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?

Victory for Bath’s Independent Shops
Jul 2014 11

With over 1,400 local business people and residents signing a petition calling on Bath & North East Somerset (B&NES) Council to cut parking charges, the lead petitioners finally got their time before a full council meeting in Bath’s Guildhall — and the result they wanted.

As co-lead petitioner, South West TaxPayers’ Alliance grassroots co-ordinator Tim Newark presented the Independent Shops of Bath petition against the recent rise in parking fees in central Bath.

A full council debate was triggered by the petition and a motion was passed by a clear majority calling on B&NES Cabinet to ‘take into serious consideration the proposals of the petitioners, and in particular seek to reduce or remove the new “ultra-premium” on-street parking zone rates.’ In addition to this the Council is asked to ‘either reinstate a reduced evening parking charge from 6pm to 8pm, or alternatively amend the start time of free parking to 7pm rather than the current 8pm.’

The motion in support of the Independent Shops of Bath petition recognised that ‘recent significant increases in on-street parking charges in Bath could have a detrimental impact on economic activity in the city, and believes that the new “Ultra-Premium Zone” is particularly unfair and punitive.’

‘I’m delighted with the clear support of the council for our petition,’ says Tim Newark. ‘It is a victory for common sense and independent shops and restaurants in Bath. Obviously, these changes will not happen overnight and the cabinet has to approve them, but it is a big step in the right direction to make Bath attractive to shoppers who prefer to drive into the city—not everyone wants to use a bus or bicycle—it is not always practical.’

‘The curtailing of parking charges after 6pm will make a big difference to the evening economy, helping independent restaurants in particular, as well as enabling people to enjoy our city.’

‘Sadly, the motion did not embrace our boldest suggestion—a free first half hour of parking in the city centre. This would encourage customers to pop in and browse. It’s the idea of Brandon Lewis MP, Minister for High Streets, so I can’t see why B&NES can’t adopt it here.’

Many of the supporters of the petition are independent shopkeepers from some of Bath’s most attractive city centre locations, including Walcot Street, Broad Street, Milsom Place, Upper Borough Walls and Bartlett Street.

‘Since opening my contemporary art gallery a year ago,’ says Jenny Pollitt of Lane House Arts, ‘I have witnessed a downturn in trade leading to the closure of many local independent businesses in the Walcot Street/London Road area. The downturn started when parking charges were increased. This together with a lack of business parking and permits, and unhelpful traffic wardens are leading people to go elsewhere in the city to park and shop. Why would you park here for two hours when you can park elsewhere for four for the same amount?’

cut parking charges 2

MP speaks out against local green bin tax
Jul 2014 09

Paying more and more for less and less seems the mantra now for some local council services. South Gloucestershire MP Chris Skidmore took his campaign against a new ‘stealth tax’ launched by his local council to the Houses of Parliament. He spoke in the House of Commons against recent green refuse bin charges.

‘Hard working residents have had little say over the increase in the amount of money they’re having to pay for services that used to be included in their council tax,’ he told fellow MPs. Fortnightly collections of green waste have been scrapped and these residents now have to pay £36 to have their garden refuse removed—dubbed a ‘green bin tax’. Skidmore set up a petition signed by over 4,200 local people to trigger a local council debate about it. The charge has cost £650,000 to implement.

‘Fortnightly green waste collection is an optional service for residents, rather than a tax, and those who do not wish to pay are not obliged to do so,’ said a local council spokesman.

Skidmore took the petition to Parliament and the Secretary of Communities and Local Government responded by saying: ‘Ministers believe that councils should not be introducing stealth taxes by imposing new charges on local residents. Instead councils should be making sensible savings by better procurement, more joint working, and cutting fraud in order to protect frontline services.’

Skidmore also argued that the charge amounted to a total increase in council tax of over the 2% required to force a referendum and that the council was using the ‘stealth tax’ charge to get round this, so they could claim to have frozen council tax, but locals are not impressed.

‘I believe this should be part of our Council Tax as it always has been,’ said one. ‘I have seen more fly-tipping in the area although it is harder to spot now the council has stopped cutting our grass as well.’

As a result of the local debate triggered by the petition, South Gloucestershire councillors have now voted to review the impact of the green bin tax on local residents. Whether that will lead to anything concrete remains to be seen…

Tim Newark, South West TaxPayers’ Alliance

Plymouth War on Waste
Jun 2014 26

West Country local supporters gathered for our latest War on Waste action day on historic Plymouth Hoe next to Smeaton’s Tower lighthouse. Famous Devon sea captain Sir Francis Drake set out from Plymouth to defeat the Spanish Armada and we only thought it appropriate to protest at the encroachment of another bloated vessel—big government—by posing beneath his fine bronze statue on the Hoe. We then headed towards the city’s council building and handed out our War on Waste booklets in the city centre.

‘I feel that in a time of bloated government, at both a national and local level, any campaign to cut public spending is to be encouraged,’ says local supporter Dylan Morris. ‘Looking around Plymouth at the masses of wasted money it’s hard to ignore the need for lower spending, and that’s why I believe that the TPA’s War on Waste campaign is something to be embraced and supported.’

Plymouth City Council recently paid out £669,000 of taxpayers’ money to top accountants Ernst and Young—to help save them money! ‘We have to spend money to save money,’ argued the Council’s Chief Executive.

But local MP Gary Streeter was far from impressed. ‘The council has some serious questions to answer from residents who are facing an increase in their council tax on why they spent this much,’ he told the Plymouth Herald. ‘We are paying senior officers a great deal of money. They work extremely hard for it, and I accept that sometimes it’s necessary to go outside of the organisation, but I wouldn’t expect a piece of work like this to cost anything near that much.’

Neither is the TPA impressed. ‘Taxpayers will be rightly outraged that the council has wasted their money on costly consultants to write a report on how to do its own job,’ says our political director Dia Chakravarty.

 

Tim Newark, South West TaxPayers’ Alliance

Salisbury Council’s failing parking policy
Jun 2014 18

Fury continues to grow at Salisbury Council’s lack of coordinated thinking when it comes to encouraging shoppers into the city centre. With occupancy rates of less than 25 per cent at its Culver Street car park, the council have been reduced to slashing the price of parking there and now is offering free parking after 3pm everyday. For some traders this is a welcome concession, but for others it is too little too late and involves yet more taxpayers’ money being spent on a forlorn attempt to make the council’s white elephant car park more attractive to drivers.

‘In addition to the parking initiatives, Wiltshire Council are also undertaking a refurbishment of the Culver Street Shoppers Car Park including re-branding as a Shoppers Car Park and working with the BID and the City Council to create a more welcoming environment,’ says the director of Salisbury Business Improvement District (BID). ‘This will include replanting and redecoration of some of the area.’ BIDs are funded by a levy on shopkeepers and generally use this money to paper over errors in council policy making.

In the meantime, Wiltshire Council is looking at turning the more popular city centre Brown Street car park into a coach park, having sold off another coach park for development.

‘Brown Street car park is highly valued by local shoppers because it is about as far as many people are prepared to walk carrying shopping,’ observes one local. ‘An end to Brown Street car parking would be another nail in the coffin of Salisbury as a shopping and market town. Salisbury Vision says there is plenty of space in Culver Street, but that is because people don’t want to use it. Take away Brown Street and more people will find Salisbury an unattractive proposition and will stay away.’

‘One suspects part of the motive to develop coach parking in Brown Street,’ says another local, ‘stems from the disastrous waste of money on Culver Street, which is rarely used even when it is free.’

Why is that local residents and trades people always seem to have a better idea of how a city centre actually works than council bureaucrats? Funny that. And yet in the meantime, we see a senior manager at Wiltshire Council justifying her sky-high wage package of between £134,000 and £148,000 to a Parliamentary committee. Maggie Rae, a director at the council, says her job is not comparable to that of the Prime Minister, who is paid less, but she does work the same hours.

‘We’re paying middle-range salaries,’ Rae argues, ‘while at the same time we have ambition to be the most excellent council, and we are struggling to get staff into jobs even at those salaries because people can earn much more money in the private sector. I think we’ve got to work very hard to make sure local government doesn’t fall behind.’

It is the same tired old argument used to justify excessive salaries for local council mangers. Certainly, a few local residents would quibble at the quality of council decision making when it comes to encouraging visitors into Salisbury and keeping it a viable shopping centre.

Tim Newark, South West TaxPayers’ Alliance

Jun 2014 11

Taxpayers’ anger at the wasteful ways of parish councils has reached a peak in West Yorkshire. ‘With a budget of £293,545 and 23 councillors to support,’ says a local TPA supporter, ‘Holme Valley Parish Council (HVPC) has been in the news for more than just wasting money, but for expropriating the land property of local taxpayers in order to sell it back to them for thousands of pounds.’

Holme Valley Land Charity—part of HVPC—was established in 2009 to sell old quarry sites in order to raise money for community projects, but of the £130,000 generated so far, only a fraction of it has been spent on erecting just one bench and providing a prize for a school writing competition. Most of that money has been spent on contesting legal cases involving land grabbed from local residents. One man was allegedly asked to pay £20,000 to buy his own garden back from the council charity.

‘What I want to know is when are the people who have lost out going to be properly compensated for the money they have lost and the distress they have undergone?’ says local campaigner Stephen Green. ‘Having been involved for over five years now I have absolutely no faith in this council to sort this matter out themselves after the shambles they have created.’

As a result of its misappropriation of land, the charity has lost three legal disputes and been forced to hand back seven plots of land.  ‘Local taxpayer victims who have sued the council to get their property back have won in court,’ says a local supporter, ‘but at a significant cost in legal fees to themselves since the council is spending public money to defend its expropriation.’

For three years, Jacqui Duns had to fight the council charity in court over part of her family’s field taken by the charity, which then wanted to sell it back to her for £5,000—it’s actual value being more like £1,000. Mrs Duns produced family deeds showing the land belonged to them but then had to rack up £13,000 in legal fees over two years to win the case. She got £4,000 back, but is now pursuing the council charity for the remaining £8,500 in the small claims court—plus an apology.

‘There was no consultation, public or private, they simply tried to take this land in secret and behind our backs even though the documents they held show that our family had a clear interest in and occupancy of this land,’ Mrs Duns told the Huddersfield Daily Examiner. ‘The first we knew was when they put it up for auction and we had to step in to stop the sale.’

Earlier, the council charity had blundered when it sold land at auction that was Common Land and had to buy it back. The council charity has since been criticised by the Information Commissioner for not answering Freedom of Information requests.

‘I fully support Jason McCartney [MP for Colne Valley] in his call for the District Auditor to be brought in,’ says campaigner Stephen Green, ‘and for a full and public investigation into how this council is operating and I would be interested in what action he intends to take.’

War on Waste in Chard
Jun 2014 04

Local supporters and our TPA action team gathered outside the historic Guildhall in Chard in southern Somerset for a War on Waste action day. We handed out leaflets and chatted to passers-by about cutting waste in local government expenditure.

‘My main concern is about the unfairness of the Council Tax and the sheer waste and huge salaries in local government,’ says Chard resident and TPA supporter Peter Yaxley. 

Yaxley has been waging a long campaign against the local town council’s wasteful ways. And the Chard and Illminster News noted recently that the salaries of top council bosses making key decisions across Chard, Ilminster and Crewkerne have come under TPA scrutiny. ‘At a time when councils are finding necessary savings it’s absolutely right that senior officials recognise their part in delivering value for money to the taxpayer,’ said TPA spokesman Andy Silvester.

‘We re-structured our senior management team in 2010 when the council agreed to the sharing of a chief executive with East Devon District Council as a means of reducing costs,’ replied a spokesman for South Somerset District Council.

‘At the same time the number of directors was reduced from four to two. Additionally, the overall number of staff employed in the same period by the council has reduced by over 100, and again this was primarily to reduce costs and increase efficiency. We annually publish the pay information for our senior officers in our Senior Pay Policy Statement, which is available on our website.’

Tim Newark, South West TaxPayers’ Alliance

TPA Action Day in Surrey Heath
Jun 2014 02

On Friday the TaxPayer’s Alliance was in Surrey Heath talking to residents about Council Tax, which has now risen for two years in a row there. In neighbouring Bracknell Forest, the average Band D household pays £250 less in Council Tax than Surrey Heath, despite no discernible difference in services according to locals. Meanwhile, allowances for the Surrey County Council leader will increase by an enormous 59 per cent this year alone. Understandably, this is an issue a lot of local people feel very strongly about.

So, with a team of local activists, we set up a stall on Camberley High Street, giving out leaflets and asking people to sign our petition calling for Council Tax cuts. Helped along by the sunshine, the street was bustling with people, many keen to stop and chat about their feelings on Council Tax. Many were pleased to know that the TPA is dedicated to fighting for them on local issues as well as national.

Alongside gathering signatures we were visited by Paul Deach, local councillor and founder of the Surrey Residents’ Network who broadcasts and blogs on local issues. Paul interviewed us about the work the TPA does and why we were out campaigning in Surrey Heath, for a podcast that’s up on the Surrey Residents’ Network website.

All in all, it was a very successful day. A lot of new people have signed up to be part of our Action Team and the amount of support gathered for our petition was really encouraging. Our next Action Day will be in Chard, Somerset on Wednesday and with the War on Waste Roadshow also about to commence very soon, it’s a good time for taxpayers to be fighting back.

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