, (45-65 years), who have exhausted the 12 months allowance above, the allowance is 200 € per month.

    Note: USA benefits are hugely more than in either Britain or Greece yet our politicians treat unemployed people as if it’s “their fault” they can’t find a job.

    When an unemployed British person gets a job, then he’ll be ‘grateful’ to find one with the minimum wage. He could well have to travel 10 or more miles and he’ll need transport costs, which because he’s earning the minimum wage, he can’t afford. If it’s a car with an easy down payment ( the cheapest option as public transport is too expensive ), then he’s in debt yet his living wage is insufficient to meet the cost of debt. He then takes a credit card to LIVE and places himself in greater poverty.

    WHY?
    Because the minimum wage is not enough and his benefits were not enough.

    AGAIN.
    Where has the taxpayers money gone and why are British taxpayers forced into poverty by an unthinking Labour Government?

    • chris southern
      Posted February 17, 2009 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      it’s the cost of living that’s too high, through taxation.
      that’s what makes the minimum wage inadiquate. if you push it up even higher then business can’t afford as many staff on the payroll, it’s the same when the goverment/eu starts to install additional taxes on buisness.
      it’s the people that suffer due to either less jobs (meaning more on benefits and therefore more demand on the tax payer) or higher cost of living.

      it’s something that people who haven’t run a business don’t understand, which is why champaigne socialists always screw things up, as they don’t understand how taxes affect everything in a negative way.

  7. Posted February 17, 2009 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    All true, but asking councillors to shrink their empire and sense of self-importance is beyond most of them I fancy. You do highlight the key issue however, how come council tax always goes up with no pressure the other way?

    It seems to me that one of the key problems is the deliberately byzantine nature of our tax system, designed to mask what the effective tax rate actually is. Of the top of my head I can think of: Income tax, national insurance, VAT, council tax, business rates, fuel duty, insurance premium tax, stamp duty, alcohol duty, road tax, car purchase tax, airline ticket taxes, tax on the interest from savings, capital gains tax, inheritance tax, doubtless I have missed some.

    An honest government would say “nationally” we will take 22% (or whatever) of income and the regional government could say we will take 5%. This would be straightforward and dispense with the need for me to pay my accountant more than I was required to pay on the self-assessment return (for the third straight year!).

    Indeed, I seem to recall a paper by Peter Lilley (though I maybe wrong) suggesting that a local purchase tax is the way to fund local government as it would introduce downward pressure on local taxes via tax competition.

    • chris southern
      Posted February 17, 2009 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      purchase tax on goods instead of vat with the tax going to local council is the way to go.
      reduced council taxes going towards local services means the money goes towards what it should as well.

      all of it won’t mean s@@t though if we don’t get away from fractional reserve banking as that actively encourages/creates inflation which given 40 or so years just puts us back in the same place where everything costs way too much compared to wages.

  8. Acorn
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Spot on JR. If you really want to scare the Officers start talking about a “zero based budget exercise”. They will claim they do not have the resources to do this and actually they won’t, but it does rattle them.

    Find out how your council’s budget is constructed. It is often done in three levels. The lowest being the Business Units, then the Management Units and the highest (and most condensed information wise) is the one the Councillors get; Revenue and Capital Budget. If you want to see who is actually spending the money, you need to scrutinise the Business Unit budget books. This is a big job, and you will not be able to do them all, democratically, at budget time.

    With surplus assets, ask specifically for “non-operational” assets, including all land and buildings. If you can get a current market value for these even better. You may end up giving these away to RSLs to build social housing; for which you will pay through the nose.

    Always question obscure budget section headings, some will be disguising pension fund contributions for early leavers etc. Ask what the pension fund deficit is; and how much of your money is leaking out to local quangos (partnerships).

    Find your council’s Treasury Manager and Asset Manager. Nail them to a committee room wall; don’t let them down till they tell you where ALL the cash and liquid assets are stashed for next election goodies. There will be provisions; reserves and quarantined investments that will not be obvious to the average councillor.

    Remember that the majority of what your council spends is due to central government diktat. The budget approval process will end up being a pissing contest at the top of the mountain, (a few percent of gross spending). The officers will have arranged things so that you can’t see how high the mountain is. After all, they don’t want amateur councillors buggering up the system.

  9. Posted February 17, 2009 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    “ZERO BASED BUDGETING”

    LEGISLATE FOR IT.

  10. alan jutson
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    John
    Your comments on Council tax are well made and well meaning, but a couple of the overriding problems with Council tax is the Grant given by the Government towards local expenses.

    You will know well that Wokingham gets a very very low Government grant (one of the lowest in the Country, as does its Primary Care Authority) as we are deemed by Government to all be too well off, and too healthy in this area.
    Other mostly Labour Controlled Councils, get a higher percentage grant.
    In addition we are informed by the media that now about 25% of money raised in Council Tax goes on Funding the Pension scheme for retired Local Public employees.

    It would seem to me that the local Authorities are being asked to fund and run too many jobs which should be costed and paid for in the National budget. The provision of funding for education, the provision of funding for Police and Fire service, the payment of benefits and a whole host of other services.

    The actual money left over seems to be but a small amount of the total raised by Council tax and assumes because you live in a large house you can afford to pay more.

    I am not a Councillor so do not know the intimate workings of the Local Authorities problems or Legal responsibilities, and whilst I do not believe in Central Government certain things like Benefits, Education, the NHS, Police and the like are supposed to be National in kind with National criteria.
    Clearly they are not as anyone who has attempted to get treatment, post code lottery of drugs, or Care Home provision and help, or school choice will know.

    Thatcher attempted to get a fairer system with the Poll Tax where everyone paid a little, unfortunately those who previously had paid nothing managed to get this scrapped. So fewer people now pay more.

    The fact of the matter is a huge percentage of the basic State Pension of residents goes on paying Council Tax, unless you wish to bear your soul and go for means tested benefits. So we have the situation where some of the State pension of the retired goes to funding the Retirement of Council employees.

    I am all for sensible Accounting and Value for money but the system itself seems very wrong.

    50 years ago the Councils priority was cleaning and maintaining the roads and paths and ditches, good refuse collection, parks and open spaces maintained, supervision of local schools, etc.

    Now its all about collecting money by as many methods as possible (parking, speed camera’s, tax etc) and distributing money to those who can claim it.
    They seem to be more like a Bank than a provider of Services for the people of the Borough.

    • Posted February 17, 2009 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      If I may, a very good series of points.

      • Robert
        Posted February 17, 2009 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

        Spot on!Councils should only provide those basic services which allow communities to function.

  11. Posted February 17, 2009 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Notwithstanding that councils waste far too much money, it is taxes on incomes and production (about 90% of all tax revenues) that are far too high and have the most damaging effects on the economy, investment returns, employment figures.

    If anything, property taxes are far too low (in which I include Council Tax, Stamp Duty, Inheritance Tax – all taken in isolation pretty evil taxes, as they are all inherently unfair, but taken across the population and over time, the unfairness tends to even out), and as every serious economist from Adam Smith and David Ricardo onwards explained, such taxes have no damaging effect on the economy as land (and to large extent buildings) are in fixed supply, it is a straight expenditure tax but unlike e.g. VAT does not simultaneously discourage production as once a buuilding has been built is does not need to be produced again.

    The inherent unfairness of Council Tax, Stamp Duty, Inheritance Tax could be abolished at a stroke if they were replaced with a flat percentage tax on total property values (as was introduced in Northern Ireland a couple of years ago).

    One of the worst result of this terrible shift from taxing property to taxing production is to shift investment from heavily taxed production to lightly taxed property – which leads to the eighteen year property boom bust cycle, which as is being played out yet again before our very eyes, leads to recessions or depressions.

    No doubt somebody will play the ‘little old lady in the family home’ card, even Winston Churchill had tired of answering this one a century ago – the answer is that they would be able to roll up unpaid tax interest free until they die, the arrears to be paid out of the sale proceeds of the house – unless other family members intend to move in, in which case they can pay the tax as they go along on their mother’s behalf.

    And the ‘ability to pay’ is a nonsense as well. Rich people live in big houses in nice areas and would pay a lot more property tax than a single person in an ex-council flat. The precise amount due would be a function of how much first time buyers can afford to pay for similar homes in any area, and if they can afford it, by definition, existing home-owners with higher incomes and smaller mortgages would be able to afford it as well.

    And if replacing Council Tax, Stamp Duty & Inheritance tax seems too radical, existing home-owners could be allowed to continue to pay these taxes and the flat property tax would only apply to subsequent purchasers (click my name above for more details), who would of course be exempt from Council Tax, Stamp Duty and Inheritance Tax (existing home-owners would be free to ‘opt in’ if it suited them).

    • Robert
      Posted February 17, 2009 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

      Houses are bought of taxed income – I do not believe in double taxation – so no – the poll tax is the right way – pay for what you use!

      • Posted February 17, 2009 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

        OK, you say “you should pay for what you use” (in which case, how do you justify income tax??).

        I personally think it is far better to pay for the VALUE of what you get than to be forced to pay towards the COST of what they decide to do with your money.

        If the council does a bad job, house prices go down, taxes go down and vice versa. So the level of the tax in each area is dictated by how much people are prepared to pay for houses in that area, part of which relates to bricks and mortar but a large part to factors under the control of the council e.g. quality of local schools, crime levels, how clean and well lit the streets are, and so on.

        • alan jutson
          Posted February 18, 2009 at 8:54 am | Permalink

          Not only when houses are bought do you pay tax.
          When they are sold Stamp Duty is charged.
          When you repair them or improve them Vat is charged.
          When you pay for heating Vat is charged.
          When you furnish them Vat is paid,
          Council tax is already charged on their value
          When you die Inheritance tax is paid.
          There is enough taxation on Houses already, all from income which has already been taxed.

          If you want to get the building industry moving then reduce VAT and at the same time kill off the cash (black economy) cowboys who do not pay tax.

        • Robert
          Posted February 18, 2009 at 10:39 am | Permalink

          Sadly that is not and never will be the case! My phrase of ‘you should pay for what you use’ applies to the fact that individuals not houses per se use council services.

        • Posted February 18, 2009 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

          Alan Jutson, that’s a good list – and it is exactly those taxes that should be scrapped and replaced with some sort of property value tax! But don’t forget that the long term capital gains are tax free (unless caught by IHT) and that the notional rental income is untaxed as well.

          Why would anybody invest in shares, the profits on which are heavily taxed and then pay CGT when he sells if he can make tax free capital gains through home-ownership? Well, the answer is they don’t, which is why we have house price bubbles and chronic under-saving and under-investment in the UK.

          Robert, if three adults share a house and next door one adult lives alone, do the three adults ‘use’ three times as much streetlighting? Does their bin need to be emptied three times a week? Don’t they pay three times as much income tax and VAT as the single person?

          Remember always that council tax only covers about a quarter of council spending, the bulk is out of redistributed income tax etc. If we have, allegedly a housing shortgage in this country and apparently no new houses may be built, then isn’t it better if people use available houses more efficiently?

  12. A. Sedgwick
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Council tax should be abolished and local government needs root and branch reform. I believe central government pays up to 75% of the cost. The bureaucracy that flows from this is mind numbing. Education should be removed from local government with every school being financed centrally and run by the teachers, governors and parents just as private schools run. The Police need to be reorganised under the direct control of the Home Secretary as I think is the case with the “Met.” Each conurbation should have an elected executive Mayor as with London. It should be financed by an increase in central income tax and a payment per head of population formula worked out. The situation we are now in whereby 25% and rising of council tax goes to pay pensions when low income pensioners can go to jail for non payment of this iniquitous tax is decidely Nulabouresque. Regrettably the Conservative response is pathetic and if the Libdems do continue their intention of a local income tax it could have electoral implications.

  13. backofanenvelope
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    The problem is that councils are not responsive enough to the local electorate.

    We should have an annual election day when 25% of the councillors stand for election.

    Down here in Cornwall, the ruling clique on the County Council (Lib-dem) have decided that the County council should swallow up the district councils. All the evidence suggests there is little support for this. When something happens like this, then at the next election they will be out.

    This would also concentrate their minds about the council tax. Just imagine a swinging increase in April followed by electoral disaster in May!

  14. Posted February 17, 2009 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    John, if your observations are correct (and I have no reason to believe that they are not) it merely strengthens arguments in favour of a massive slashing of the apparatus of state, whether it be Council or Civil Service.

    I’m really tired of handing over huge amounts of my salary to incompetent wastrels and political game players.

  15. David Eyles
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Another thing to add to your list is the amount of time that officers go off on “training” courses. This is a direct cost of the courses and expenses, plus the indirect cost of wasted time, not being on seat and having to delay or have someone else do the work, or “overtime” to catch up when they get back. If we compare the actual cost, on an hourly basis, of employing an officer after he or she has taken courses, time off in lieu of overtime, sick days, “duvet days” or unable to turn up for work because there is an inch of snow on their driveway, we will soon get to the levels of cost that we get from extortionate consultants.

  16. Posted February 17, 2009 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Central government could help by cutting ” government circulars seeking more actions by Councils (whether they are statutory or advisory)” – cutting not only new ones but duties under old ones would cut costs. I would also like to see a more open application of the rate support grant. Spread out it comes to about £2,000 per head but is allocated according to “need” which in practice means according to what the council is spending now & its political pull. Currently the RSG accounts for over 80% of spending & by rewarding high spenders ensures more of it. If the RSG moved, over several years to a per head rate or anything independent of spending then councils which could make 20% efficiency savings would see zero council tax & those who couldn’t would find their minds concentrated wonderfully. 20% is not exactly an extreme figure – barely over 4% a year across a Parliament & something which real industries manage regularly.

  17. Publius
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    First, when councils are re-elected, the whole council should submit to re-election at one time, as with national governments. Second, no council spending should be centrally mandated. Third, tax increases should require a new mandate from the local electorate, or a local referendum.

  18. Posted February 17, 2009 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    The only consultants that councils need to employ are the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

  19. THE ESSEX BOYS
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    “So what should Councillors do? They should do what they do with their own family and business budgets. In tight years all items of spending are under review.”

    Now we ARE cooking with gas!

    This kind of statement comes up regularly in the pub and in the more structured research we sometimes activate to make sure that WE aren’t barking up wrong trees in trying to reflect ordinary public opinion.

    Mrs T’s approach to budgeting and economising is often mentioned as it left a lingering impression on many, even her detractors, and it’s wise to see the analogy used as often as possible as in this sensible proposal.
    As part of our new initiative we intend tackling our own County and district councils with this check list!

  20. Frank Brown
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    The problem with local authorities in general is that many have lost sight of why they exist for in the first place. That is to provide services for the taxpayer. It appears that they are more concerned with diversity issues or “eco-crimes” telling people how to live their lives. If they concentrated on the services people want, Council Tax would come down as a matter of course. And as for the Chief Executive’s office, I don’t care how expensive it is adorned – it’s the getting the right incumbent that matters!

  21. HJ
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    John,

    An interesting piece.

    However, there is one issue that you haven’t mentioned. In recent years, one of the main reasons for Council Tax increases is the rising cost of local government employees’ final salary pensions.

    Local Government pensions differ from almost all other public sector pensions in that they are backed by an investment fund, i.e. they are funded. Because the projected cost of LG pensions has been increasing so fast, we have had to pay much more Council Tax in recent years in order to top up the funds so that they can meet future liabilities (whereas with the rest of the public sector the full horror of the cost won’t be felt for decades).

    Now we have a situation where not only is the cost of LG pensions rising fast, but the the value of stock market investments, on which the funds rely, is falling through the floor. This means that local government will be forced by the auditors to contribute much more still over the next few years to top up the funds. This can only come from Council Tax payers since the central government sure isn’t going to give them more.

    Would I be right to expect even larger council tax increases in the next few years for this reason alone?

    reply: yes, quite right. Pensions escalation is one of the further reasons we need them to employ fewer people.
    Otehr public sector schemes like MPs are also funded.The civil service one is the large unfunded one.

    • HJ
      Posted February 17, 2009 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      Actually, John, not many other public sector schemes are funded (MPs pensions are a minor issue in the big scheme of things because there are only a few hundred MPs, ridiculously generous though their pensions are).

      Other large unfunded schemes are teachers, NHS, police, fire, and armed services, so it’s not really accurate to say that the civil service scheme is ‘the large unfunded one’ – it’s one of several large unfunded ones.

  22. Richard Williams
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    My long experience at senior levels in the private sector (no, not banks!) tells me that council officers must apply the same rigours as the most successful plc’s; they cut out everything that doesn’t add value from the customers’ perspective.

    So, councils must be forced to canvas and ACT ON council tax payers’ views on what’s core; keep this; and what’s peripheral – stop doing it now.

    It simply won’t work to expect unaccountable vested interests to make decisions in the best interest of council tax payers – turkeys don’t vote for Christmas!

    This government has employed an additional three quarters of a million additional civil servants – breathtaking public sector inefficiency is rife.

  23. Simon Barber
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

    Half the problem is that its never exactly sure WHO is in charge in some (not all) councils. The elected councillors set policy and then instruct the non-elected county officers. The non-elected county officers then do whatever the hell they want, follow central government dictat, or just make it up as they go along.

    In my opinion there are way too many non-elected officers and staff and a huge proportion of them get paid too much, some Way WAY too much.

    I’d like to see a massive cull of the numbers and the wage levels. I’d like to see them run like a private company would run its business, being tough on endless ‘sick days’ and getting ridiculously overgenerous holidays and other forms of benefit. Then I’d like to see the elected councillors able to hold them to account immediately, without hassle and without the impossible morass of legislation.

    If they aren’t doing the job as requested… warn them… then sack them if they don’t improve. No massive ‘severance’ pay, just the standard minimum redundancy benefit. And if the law doesn’t allow this sort of dismissal for poor performance then change it so it does. If a council can’t control its officers and does not have the respect of its officers, its not going to be able to achieve squat. As far as I’ve seen, most officers have no respect (at best), or at worst are actually adversial with their elected ‘bosses’ (I use the term lightly.)

  24. Posted February 18, 2009 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    There is one point missing from your excellent post. Councillors in administration (from whatever political party) should be guided by their Party’s principles. Far too many Conservative councillors are little more than mouth pieces for this Labour Government by failing to interpret directives and guidance through their own political values. For example Conservatives should aim to push back unnecessary state interventions where they can, but many Conservative administrations support unnecessary regulations and interference which have nothing to so with their primary role of delivering innovative and economic essential services to their electorate. We have had Conservative councils snooping and spying, and now we have a Conservative strong council reinventing punctuation. A simple reflection on what is important to their political values will help enormously in stripping out superfluous items from council budgets.

    * * *

    • alan jutson
      Posted February 18, 2009 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      It is my understanding that the problem here is that the Councils are being Bribed by the Government to do the things the Government want.

      If you don’t do as we say, we will withold our Funding from you.

      The Council will then need to go to the electorate with a far higher increase in Council tax to raise more revenue to cover the Governments share/grant which is being witheld, and thus become unpopular and get voted out.

      In any other situation this would be blackmail.

      In addition if the Council were to raise its own funds by increasing Council tax above the suggested Governments limit, it would get Find by the Government.

      They call it Democracy, you probably have a better word for it.

      • Posted February 18, 2009 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

        that is why in the Conservative Green Paper the Party is promising to “make the local government funding settlement more transparent” as well as returning powers to allow local government greater control of their money.

        Thanks Alan

  25. Richard
    Posted February 18, 2009 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    My twopennyworth…

    It seems typical of today’s council that I, a small business owner, get a mailing with business tips from the commercial branch of Wealden District Council.

    Now I didn’t canvass their opinion when I started here, nor when I expanded, or even when I bought the company.

    Why do they think I need this guff – especially when Business Link do exactly the same, for free, or I can join one (or all) of the many business clubs locally.

    Councils – and many other public bodies – need to rein in and remember what their core purpose is, excel at that first then maybe look at expanding.

    As I also live within the council’s border I know they can improve in so many areas, but does anything look like changing?

  26. APL
    Posted February 18, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    JR: “I welcome today’s news that a Conservative government would give local electors the right to demand a referendum where they thought the Council Tax was too high and should be brought down.2

    Which will be futile unless you restrict the right to vote in the referendum to those who actually pay the council tax.

  27. Matt
    Posted February 18, 2009 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    The fact is if the Councillors don’t have the bottle to deal with the tough issues then they shouldn’t be there.

    Is it because most local Councillors are Conservative that you are trying to hide the fact that they are not capable of actually running the organisations they are so keen to grab power in?

  28. ChrisP
    Posted February 18, 2009 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    From what I understand all council services must be cut through Gershon efficiency savings each year.

    Something else to consider is that Central Government will normally require more statutory duties to be performed for less money each year.

  29. Andrew Duffin
    Posted February 19, 2009 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    A referendum if people think the Council Tax is too high?

    Excellent idea, on one condition: only council tax payers get to vote.

    (That is to say, nobody whose tax is paid for them by the Social)

  30. michael vaughan
    Posted February 24, 2009 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Council Tax /domestic residential

    Valuation bands are too high across the country but in particular the council tax that homeowners over the age of [say] 60-65 are required to find is a disgrace and impoverishes them to the point of destitution.
    In the very near future [a couple of years or more now] there will be a large number of this age group wanting to move/downsize and live in a semblence of respectful retirement however the regular bills they will face paying will provide such a stressful existence many will just die,frightened,scared and poor.
    Whoever forms the next government has to get a grip on this and bring revolutionary thinking to this massive and real problem.I would be very interested to know what David C has to say on this and his ability to deal with it from a moral and humane viewpoint.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

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