Faced with the need to rein in expenditure, Councils are going to be tempted instead to drive for more income. Thwarted by some government control over Council Tax levels, and disappointed by the grant settlements from the centre, we should be ready for further increases in the level and range of fees and charges they impose.
I have no objection to the principle that the user should pay. Imposing a charge for something I want which the Council supplies is fine. What I object to is having to pay rip off monopoly prices for things they make me have but do not want, or high monopoly prices for things I would rather buy from some one else if they would let me. Paying for something I have already paid for through my taxes, like parking space on local roads, can also be vexatious.
I thought I would have a look to see just how wide ranging Council’s powers to charge already are. I typed in charges to the Reading Borough Council website. I was told there were 686 web pages that might be relevant! Typing in fees brought me the offer of 291 web pages. I read a sample.
This reminded me that Councils charge for parking, for planning permissions and building permits, for developer agreements, engineering fees, crematoria charges, childrens services charges, street care charges, gambling fees, land charges, non residential community care charges, street collection permits, street trading, pavement cafe trading, house to house collections, scrap metal dealers, caravan sites, taxi licencing, gambling and drink licencing and many more.
Each of those areas of charging in turn spawns many charging opportunities. Just checking out how many times they can charge under their Licencing Act powers produced another long list, including new premises, conversion of premises, personal licences, changes of addresses for people and property involved, applications to transfer licences, change of name, change of club rules, temporary event notices and notices of interest in premises.
Increasing the range of items Councils charge for is just a tax increase by another name. Increasing the level of the fee is inflationary provocation at a time of recession and pinched budgets for everyone else. The public must be vigilant. We must tell our Councillors clearly that we do not want them to find more ways of taking money off us, but to find some ways of delivering more for less. There is often plenty of scope to do just that.
In Reading’s case there is plenty of spending on senior officers and consultants to generate the fashionable partnerships and strategies. I use it to illustrate a general issue, not to pick on one local Council. They just happen to have a very long list of partnerships and initiatives, which leads to the question does any Council need so much overhead to achieve worthy aims? There is the 14-19 Partnership, the Crime Disorder and Reduction Partnership, the Local Safeguarding Children Partnership, the Local Strategic Partnership, the Healthier Reading Partnership, the Trust Board (Children), the Childrens Action Teams, the Children and Young Peoples Strategic Partnership, the Independent Transport Commission, Local Area Agreement, the Sustainable Community Strategy and the Community Safety Strategy to name but a few. All of these Partnerships and Strategies must require senior officers time and generate plenty of paper, meetings and minutes. Is it really the best way to ensure good childrens services or better policing?