War on Waste hits Southend-on-Sea
Aug 2014 21

TPA activists visited Southend-on-Sea yesterday as part of our national War on Waste campaign. Having set up camp in the High Street, our team handed out leaflets and books to local residents, finding out from some of them what the real problems were in this sunny part of Essex.

For example, the £51,000 phone bill accumulated by council cabinet members in 2013; and the £1 million paid to sea wall consultants, despite the project lacking planning permission. Residents were angry about wasteful spending, especially since they know budgets are being reduced. The people we spoke to wanted their money spent on essential services, not squandered on wasteful projects.

All in all, the TPA’s afternoon in Southend-on-Sea was most successful. Importantly, the fight against wasteful spending was bolstered by a number of new supporters to our campaign. We look forward to visiting other parts of the UK soon.

Planning costs pile up for Mike Watts
Aug 2014 19

Good news to see that B&NES council leader Paul Crossley is finally congratulating Mike Watts for building his Kelston Toll Road and helping thousands of local drivers overcome the disruption caused by the closure of a short stretch of the A431.

“He has done something the council wasn’t able to do and well done to him,” Crossley told the Bath Chronicle. “He has used his initiative and taken a risk, using his money. He has also been working positively with the council to jump through all the necessary hoops, such as applying for retrospective planning permission.”

But last week, the council claimed Mike Watts had got it wrong when he said retrospective planning costs could come to some £30,000.

“Until we see where the site plan is actually drawn we cannot confirm what the fee will be,” said a council spokesperson, “however as a guide the road itself covers c.0.4ha therefore the fee is likely to be between £780 and the maximum of £1690. We do not know where the £30,000 figure has come from however this does not relate to any planning application fee—the TPA’s article is therefore factually incorrect and misleading.”

So I went back to Mr. Watts and asked him how much the Council planning demands on his toll road might cost him.

“The breakdown of costs for retrospective planning is as follows,” he says, noting that “there might be some variations but this will only be upwards. Planning Consultant £12,000; Architect £1,200; Ecology Report £1,500; Surveyor £800; Ground Report £5,000 (this could rise to £15k if more info is required); Application Fees £1,170; Total £20,500 (plus possible extra £10k = £30k). All above plus VAT.”

Now of course a number of these charges are not directly levied by the council, but the onerous planning regulations require the builder – in this case Mr. Watts – to pay them nonetheless.

Let’s hope B&NES sees sense and recognises the community’s gratitude to Mr. Watts and cuts him some slack and the costs don’t rise any higher.

Tim Newark, South West TaxPayers’ Alliance

Cardiff Says No to the Sugar Tax
Aug 2014 11

Supporters of the Taxpayers’ Alliance were in Cardiff on Saturday campaigning against Plaid Cymru’s proposed tax on fizzy drinks. With our stall set up on ‘The Hayes’ during the annual Cardiff Carnival, we got to meet many local people and visitors shocked to hear about the punitive measures being taken to try to cut obesity in Wales.

With 300 bottles of soft drinks, leaflets and sign-up sheets we spent over an hour raising awareness on how additional taxes on everyday items such as soft drinks could actually in the long-term have really significant impacts on hard-pressed taxpayers’ budgets. After hearing about failed attempts elsewhere to introduce taxes to curb obesity rates, many added that they would be reluctant to support any further taxation asking ‘Where would taxation stop otherwise?’ 

With local support we quickly handed out all of our soft drinks and spoke to a few hundred different people. Both locals and visitors to Cardiff were delighted to have a group such as the TPA tackle head on the issues that affect them daily especially when so many people feel that politicians are completely out of touch.

I personally would like to thank everyone for their hard work on the day and for the people of Cardiff who were so welcoming.

Bath toll road hero hit by Council charges
Aug 2014 11

Mike Watts has hit national headlines for building the first toll road in England for 100 years – and he did it because Bath & North East Somerset (B&NES) Council have been too slow to re-open a vital section of the A431 between Bristol and Bath. So I went to visit him to find out the true cost of doing local motorists a favour, and heard how the council is charging him for helping out.

A landslip closed the road between Bristol and Bath in February, and B&NES has said it will take them until Christmas to get it re-opened at a cost to the taxpayer of £1.5 million. In the meantime local businesses have lost thousands of pounds in trade and residents have faced nightmare journeys. Mike Watts lives in the nearby village of Kelston and decided to do something about it.

“I used to turn left outside of my village and get into Bath in eight minutes,” says Watts. “With the road closed I had to turn right and it took me one hour twenty minutes to get in. Aside from the waste of time, my petrol expenditure went right up.”

B&NES refused to act quickly on re-opening the road and so Watts was forced to create his own mini-bypass on a field nearby. He’s had to put his house on the line to cover the £150,000 construction costs and £150,000 in running costs. “We need to get 1250 cars using this toll road every day to cover our costs,” he said.

It is to be noted that his construction costs are a tenth of the council’s estimate of taxpayers’ money needed to fix the road and he’s opened it six months earlier than B&NES could deliver. The private sector really is leaner and fitter at dealing with such problems.

One might have thought the council would be delighted at Watts helping them out to create an alternative route for local traffic, but they have refused to endorse his efforts and have carped about safety issues ever since. The really shocking point I learn talking to Watts is that B&NES now wants to make money out of his enterprise.

Watts had had to apply for retrospective planning permissions and claims the council have quoted some £30,000 for doing it – a tenth of his total costs. The Council has disputed the figure.

On top of that Watts has had to employ a planning consultant to navigate his way through the maze of regulations and that’s cost him a further £12,000, plus there are additional costs for surveys and signage. I think a grateful public would expect the council to waive or severely reduce these costs to Watts and let him get on with running the toll road to the benefit of the whole community. This story really makes one wonder what the purpose of local government is when it fails to deal efficiently with a problem like this in the first place and then wants to charge an arm and a leg to those who do help out. Shame on B&NES!

*This article has been amended from its original version after B&NES disputed the £30,000 figure, citing an estimate between £780 and £1,690. Mr. Watts was unavailable for further comment.

War on Waste rolls into Canterbury
Aug 2014 07

Yesterday The TaxPayers’ Alliance took the War on Waste to Canterbury. Stationed outside the Beaney Library we split off into pairs to cover as much of the street as we could, thankful for the excellent weather despite forecasts to the contrary.

With signup sheets on hand and were focussed on raising awareness of local government waste by handing out leaflets. People were particularly outraged to learn of the £18,181 claimed in expenses by the council chief – on top of his £135,000 salary.

Many people stopped to learn more about our figures and how we had collected them while others were unsurprised (“What do you expect? They’re politicians!”) but delighted to know that there was a group drawing attention to these issues. More than once we were asked for directions to the cathedral or nearest restroom which is always a hazard when wearing matching t-shirts.

We left a sunny Canterbury with many new supporters, having had a thoroughly enjoyable day!

Road repairs drive taxpayers up the wall
Aug 2014 06

South West TPA supporter Malcolm Leaver has been doggedly pursuing his local council for information on the cost to the taxpayer of street repairs in his neighbourhood—but has been given the run around by a South Gloucestershire Council (SGC) reluctant to cough up the details.

Replacing a footpath and kerb on a small stretch of a road near him cost a whopping £44,202, but he only found out the daily rate by mistake. ‘They sent me the time sheets in error,’ says Leaver. “They show rates of £850 a day for nine hours but these were not always worked as full days. Some of these days were not worked at all and some only part and casual. Some times I even noticed them shopping in the morning or sleeping in their lorry in the afternoon.”

“As you can probably appreciate,” came a response from SGC, “there is no system that can ensure that a workforce is fully engaged in productive work for 100% of the time on site and there will invariably be lost time or non productive time as there would be [in] any organization whether operational or office based.”

A nearby road surface was replaced, but within a year several parts of it had new cracks and these sections were replaced under a separate budget of £10,765. “SGC are of the opinion that their direct labour gangs are non-profit making,” says Leaver, “and even with the poor standard of work and costly repairs they infer the cost is cheaper than using an “outside contractor”. This road now has several “crazed/sunken” areas.”

Are local taxpayers getting value for money with these road repairs? From his research, Leaver doubts it. “If the cost is close to the budget, no one seems to worry.”

On another occasion, work was carried out on a nearby pedestrian crossing. ‘The work started with one man using a pneumatic tool to break up the pavement on the east side of the road,’ noted Leaver, ‘whilst the private haulier was parked on the grass verge on the opposite side of the road. One questions how much one man is going to break up to substantiate the use of a large tipper lorry privately hired? After that initial start, no work was carried out the next day or so.’

Again and again, Leaver has asked to see documents referring to the cost of these repair projects, but the council has not provided them or dragged their feet over several months. Following an official complaint to the council about this, their Head of Legal and Democratic Services acknowledged that SGC had raised expectations over the public inspection of documents that they did not meet. The council officer advised a payment of £100 in compensation to Leaver ‘in recognition of the frustration and inconvenience he has experienced in this matter.’

As for the lack of value for taxpayers’ money, the officer responded by saying “contractors and machinery are hired on a day rate (a 9 hour minimum period)” and that “such contractors would have to work around the progress of the scheme and would not be continuously working through the period… There are therefore times when there appears to be inactivity but this is a necessary requirement of completing a scheme.” Does that include sleeping in a lorry in the afternoon?

Holiday Tax Campaign Arrives in Liverpool
Jul 2014 31

On Wednesday, three of us from Tufton Street made our way to Liverpool John Lennon Airport to continue our week of campaigning against Air Passenger Duty (APD), calling on the Chancellor to axe the hated Holiday Tax.

Two lattes, three trains and four hours later, we finally arrived and unpacked. Our stand was set up just as holidaymakers headed to departures, which meant we had an audience of flyers who at this time of the year are all too aware of the painful effect that APD has on the price of going away.

We campaigned with two additions to the team: David, a wonderfully engaged local activist and Hector the Taxman, a cardboard cut-out of the 1990s HMRC cartoon. We got a lot of entertainment from photographing Hector in departures, in duty free, and of course, posing with the John Lennon murals. It appears we have found the real Fifth Beatle! David, who also joined us on our War on Waste Roadshow when we stopped in Liverpool, was rather more active than Hector however.

We generally had a good reaction to the campaign, especially amongst families, when having to pay the £13 charge on a short-haul flight for every family member really makes a difference. Staff at the airport were also particularly sympathetic. After all, a reduction in APD would increase traffic through the airport and create more jobs too.

Going home, we were pleased with the progress that the campaign is making so far, spreading the message across the country. APD is a tax that hits ordinary people and businesses alike – it doesn’t make sense, after all, for the Government to tell firms to export across the world and then charge punitive rates on exploratory visits – and we’re hopeful that the Chancellor will listen to country when he stands at the Despatch Box to deliver the Autumn Statement later this year.

Payouts in Wales
Jul 2014 29

Figures released last week by BBC Wales have highlighted that local authorities have spent £30m of taxpayers’ money on redundancy packages. There have been a number of local authorities in Wales who have increased council tax up to 5% and the figures are nearly double last year’s. When I hit the streets and talk to residents in Wales, they often complain about cuts to their front-line services, with no serious attempt by some local authorities to make serious savings.

The Welsh Local Government Association blames contractual agreements and austerity measures for these payments, but it might be more to do with poorly negotiated contracts.

Cardiff and Blaenau Gwent had the biggest payouts with both spending more than double than the previous year on redundancies, which combined were nearly £1.25m this year alone.

Public sector redundancies should be in line with the statutory requirements, but our past Town Hall Rich Lists have shown that executives in particular are given very large payouts, sometimes after spending just a little time at the Council.

Local representatives should act now and lead the way in ensuring front line services are protected and wasteful spending is eradicated.

TPA protests the hated Holiday Tax in Bristol
Jul 2014 29

TPA supporters protested against Air Passenger Duty (APD) in Bristol Airport yesterday, setting up a stall in the departure zone and chatting to holidaymakers. APD is a departure tax charged on flights from the UK and can add over hundreds of pounds to long haul flights. On a standard rate flight from London to New York, it adds £138 to the overall cost. For a longer flight to South East Asia that becomes a whopping £170. As for a family holiday to Florida with economy flights that’s an extra £276 in duty alone. Even on short haul flights the hated holiday tax can push up the cost of a flight by as much as 50%.

“You spend all year working to pay the high cost of living,” said one traveller, “and you get slapped with this on your holiday. To just pay for this tax I’d have to work five shifts. It’s just not fair.”

“Our particular concern in Bristol,” said Jacqui Mills of Bristol Airport, ‘is that if a devolved Wales gets tax raising powers, it will scrap this duty—just as Scotland would too—and then Cardiff will grab all our travel trade with cheaper duty-free fares.”

The tax was first introduced in 2006 and has been increased several times since then, being doubled in 2007 and going up by 8% in 2012, with increases by the rate of inflation in 2013 and 2014.

This year’s Budget announced some reforms to the tax which will reduce the future burden on travellers a little. Passengers flying to all long-haul destinations from April 2015 will pay the same rate as they do to fly to the US. However, passengers using private jets will be hit harder by the changes, paying six times the amount of APD charged to economy class passengers. And of course, the changes do little for families jetting off to the beaches of Spain, Portugal and Turkey this summer.

A spokesman for IAG, British Airways’ parent company, was unimpressed, saying “It still punishes families and costs UK jobs. The only long-term solution is to scrap APD in its entirety and allow the aviation and tourism industries to flourish, to the benefit of the wider UK economy.”

It’s time for George Osborne to go further, and make Britain an aviation-friendly country once again.

A Town Council with an unfortunate penchant for hoarding
Jul 2014 29

It’s slightly unusual for a council at the parish level to feature on this blog, but Dover Town Council has surpassed itself in costing the taxpayer dear and not spending wisely. In the last few months they have reached new heights of unpopularity.

The Council has listened to locals on occasion – in one recent year, they bowed to pressure and froze their council tax take, but the norm has been for above-inflation increases. Their precept – the amount the Council wishes to collect in tax revenue – was £633,150 in 2012, rising to £764,474 in 2013 and £885,977 in 2014. Public disapproval has been aroused several times over what has been both spent and not spent. They refused grants to the local carnival procession, while happily spending on regalia for the mayor and town clerk, and lavish ceremonies. Staff received above-inflation salary increases and a generous Christmas dinner bonus. Also purchased: a new car for the mayor and a 4×4 for official use – the official reason being the need to access their allotments. Two vehicles in a smallish town? No War on Waste there!

They managed to put a picture on their website purporting to be Dover’s white cliffs that turned out to be somewhere else. They made national news when, without any consultation, they put benches in the town’s main pedestrian precinct that were “deliberately designed” to be uncomfortable so as to discourage people sitting on them too long (the intended target being people with drink, though it ended up hitting everybody else just wanting a rest with their shopping). There was also a matter of franchising out a reopening public toilet on the seafront as a combined toilet and shop. This was delayed for a year by their not following correct procedure and a bid being put in by a councillor without declaring their interest. There are other issues, from the lack of a World War I ceremony to the memorial benches dedicated to loved ones were found dumped behind their offices. I could go on, but will concentrate on the matter of our money.

It has now come to light via the Dover Express that Dover Town Council reserves are quite considerable, bearing in mind the council’s size: £764,474 in 2012, £885,977 in 2013 rising to £1,148,938 in 2014. This prompted the rather blunt headline – “Town council is hoarding £1 million of your money”. It is difficult to justify why that money is being held in reserve, rather on essential services or being used to reduce people’s tax bill.

Unsurprisingly, a petition is being started calling for the abolition of the town council. Before we had a town council, after district councils were set up (replacing the old borough council) Dover had Charter Trustees. They too proved very good at spending and losing money. Something, clearly, has to change.

Stockton Council’s expensive property grab
Jul 2014 24

Stockton Borough Council has been buying up large, high end houses at above market rates, with seemingly little concern for getting good value for taxpayers’ money. The Council is working with a private contractor, Spark of Genius, with the aim of bringing 20 looked after children back into the community, and claim this will save between £400,000 and £500,000 a year. Though certainly a laudable aim, there have been a number of questions raised about how they are actually going about it.

The intention was to buy four large properties in the Stockton area alongside renovating King Edwin’s School. The properties bought were at the top end of the local market and the prices have certainly raised eyebrows. Rather than negotiating the best deal for taxpayers, the council has inadvertently been forcing up the prices of the properties. For instance, it entered a bidding war for the Old Vicarage in Stillington, paying £50,000 over the £350,000 asking price for a building which will cost a small fortune to renovate.

Their questionable procurement tactics don’t end there. Another local property had languished on the market for around two years, with buyers put off by the need for extensive renovation and the £650,000 asking price. Stockton Borough Council paid £600,000 – a far from sensible rate, local residents have told us.

The problems for the Council and Spark of Genius do not end there. They claim that the scheme is designed to produce savings of around half a million pounds but so far no evidence for this has been produced. Worse, the council’s Chief Executive dismissed the likely £500,000 overspend on the £2.3 million budget as “small”, when talking to our local supporter.

The cavalier attitude towards taxpayers’ money is clearly concerning. While the aims of the project are praiseworthy, there is certainly more that they could do to ensure our money is not being wasted.

 

Bristol’s unwanted parking zones come under attack
Jul 2014 23

Local residents and traders opposed to elected Bristol Mayor George Ferguson’s costly Residents’ Parking Zones (RPZ) gathered outside City Hall on College Green—and they brought along a WW2 Sherman tank to make their point!

On the same day, Bristol City Council debated a petition of ‘No Confidence’ in Mayor Ferguson’s efforts to severely restrict the use of cars in Bristol with his parking zones.

“RPZ are forcing businesses to close already from lack of customers, companies to relocate because they are unable to get their staff into work and communities are isolated from lack of visitors,” says campaigner Robert Duxbury, Chair of Ashley Ward RPZ action group. “Even Blue Badge holders are being prevented from parking close to their intended destinations because Bristol’s RPZ prohibits their free unrestricted use of resident only parking bays.”

“Mayor Ferguson has said “I’m not going to react to any demonstration – I will react to normal discussion.” But when a normal discussion involving a Cross Party Working Group of Councillors, with input from residents and traders, submitted their recommendations on RPZ he completely ignored them,” says Duxbury.

The ‘No Confidence’ petition has attracted over 5,000 signatures and is the sixth most popular out of 428 petitions submitted to Bristol City Council’s website. In the last year, two anti-RPZ petitions gathered more than 11,000 signatures and hundreds of residents have demonstrated on Bristol streets. Mayor Ferguson has ignored them all.

“That’s the problem,” said one protestor outside City Hall, “the Mayor has too much power and can just dismiss our petitions without properly considering them—the councillors around him seem toothless.”

As I discovered in Islington, when I contested that council’s Controlled Parking Zones, residents’ parking schemes can initially seem appealing but end up being a tax on visiting family and friends and discourage passers-by from popping into local shopping streets, with a subsequent loss in trade for independent shops and restaurants. Of course, councils love the extra revenue from parking permits and fines, but is it really any good for the community?

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