High business rates forcing Bath shops to close
Jan 2014 16

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.’

Wasteful ways on South Western waterways
Jan 2014 08

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.’

Rubbish is piling up again in Brighton and Hove
Jan 2014 07

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.

Bath council spends more money on failed bike scheme
Dec 2013 17

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.

Swansea residents oppose bin collection limits
Dec 2013 16

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.

Rochdale Council’s hokey cokey over its chief executive pay rise
Dec 2013 13

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.

Turning public toilet into wine bar with taxpayers’ money
Dec 2013 12

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…

Should Bradford Council reduce the number of councillors?
Dec 2013 12

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 action day this Friday
Dec 2013 11

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.

 

Buckinghamshire County Council will increase Council Tax by two per cent
Dec 2013 09

Buckinghamshire County Council’s cabinet has just recommended just under two per cent increase in Council Tax next year.

I reported a couple of months ago that the council was undertaking a consultation giving residents the option of a two per cent increase, a four per cent increase, or a five per cent increase, but not a freeze. Just under half of those who responded favoured four or five per cent as the council said any additional cash raised above two per cent would be ring fenced and spend on the county’s roads. Without a clear mandate, cabinet members did not feel they could proceed with a referendum, which they say would have cost £300,000. 

The leader of the council, Cllr Martin Tett, said the consultation did not allow residents  the option of a freeze  because of the statutory obligations the council has, such as offering every child a school place and it’s duty to look after vulnerable children and adults. I find this rather odd as every county council and unitary authority has the same obligations and yet many are still freezing Council Tax. He also commented that he was disappointed more residents had not approved of increases of four or five per cent. But with people struggling with rising prices and stagnant wages, the fact that they cannot afford a Council Tax increase should not come as a suprise .

By not giving them the option of a freeze, Cllr Tett and his colleagues have just held a loaded consultation. Although residents were allowed to leave comments, because a freeze was not presented to them, we do not know how many of them would have gone for that option. For consultations to be credible, all options have to be on the table. It was very disappointing this was not done in Buckinghamshire.

More support for ‘Stamp Out Stamp Duty’ in Beverley
Dec 2013 04

We held a ‘Stamp Out Stamp Duty’ street stall in Beverley in September and we got a great response from local people. We were in Beverley again yesterday promoting the campaign and once again the response was positive.

Half of buyers in the East Riding are already paying an average £1,600 in Stamp Duty, and this is set to rise to two-thirds by 2017 paying an average of £2,200. This ever increasing burden is making it difficult for local people to get on the property ladder and also difficult for those with growing families who are looking to buy a larger home.

If you haven’t done so already, please write to your MP. It only takes a minute and makes a real difference.

Swansea Council to restrict rubbish collections
Dec 2013 03

Cardiff and Anglesey councils are proposing monthly collections of non-recyclable rubbish. Carmarthenshire and Monmouthshire currently restrict the amount of waste collected from residents and now Swansea Council says it is going to limit the number of black bags residents are allowed to put out for collection.

Although the council has formally not made up its mind on the issue, and the cabinet are discussing it this week, the move appears to be a foregone conclusion. The council is already outlining the dates of publicity campaigns and the implementation dates.

Just like those other councils in Wales who are reducing their rubbish collection services, Swansea will not be reducing the amount of Council Tax local people have to pay. The council claims it is all to do with statutory recycling targets, however figures obtained by Media Wales highlight that recycling rates in Swansea currently stand at 52 per cent, which currently meets Welsh Government targets.

The council has said there will be exceptions for large families, houses of multiple occupation, and in areas where there are physical restrictions, however for everyone else woe betide you if you generate more than three bin bags worth of rubbish every fortnight. Those who fail to comply with the new arrangements when they are introduced will face formal enforcement action.

If councils want residents to recycle more, they should constructively engage with them and make it as easy as possible. When will politicians ever learn that draconian measures like this only serve to alienate the public? Council taxpayers are customers. They don’t deserve threats.

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