The Williams Commission has - under what has been described and urgent and radical proposals – recommended a reduction in the number of Welsh councils from 22 to between 10 and 12. The report offered several different options for the future landscape of Welsh local government, but all involved merging authorities.
Several organisations, including the Federation of Small Businesses, have welcomed the plans as it may bring an end to duplication and complexities in services and help boost the local economy with targeted service planning on a more regional basis.
The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) has already hit out at the commission’s findings claiming that Council Tax will have to be increased to meet service provision. The WLGA also claims that upfront costs will be £200m, much higher than the projected £100m stated in the report. Projected savings, however, could be anywhere between £60m-£80m a year and as the WLGA primarily exists to protect its members (councils and councillors) its criticisms are to be expected.
The commission should be commended for publishing such bold proposals. It is possible that some local identity maybe lost, but potential savings of up to £80m certainly should be examined in further detail.
Bath & North East Somerset Council (B&NES) has one of the biggest surpluses in parking charges and fines outside of London—£5.3 million in 2011/12. No one enjoys an unexpected fine or charge, but the high cost of parking fines are, more often than not, out of all proportion to the offences committed.
This leaves many feeling particularly aggrieved. This is largely due to the high cost of parking fines that are out of all proportion to the offences committed. We are, after all, mostly talking about drivers merely looking for spaces in which to park their car, while otherwise going about their lawful activities, and falling foul of local regulations. Especially so when compared to fines levied for other more serious offences. Recently, a Bath driver was fined £95 and given three penalty points for driving without due care and with an insecure load. That is not much above your average parking fine.
Because of this anomaly, the government is now looking at reducing the general cost of parking fines. Indeed, the Commons Transport Committee (CTC) recently said it was ‘hard to justify parking fines that are substantially more than the fines for more serious offences like speeding.’ Furthermore, their report said: ‘The Government should also work with the Mayor of London and local authorities outside London to identify ways in which the burden on the motorist of penalty charges for minor parking violations can be reduced.’
As for the effect of parking fines on local businesses, the CTC concluded: ‘It is unacceptable that local authorities set enforcement regimes that effectively force some companies to incur Penalty Charge Notices costing hundreds of thousands of pounds a year for carrying out their business.’
Commenting on the CTC’s recommendations, Transport minister Robert Goodwill said ‘These changes could see the end of CCTV being used for on-street parking, unnecessary yellow lines and the introduction of compulsory “grace periods” at the end of paid on-street parking.’
The reduction of the cost and issuing of parking fines would be welcomed by drivers who have, for too long, felt that town halls treat them as cash cows to be milked at any and every occasion
Many councils across the country are consulting with local residents on possible Council Tax increases. Nottinghamshire County Council is just completing its consultation called ‘The Budget Challenge 2014/15’. The response rate was good, with over 6000 people completing a form and sending it to the council, and the council has revealed that 45 per cent of respondents favour an increase of 1.99 per cent, rather than an inflation busting and referendum triggering 5 per cent.
What doesn’t appear to have been offered was a Council Tax cut, or even a freeze. In a similar way to Buckinghamshire residents, Nottinghamshire residents have just engaged in a loaded referendum. It goes like this:
You put out lots of scary numbers about how much money the council has to save. You then say the only way to save the money is by cutting services (which implies there isn’t any waste at all). You then ask which services local people think should be cut. You then say the cuts would not be as bad if Council Tax increases by x per cent, knowing that those responding will not want to opt for a large increase. This then presents a smaller increase as justifiable, and hey presto, you can say that the majority of local people consulted favour an increase of 1.99 per cent.
Of course, what the council could have done was accept the Government’s offer of a grant in return for a freeze. Whether residents would have opted for that is unknown, however for a consultation to be genuine, this option should have been on the table.
Long established shops in Bath are closing their doors, thanks in part to continuing high business rates. The latest is bag shop Rickards of Bath in Northumberland Place, serving customers for over 100 years. When it first opened in 1910, it sold bags made by the family in their own factory in the city.
‘Retail has changed dramatically over the last ten years and has become much harder during the recession,’ says Rickards current owners. ‘The increase in online trading, rising overheads and high business rates have all added to our decision.’
‘Sadly our Council have already gone on record claiming there is no problem with business rates and that demand for shops was high,’ says Bath resident Julian Deverell and campaigner for independent shops in Bath. He blames Bath & North East Somerset (B&NES) council for continuing to charge sky-high rents and not providing a more business friendly environment for independent shops.
‘As far as B&NES are concerned the shop premises will simply be filled with another business,’ says Deverell, ‘be it a corporate chain or another independent who braves Bath’s astonishing costs. The high street in this country is slipping away and councils like B&NES are part of the problem.’
Extortionate business rates, high council rents and parking costs have all been cited by Bath traders in the past as a hindrance to their businesses. When long-established Bath Model Centre recently closed after 80 years of business in the city centre, Bob Graham, father of the final owner, said the high cost of trading didn’t help.
‘It is a lack of trade and steep overheads,’ said Graham. ‘The business rates are going up again in April, they are extortionate, and we have high rent. The council is to blame. In the past ten years it has done everything it can to stop people coming to Bath. The cost of parking, over zealous traffic wardens, they are booking people left, right and centre.’
As the South West is battered by storms and floods, one attempt to harness the power of a local waterway has cost the taxpayer an estimated £1.3m pounds in legal action—to stop it happening!
In 2009, local builders at Avoncliff in Wiltshire wanted to restore a watermill on the River Avon in order to generate hydro electricity, but the Environment Agency (EA) objected to the project and has poured hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money into a judicial review and numerous other blocking procedures involving the Information Commissioner, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, the High Court, planning inspectors and MPs.
‘I am estimating the Agency was spending the best part of £1,000 a day, even by the EA’s own wonky accounting, still trying to impose an arbitrary outcome to get their way and moving heaven and earth not to be seen to lose,’ says local campaigner Tom Oliva, quoted in Narrowboatworld. The specialist waterways news website has had its own tussle with the EA, which threatened legal action for daring to report the costly saga.
Oliva has used Freedom of Information requests to reveal the full extent of the costs to the public purse. ‘What is the accumulated total EA funding allocated to tasks associated with Avoncliff licence determinations,’ he asked, ‘including consultancy billing and legal expenses?’ In answer, the EA said: ‘We have interpreted your request to mean the accumulated funding allocated to tasks associated with the Avoncliff licence determination since their return by the Court on 11 April 2012. Please inform me if we have misinterpreted your request. We estimate our funding for the items you list to be £611,000.’ This can be only part of the overall cost as the whole procedure started way back in 2009.
This is not the only complaint of wasteful ways at the EA. A whistleblower inside the taxpayer funded organisation alleges there is a need for ‘improving management oversight, reducing abuse of the flexi and holiday system, which currently lacks any audit trails, oversight or consistency, the way in which manpower is put to use, particularly Flood and Environment Officers, and finally the consistency in information and processes from one region to another.’ According to official figures, the EA employs 12,529 staff, and has a budget of £1.2 billion (£723 million of which came from Government grants, with the remainder coming from various charges).
‘Given that they’re bleating plaintively about the cuts and bigging up their part in the floods and making a case for more money,’ says Oliva, he is determined to carry on revealing ‘how they are presently spending a non trivial bit of their present budget and costing other public bodies time and money too.’
Although I have many criticisms of my local council, the one thing I cannot complain about is the bin collection service. My bins are emptied when the council says they are going to be emptied. If your council’s Chief Executive went on holiday for a few months, I bet you wouldn’t notice. If your bins aren’t emptied, everyone notices as rubbish piles up in the streets. Sadly, for the residents of Brighton and Hove, rubbish piling up in the streets is an everyday part of life - one they wish they did not have to endure.
Understandably, residents are busy complaining to the council. The council has now responded by asking them not to call them as they cannot cope with the volume of calls. I can appreciate why the council has said this, however residents are also complaining that they have no option but to call as the council is not keeping its website, Facebook, and Twitter pages up-to-date. Their frustration is easy to understand especially when you think of how much they pay in Council Tax each year. When I took a look at the council’s Twitter page, there was very little reference to the problem. One of the most recent tweets was promoting a mood-boosting book campaign! Even on the dedicated Twitter page of Cityclean very little information is being published.
This is not the first time residents have experienced problems though. In the middle of last year waste was piling up thanks to industrial action. Last October, the council introduced new rounds which has led to numerous complaints.
Brighton and Hove Council is run by a minority Green administration. Two years ago, the now leader, Cllr Jason Kitcat, urged all councils in the country to reject the Government’s offer of a one-off grant to freeze Council Tax. He didn’t get his way though as the opposition parties united to oppose a 3.5 per cent increase. No doubt he will blame the Government for the the council’s current plight, although it is worth noting that Brighton and Hove appears to be the only council in the country who is failing to deliver an acceptable bin collection service. There certainly isn’t another council that’s performing as badly. For a party that promotes recycling as if it was a religion, this must be particularly embarrassing.
Waste collection is one of the most basic services councils provide. Residents in Brighton and Hove deserve better and it’s up to Cllr Kitcat and his colleagues to ensure the current problems are resolved.
Having spent millions of pounds on a failed Boris-style bicycle hire scheme in Bath, Bath & North East Somerset Council (B&NES) is preparing to do it all over again—with taxpayers once again footing the bill.
A TPA supporter in Bath recently spotted in the corner of a local scrap yard the forlorn sight of a pile of nearly new Bath cycle scheme bikes waiting to be crushed—taxpayers’ money being ground to dust. The sorry saga started in 2011 when Boris-Bike-style stands went up at four locations across Bath. After the first week, only 29 people had signed up to use the bikes, making a total of 36 trips. Following further poor use during the next two years the scheme was brought to an embarrassing end by the council. One local resident explained that the scheme ‘was prohibitively expensive for casual use and a hassle to get started with.’
Bath’s answer to Boris bikes was part of a multi-million pound package of transport policies in the city, with €4 million coming from the European Commission’s Civitas initiative (paid for by European and British taxpayers). Having admitted defeat and brought the initial contract with an Italian firm to an end, B&NES council is now re-launching the bike scheme with German firm Nextbike. There will be more hire points and cyclists will be able to take their bikes beyond the city limits. Funding for this will come from the Local Sustainable Transport Fund, which is yet more taxpayers’ money dressed up as a government grant. When it comes to encouraging cycling there appears to be a never-ending stream of taxpayers’ money to lavish on poorly thought out, underused schemes.
Our sharp-eyed Bath supporter notes that B&NES first failure ‘only convinces those in charge that we just need to spend a bit more to fix the problem.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance was in Swansea last Friday, opposing the Council’s move to limit the number of black bin bags households can leave out for collection every fortnight to only three. On a very damp morning, when most people thought it better to stay indoors, we were able to collect over one hundred signatures against these proposals.
During the morning we heard stories of residents already having to take rubbish to their local refuse site as the collections aren’t frequent enough, and young mothers were complaining that the sanitation collection used for babies nappies has gone weeks without collection, even though the council has pledged to maintain this weekly service. But what troubled people the most was the prospect of neighbours dumping their rubbish outside other people’s homes in a bid to avoid the new limits.
Swansea Council is pursuing an ill thought through and desperate attempt to encourage recycling and should instead work with residents rather than reverting to draconian measures. We will be back in Swansea next year promoting this campaign and look forward to working with local people on more issues that affect them.
Many people will be glued to their television this Saturday to watch the semi-finals of Strictly Come Dancing. I have to admit to being a fan myself, mainly because I am a hopeless dancer and I marvel at those who can. One dance that will not be featured though is the hokey cokey. If it had been, then I would have suggested to the producers of the show that they should invite Cllr Colin Lambert, the leader of Rochdale Council, to make a guest appearance as politically he has been performing this dance for the last two months.
In October, he decided he was going to award the council’s Chief Executive a £40,000 a year pay rise. Then, because of the obvious chorus of objection, this decision was in doubt and it was reported by multiple news sources that the pay rise was not going ahead. Good news, so we thought, but then it appeared that the pay rise was back on. We were contacted by Rochdale’s MP, Simon Danczuk who said, “He is going to get it. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Watch outcome of council meeting tomorrow.” The next day the full council meeting decided to defer a decision until this month.
Any sensible person would have decided there and then that this pay rise was not going to happen and would have worked out a way to successfully back-peddle. Not Cllr Lambert. Instead, he still tried to plough ahead with the pay rise and had to face the humiliation of being voted down by his own group in a group meeting earlier this week. Last night, at a full council meeting, months of hokey cokey politics culminated in the chief executive being awarded a pay rise of 1 per cent, in line with other council employees.
With this standard of leadership on display in Rochdale, local residents are really being short changed. It should have been obvious that awarding a massive hike in pay to the council’s Chief Executive was wrong and could not be justified. Thankfully, eventually, the right decision has been made, but local people will be concerned that the driving force behind the rise is still leading the council.
Bath councillors are arguing for taxpayers’ money to be spent on converting a public toilet into a wine bar. It is the latest twist in the Bath and North East Somerset’s (B&NES) bungled attempt to save £120,000 by closing down 14 public toilets across the region.
Situated in the village of Larkhall, the public toilet was all set to be closed down, when a series of protests—including a woman spending several nights in one loo—plus a 2,800-signature petition, forced a u-turn on the council who have agreed now not to close the toilets unless other provision can be made for the vulnerable people who need to use the loos. The whole procedure was so clearly a public relations act to show that the council was getting tough on expenditure, while actually doing little to trim its back-room budget. The removal of one senior management post would more than have covered the £120,000 they wished to save by closing down the toilets.
But now in a worrying trend B&NES is setting itself up as a taxpayer funded restaurateur and bar-owner—it recently ejected one successful restaurant from a city centre premises to set up its own council run bistro. Now it is planning to put taxpayers’ money towards converting Larkhall Square convenience into a wine bar.
‘The idea is to turn water into wine,’ says one B&NES councillor. ‘I think the council will put some money towards it, it’s a really viable proposal.’ He adds the wine bar loo has been ‘agreed in principle.’ Our message is simple, if it is a viable proposal then why do taxpayers need to subsidise it.
So we may soon be able to toast the health of the council in a toilet—sounds about right…
In our report ‘201 Ways to Save Money in Local Government’ published last month, number 188 was reduce the number of councillors. I don’t know whether Keighley’s deputy mayor, Judith Brooksbank has seen our report, however she is proposing just that after the suggestion received strong support at a local consultation meeting.
Currently, Bradford Council has a total of 90 councillors spilt between thirty wards – three per ward. Cllr Brooksbank has proposed cutting the number of councillors by a third, leaving two per ward, meaning there wouldn’t have to be any redrawing of the boundaries which can be a lengthy and costly process. According to her, it could save £390,000 a year. Her proposal has not gone down well though with the leader of Bradford Council, Cllr Dave Green. He said:
One issue is whether the actual savings would overcome the representational issue it would cause. I know that different wards have different types of workload. The councillors I know from all parties are all extremely busy doing their ward work. It’s not a simple argument to say that you cut the number of councillors by a third and automatically save a third of the amount of money.
It may not be quite as simple as that, as some councillors may clock up some extra miles, however reducing the number of councillors by a third would undoubtedly reduce costs by a significant amount. And surely sixty councillors is enough to represent local taxpayers? Do Bradford residents really need ninety councillors? That’s for local residents to decide, although I can’t imagine the council suddenly becoming less democratic as a result of a reduction. In fact, standards could improve as there will be more competition for fewer places.
It will be interesting to see if existing councillors agree to put this proposal out for consultation next year. Or will it be a case of turkeys not voting for Christmas?
Swansea Council, along with some other councils in Wales, has proposed yet further cut backs to local bin collections. As I mentioned last week, the council proposes to limit the amount of refuse one household can have collected to only three black bags once a fortnight .
Households should be helped to recycle more but that does not justify the move. It is vital that we protect essential front-line services that taxpayers pay a fortune for through their Council Tax bill.
That’s why we’re holding an Action Day this Friday, 13 December, and will ask local people to sign our petition. You will find us on Oxford Street, Swansea, from 9.00 am until lunchtime. Please come and show your support against this outrageous policy.