TPA in Tatton
May 2014 29

The TaxPayers’ Alliance yesterday journeyed to Tatton, the constituency MP George Osborne yesterday to raise awareness of Tax Freedom Day, which is when the average Briton stops working for the taxman and starts working for themselves. It is calculated by the Adam Smith Institute and it’s a reminder of exactly how little of their money people actually keep.

Despite the grey weather many people were out and about on a high street filled with local businesses, and many were happy to take our leaflets or chat about local and national issues. A lot of people were concerned about business rates and the squeezing of disposable incomes because of high taxes.

Our local TPA activist David Hartley attended the action day and had this to say:

The TaxPayers’ Alliance speak on behalf of the much put upon taxpayer, who carries the burden for every ill conceived project, or every trouble or problem that beset their own local area and country.

Every time a new issue or crisis arises or faces us there only ever seems to be one solution and that solution is to spend more taxpayer’s money as if his or her pocket is a bottomless pit; nobody ever seems to have a solution that involves spending less taxpayers’ money.

The day also marked the beginnings of the War on Waste campaign which will take TPA activists across the country this summer to raise awareness of wasteful government spending.

Bath council’s costly bus lane fiasco
May 2014 20

The fiasco of Bath & North East Somerset (B&NES) council’s ill-advised bus lane has dominated the local news for the last couple of weeks, but now questions are being asked about the cost of it all. Public anger at the high level of fines charged on unsuspecting motorists as they drove past a camera meant to deter them from driving along a temporary bus lane has forced the council into a rapid u-turn.

Having raised over £250,000 in fines in just one month, B&NES was forced to admit its signage had been poor and would cancel immediately the experimental bus lane. One driver, going about his daily business, was fined ten times at a total cost of £650! B&NES then decided to reimburse everyone who had been fined.

‘It cost more than £200,000 to refund all the fines collected,’ said Cllr Anthony Clarke, ‘but it will cost many thousands more to rectify the mistake in admin and officer time to process the thousands of refunds, not to mention the cost of implementing the bus gate in the first place.’

Many of the drivers fined were visitors to the city and tourism officials are concerned at the negative impact this has had on their impression of Bath, discouraging them from coming back and creating bad word of mouth. That will be a further cost to Bath residents and traders.

‘The council’s mishandling of Dorchester Street bus gate is widely recognised as one of B&NES’s biggest shambles since the Spa,’ said Cllr Clarke. ‘But what makes it worse is that the Lib Dems were warned time and time again that they were heading for disaster. Yet they simply refused to listen.’

Now the local taxpayers will have to pick up the bill for this.

 

Tim Newark, South West TPA

Getting back your voice
May 2014 06

In my new book, Protest Vote, I tell the story of how politicians have lost touch with their voters—lost the plot—and how protest vote parties and grassroots campaign groups have fought back. Ever since Matthew Elliott founded the TPA ten years ago, it has been at the forefront of a revolution in the way we express our view on government and the way our country is run. When I first joined the TPA, I was thoroughly fed up with conventional party politics. Politicians were turning their back on grassroots supporters, convinced they know better than the ordinary voter. The TPA has been part of a popular uprising giving power back to disenchanted voters, allowing them to have an impact on government policy and rein in out of control public expenditure.

Through candid interviews with key political figures from Nigel Farage of UKIP to Sara Parkin of the Green Party, in Protest Vote I tell for the first time the colourful story of the rise of Britain’s protest movements against the political establishment, and the maverick leaders that express this tide of discontent. My book pinpoints the moments—from mass immigration to the Europe Union—when the arrogance of mainstream politicians lost them voters—and how this has changed politics in Britain forever.

I interviewed Matthew Elliott for my book and he tells the fascinating story of the evolution of the TPA from its early days meeting in cafés.

‘Basically, the trend is that all political parties don’t want to give their activists much of a say,’ explains Elliott. ‘Frankly, they’re embarrassed by them. They don’t like debates at party conference because they can’t control what people are going to say. They would much rather activists pay their subs, give their donations, deliver their leaflets and have no opinions of their own. Which is why membership numbers for all political parties are going down. What people like about everything from Conservative Home to the TPA is that there is a vibrant debate there. If you’re just there as fodder for delivering leaflets, why do it?’

‘When parties started clamping down on dissent within parties, that’s when pressure groups became more appealing,’ he continues. ‘People would go for single-issue pressure groups. They could see how they make a difference in politics, they satisfy their interest in politics, and they don’t have to sign up to all the things they disagree with within a political party.’

Thanks to Matthew Elliott and a few other far-sighted political figures, the voter is getting back his and her voice. If you want to know more about this process, I tell the full story in Protest Vote.

Bath shopkeepers petition against council parking charges
Apr 2014 30

Bath shopkeepers gathered outside the Guildhall in the centre of the city to hand in their petition to Bath & North East Somerset council (B&NES), with over 1400 signatures from shoppers and traders protesting at the recent rise in council parking charges. Since council parking fees in central Bath went up by 40 per cent at the start of the year, Bath Independent Shopkeepers have been fuming and have directed their anger towards gathering a petition of signatures from shopkeepers and customers who all oppose Bath council’s high parking fees—and the TPA has been side by side with them helping their campaign. With over 1,400 signatures now, their petition will trigger a full council debate about parking charges.

‘We want to see a cut in the parking fees in Laura Place and other city centre shopping streets,’ says lead petitioner Jo Davies of shop Grasse. ‘B&NES made a mistake raising the parking fees in Victoria Park and have now been forced to cut them. We want to see the same here in the centre of the city where it can help shoppers and Bath’s independent shopkeepers.’

‘I’ve been helping Jo gather signatures for this petition,’ says Tim Newark of Bath Taxpayers’ Alliance. ‘It’s the independent shops and restaurants in Bath that make this city special. I’d like to see B&NES introduce a free 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 signatories 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, and some of them joined the protest outside the Guildhall.

B&NES have also hit the headlines recently with more ill-judged revenue raising. Their trial bus gate has raised £270,000 in just one month from drivers being fined for going the wrong way along Dorchester Street. So many people have complained about the poor signage leading to the bus gate, that the Council is being forced to investigate the whole matter. Bath shopkeepers fear this is yet another discouragement for visitors to come to Bath.

Representatives should represent
Apr 2014 16

Islwyn Assembly Member Gwyn Price, who was only elected in 2011, has spoken less in the Chamber than any other speaker, totting up 2,269 words in one year. He represents one of the most deprived regions of the UK and his word count is even shorter than the Welsh Secretary, David Jones, who only made one annual appearance.

As reported in the South Wales Echo, Mr Price’s inaction was raised during a radio question and answer session with the First Minister Carwyn Jones. A contributor claimed Mr Price “never contributes” to debates, and cited an example where Mr Price was tabled to lead a short debate in the Assembly in November, but failed to lodge a motion for it. To rebut claims of total inactivity, the First Minister claimed that Mr Price did in fact ask questions, and was a part of an important committee.

Mr Price, who was a keen former Union Leader and who grew up in the South Wales Valleys, announced in February he was to stand down from his seat at the next election, which prompted sarcastic amendments to his Wikipedia page suggesting he was stepping down to concentrate on an autobiography called “Code of Silence”.

The latest revelation came to light after research from Welsh language campaign group Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, which collated the number of words spoken in Welsh during plenary sessions, as well as the total number of words, to gauge the use of Welsh in the Assembly.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats have claimed that:

The primary role of an Assembly Member is to represent their constituents in the National Assembly. Yet week in, and week out, Gwyn Price fails to utter a single word in Assembly debates on behalf of his constituents.

The research conducted by Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg and other bodies is very revealing. Politicians are paid to represent their area, so inactivity harms not only democracy, but also taxpayers. Constituents are should have a right to recall their representatives if they feel they aren’t getting value for money.

Wage War on Waste to prevent 5 per cent tax hikes in Bridgend
Apr 2014 16

Supporters of the TPA were in Bridgend last weekend, collecting signatures against the Council’s move to increase Council Tax by 4.98 per cent. Bridgend is situated roughly half way between Cardiff and Swansea on the South Wales coast, acting as a commuter town since industry in the area has gone into decline.

On Saturday supporters met with local shoppers, all of whom were concerned about the severe Council Tax increases imposed by the local Council. Many local people questioned why, in Wales, Council Tax was being increased by as much as 5 per cent, while millions of homes in England are having their bills frozen, if not cut.

A local resident noted:

Politicians in Cardiff are getting all their funding from London, and when the money comes arrives these politicians not know how to spend it. We are suffer as a result.

While we were in Bridgend, we had many more concerned residents stop and voice their opinions on their recent 4.98 per cent increase, with our petition gaining hundreds of signatures in just an hour. Supporters and signatories were all encouraged to hold their local representatives to account for their failure to protect taxpayers from some of the most severe increases in household bills in quite some time.

It is time that local authorities cut waste and ensured that taxpayers are getting a fair deal. The War on Waste will continue in Wales, coming to the Neath Port Talbot and Conwy areas in the next few weeks.

War on Waste: TPA activists campaign for Council Tax cuts in Chelmsford
Apr 2014 16

TaxPayers’ Alliance activists gathered on a warm sunny day in Chelmsford last Friday to protest against high rates of council tax in Essex. Essex County Council recently froze Council Tax, but its rates are still too high. The average Band D bill in Chelmsford is £1,503. That’s £35 higher than the national average, which stands at £1,468. Actually cutting the tax should be on the Council’s agenda.

Despite government action to freeze Council Tax,many households are still feeling the pinch of higher taxes. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 580,000 families are paying an average of £149 more in council tax than they did before April 2013.

“It’s ridiculous”, said one signatory to our petition. “A lot of families are still struggling, councils need to let people keep more of their own money”.

Essex County Council has spent £90 million over three years on external consultants and temporary staff, £3.3 million on a traffic congestion scheme that could have been solved for much less by removing a pedestrian crossing, and £2.3 million over six years on so-called compromise agreements – or gagging orders, more accurately.

By contrast, down in London Hammersmith and Fulham Council has cut its rates by 20 per cent over seven years by sharing public services with neighbouring councils, selling unused council buildings, encouraging staff to set up mutual and social enterprises, and reforming the way services are delivered – for instance by outsourcing street cleaning, parks maintenance and human resources.

Fears that cuts there would harm public services have proven to be unfounded. Six out of ten people (of 1,000 asked) said they actually thought their local services were better after five years of spending cuts in an ICM poll last year.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance recently produced a report on 201 ways councils can save money, from sharing services to a freeze on recruitment. Perhaps councils should take a look before thinking about more tax hikes.

Let there be light in Sutton Coldfield
Apr 2014 04

Birmingham City Council, the largest local authority in Europe, recently paid around £2,000 to install a new lamp post. However, residents have been left dumbstruck as the post does not light up the pavement below.  Eastern Road in Sutton Coldfield has been left in darkness as the lamp post has been put up directly behind a conifer tree.

The 20ft high lamppost cannot let out any light and the council are now in talks with contractors Amey in cutting back all the foliage. It is also one in a series of 95,000 street lamps in Birmingham that are to be used as a part of its new upgrade process. The new energy efficient LED models were meant to be seen as a cost cutting method, replacing the old fluorescent lights, though it does not have seem to have worked out that way.

One local councillor said that ‘it gives the council a bad name’ and we couldn’t agree more. Wasting £2,000 of taxpayers’ money is never likely to be seen as a ‘positive’ or ‘good’ move.  If this is the start of upgrade process, we dread to think how the rest of it will play out.

The Welsh NHS, a lost generation?
Apr 2014 03

For over a decade the Welsh Government has been running the NHS in Wales. Control of the NHS should have given the Welsh Government the ability to localise services and pursue policies that Welsh taxpayers really want. As a result policies such as free prescriptions have been introduced in an attempt to win votes and are often cited as a beacon of success of the Welsh Government.

However for all the potential positives from devolution and the localisation of services, these have been undermined leading to a lost generation of advances in health care. The NHS has failed to curtail lavish and wasteful spending  which has put extra pressure on frontline services. We still hear of swollen managerial boards, armies of equality managers and even senior environmental officers all of whom make no real or needed contribution to the frontline care.

This week we have seen that calls made to the Welsh Ambulance service involving life-threatening situations were responded to within targets only 53 per cent of the time. During Welsh Questions at which, time and again the failings of the current Welsh Government are cited, it was highlighted that since 2008 the Welsh Government has failed to meet waiting times for suspected urgent cancer referrals and that there is in fact no cancer drugs fund in Wales.

But what is most upsetting about this lost opportunity is the fact that the Welsh Government is more interested in changing indicators (some may call that moving the goal posts) rather than examining past failings and learning from them. The devolution project in Cardiff Bay truly is in denial, more interested in blaming everyone else other than itself for failings or ignoring the true concerns of those who use the service. This couldn’t be more obvious than in the case of Ann Clwyd MP and her husband Mr Owen Roberts, sadly Mr Roberts passed away after having to wait for 27 hours on a hospital trolley, being treated as Ms Clwyd describes like a battery hen.

It is now time for the Welsh Government to focus the health budget on front-line services and the only way to do that is to cut waste on NHS non-jobs.

Support for Bristol TPA War on Waste
Mar 2014 31

Less than a week after the TPA’s War on Waste grassroots demonstration on College Green outside Bristol City Hall, the elected Mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, has responded to Bristol TPA supporter Roy Tallis’ suggestion that there should be a cut in the number of councillors.

‘In my view,’ says Ferguson, ‘there should be closer to 50 councillors rather than the current 70.’

It is a remarkably prompt reply to Tallis’ call for a dramatic cut in the number of councillors in Bristol. Tallis, a businessman and former councillor, told the Bristol Post about his plan to reduce their £1 million allowances bill, footed by the local taxpayer.

‘I just wonder whether we need so many councillors now,’ said Tallis. ‘I would have thought a dozen at the most would be enough to represent the whole city instead of two councillors for each of the 35 wards. The fact of the matter is that very few people know who their councillor is – and even if they did, I don’t think they would go to them for help if they were not of their own political persuasion.’

Responding to his suggestion, the Mayor is now leading a review of the way Bristol City Council runs its affairs.

‘My instinct says that the new process we now have,’ says Ferguson, ‘does justify having fewer councillors but it is important not to be extreme about this and to get the balance right.’ The Mayor wants to see 70 cut to 50, but Tallis wants to push it further and see the number of councillors reduced to 12.

‘I don’t think democracy would be a casualty if we had far fewer councillors,’ argues Tallis, ‘because the mayor is an elected post and people can make their point at the ballot box every four years. I would like to see a debate on the issue so we ask whether we have value for money by having so many councillors.’

It is great news for Bristol TaxPayers’ Alliance. As Tallis said in his blog for us: ‘Let Bristol show the way’!

Tim Newark, South West TaxPayers’ Alliance

War on Waste: Cut number of Bristol councillors
Mar 2014 24

Does Bristol City Council (BCC) really need 70 elected councillors to serve its citizens? As a resident of the city and a one-time councillor, I can say this is one way of cutting the cost of local government—reduce the number of councillors—and the TPA in Bristol is campaigning to get the numbers cut. On Saturday, we brought the War on Waste message to Bristol City Hall and gathered on College Green with our banners.

From BCC’s recent accounts, the councillors can be seen to cost the local taxpayer over £1m. A Bristol councillor’s Basic Allowance is £11,416, so times that by 70 and you get £799,120, but that’s just the start of it. BCC councillors can claim Special Responsibility Allowances (SRA). These vary and are paid on top of their allowances for attending committees. This can go up to as much as £30, 411 per councillor.

In 2012-13, Bristol SRAs amounted to £308,496, so that gives a total basic cost of £1,107,616. That figure could then be more than trebled if we take into account the cost of support staff, office accommodation, expenses and the like. Let’s say approximately £3.5m, that’s £50,000 per councillor.

Now if Bristol’s citizenry were actively supportive of these councillors and rushed out enthusiastically to support them, then it might be a cost well worth paying. But do they? In 2013, the council election turnout averaged some 27 per cent across the 23 participating wards. Even in the General Election year, 2010, none of the 24 participating wards experienced a turnout greater than 50 per cent for the city elections.

So, at the best of times, a comfortable majority of potential voters in Bristol, thumbed their noses at the opportunity to elect their representatives

Why the massive turnoff rather than turnout? Because councillors are virtually redundant as far as policy making is concerned. Even more so with the scope and influence of the recently elected Mayor, George Ferguson. If you doubt me, just ask the councillors themselves. Those to whom I’ve spoken admit to it largely being a non-job. A few serve on the Mayor’s cabinet and carry specific responsibilities for functional areas of city administration. So, let’s say six appointed or elected councillors could do the work of supporting the Mayor.

Even this might be overkill. There are very well paid and highly qualified professional staff who could discharge these duties much more effectively and efficiently than the party nominees or independent candidates who offer themselves under the current arrangements. Most large enterprises function very well without the benefit and involvement of political parties.

Such changes to our democratic processes may need the authority of legislation, but surely to £1 million — and possibly up to £3 million — out of the operating costs of any organisation is worth a little effort, particularly so when it will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the enterprise. Let Bristol show the way.

Parish councils dodge accountability and hike tax
Mar 2014 20

Rothbury villagers in Northumberland are furious at their Parish Council for hiking its precept from £22,413 to £52,000, almost an extra pound a week on top of their Council Tax. ‘This 132 per cent increase is on top of a 50 per cent increase in the previous year,’ says one local resident, ‘almost 300% in approximately two years.’ Imagine if every layer of local government did the same!

At the start of the year, a majority vote by Rothbury Parish Councillors decided that the budget for 2014-15 would be set at £52,000, despite some debate within the village council. ‘Many people are struggling financially at the moment,’ said one councillor opposed to the rise. ‘We have got a large ageing population in the area and I have a big concern about increasing it. I think it is far too much and I think it will be highly criticised by the electorate.’

The increase comes shortly after the government said it would cap parish precept rises at a maximum of 5 per cent. It has led to other parish councils forcing through big increases. ‘There is no mechanism to cap parish or town councils at the moment,’ says the Town Clerk for Barnard Castle in County Durham, which put through a near 8 per cent increase earlier this year. ‘It would need to be made law by the Secretary of State. We need to understand that in the next 12-months they could still impose a cap and we would be restrained in coming years.’

There is a growing feeling among residents across the UK that parish councils are acting beneath the radar of public scrutiny. ‘No written budget has been publicised as to why such an increase has been agreed,’ says one Rothbury villager. ‘The proposal was apparently introduced only during the course of the Jan 2014 meeting, without advance notification via agenda. It also refuses to allow access to its past accounts, its formal minutes, all clearly contrary to legal public right of inspection.’ So much for open and transparent government.

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