Wiltshire councillors vote themselves big pay increase
Nov 2013 13

Just weeks after making 252 council staff redundant, Wiltshire councillors have voted themselves a whopping increase in their taxpayer funded allowances. Wiltshire Council leader Jane Scott sees her allowances balloon by 36.3 per cent, giving her an extra £14,000 a year. The council’s cabinet members see their allowances go up from £15,101 a year to £18,433, while all 53 councillors see their basic allowances rise by £122 a year.

Cllr Scott justifies the increase with the tired old public sector argument that you’ve got to pay high wages to attract good talent—whatever happened to public service, eh? ‘I think it is important that it’s not the people but the positions,’ she says. ‘It is about positioning the council in the right place to get the right people to do these jobs.’

‘At a time when the Council has had to make necessary savings, shedding several hundred staff and freezing pay for others, it is outrageous in the extreme that councillors have voted to increase their own allowances,’ says the TPA’s Political Director Jonathan Isaby.

‘The last thing hard-pressed Wiltshire families deserve is for their elected representatives to be taking home more taxpayers’ money for themselves. Regardless of the independence of the panel that came up with these proposals, Wiltshire councillors should have rejected them. How can the county’s leading councillors retain the moral authority to oversee the necessary savings in the years ahead after taking these inflation-busting rises?’

’Put yourself in the position of a member of the public, they are going to slaughter us and rightfully so,’ says the down-hearted leader of Wiltshire’s independent councillors. It’s certainly made his job more difficult. Twenty-eight councillors opposed the rise, but the leading party in the council pushed it through.

It is also interesting to note that in addition to their basic allowances, Wiltshire councillors are allowed to claim Special Responsibility Allowances (SRAs) for sitting on various committees. For the year 2011-2012, 95 out of 98 councillors received some form of SRA—an enormously high percentage. On top of that Wiltshire councillors are almost unique in being able to claim two SRAs at the same time, so Cllr Scott has added £9,216 to her income by being Chair of the Health and Wellbeing Board. It’s certainly added to her financial sense of wellbeing!

We pay £1,900 a year for the NHS: we deserve better than this
Nov 2013 12

Staff at Colchester General Hospital have been forced into covering up delays to treatment for cancer patients in order to hit nationally set targets. Inspectors from the Care Quality Commission visited the Trust in August and September after finding inaccuracies in waiting time data and being bombarded with complaints. They claim to have found “serious concerns” over the treatment of cancer patients.

In recent months the NHS has come under fire in the Keogh Review, which revealed that potentially 13,000 patients may have died unnecessarily across 14 trusts including Colchester. Colchester was one of three trusts that avoided being placed in special measures at the time, but following the shocking revelations, the CQC has recommended it be moved into this category.

The NHS costs every taxpayer an average of £1,900 every year. Scandals like this undermine trust in our doctors and nurses. You really do have to wonder at the audacity of a system that encourages managers to cover up failures rather than improve patient care.

depending on the measure, the NHS is the world’s fifth biggest employer (the US Department of Defence and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army are the biggest). But a significant number of staff are employed on duties other than patient care. Over the last 20 years the health service has increasingly been subject to centrally-set targets on patient care, waiting lists, and bed space. The idea was that targets would drive up standards, but as the Colchester example proves, meeting targets does not necessarily mean better patient care and can put lives at risk. More paperwork means more bureaucrats, more pressure on staff to hit impossible targets, and the manipulation of data for political ends.

We desperately need a healthcare system that offers us real value for money. As it stands, the NHS wastes too much money and is too centralised. Evidence shows that choice and competition drive up standards. Our 2011 report Wasting Lives compared the NHS to European peers and the results are startling.

We need real patient choice in our hospitals instead of targets and central government control.

Generous mileage rates at Humberside PCC’s office
Nov 2013 11

Earlier this year, Humberside’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Matthew Grove, announced money saving agreements with East Riding of Yorkshire Council and North Lincolnshire Council. Under these agreements, Humberside Police would be able to use council refuelling depots, reducing the needs to use commercial forecourts. According to a press release published on the PCC’s website, “the arrangement has a number of benefits, with the Force accessing a cheaper fuel than is available through garage forecourts and in doing so providing a valuable Police presence at the council’s fuel facility both within and outside of normal working hours.”

This is a very sensible cost-cutting measure, and Mr Grove’s deputy, Paul Robinson, whose role is to develop partnership opportunities, is to be congratulated for securing the deals. Last week, however, I was looking through the travelling expenses claimed by both Mr Grove and Mr Robinson and discovered that whilst Mr Grove claims 45p per mile, Mr Robinson claims 65p per mile – 20p more than HMRC’s recommended rate.

I then requested a copy of the mileage rates paid to staff in the PCC’s office. All staff are casual users and are therefore able to claim a maximum of 65p per mile, up to 8500 miles a year, if the engine size of their car is above 1200cc.

When you add up Mr Robinson’s mileage so far this year (only January-August are available on the website), by claiming 65p per mile, he has cost taxpayers an additional £508. What we currently don’t know is how much has been claimed by other staff. This generous mileage rate could easily cost taxpayers thousands of pounds, wiping out some the savings Mr Robinson has made elsewhere.

I do not want to see the PCC’s staff out of pocket when they use their own car for official business, however paying 65p per mile is a generous taxpayer funded perk – a perk that Hull City Council is planning to eliminate. The PCC’s office should do the same.

‘Stop the Energy Swindle’ back in Colchester
Nov 2013 11

TaxPayers’ Alliance activists in Colchester braved the cold and the rain last Wedensday to protest against energy taxes. Passers-by stopped at our stall to pick up leaflets and sign a petition for our ‘Stop the Energy Swindle’ campaign.

At a time when many families are still struggling to pay the bills, green levies and other measures add £200 to the cost of the average household’s combined gas and electricity bill. This is expected to hit £620 by 2020. Green policy is the fastest growing influence on household energy bills.

One retired energy surveyor was adamant that government-set green targets have forced up the cost of energy. “It’s not just the green taxes”, he said. “It’s also the carbon reduction targets and all the new investment that is necessary”.

Another local resident added, “I think you’re onto something. Energy is far too expensive and these taxes have got to go!” And that was a message that came through loud and clear from the many people we spoke to.

Supporters of renewable energy claimed (and still claim!) that higher costs on energy companies would not impact consumer bills. They claimed that renewable energy will cost less over time. They thought that if Government made it harder and harder to keep the lights on, we could significantly impact global carbon emissions. They have been proved wrong on all three counts.

Our next stall is this Wednesday in Romford. We are meeting on High Street, near the junction with Angel Way, at 12.00 noon. If you are in Romford on Wednesday, please drop by and say hello, and also please write to your MP using EnergySwindle.org. Your voice really does make a difference.

Reading supporters fight energy swindle
Nov 2013 05

Local supporters gathered on a bright but cold lunchtime in the centre of Reading’s shopping district to protest at the government’s green taxes on energy and sky-high gas and electric bills. They handed out leaflets in support of our ‘Stop the Energy Swindle’ campaign.

If you too are fed-up with ever-rising energy bills, go to www.energyswindle.org and send a letter to your local MP. Every one counts as our campaign seems to be having an impact on the Chancellor. The newspapers report that he is considering lopping off £75-worth of green taxes on the average energy bill, we need your help to make sure this happens and more.

‘Green energy taxes are a bad thing because the costs are exorbitant,’ said local supporter Joe Green in Reading. Renewable will always need subsidies because ‘they can only provide real assistance if and when the sun shines and/or the wind blows strongly enough and for long enough when the power is required.’

Reading shopkeepers were delighted to see that someone was taking on the government and its green taxes. ‘Good on you!’ said one.

Hull City Council spends £67,000 on a wheelchair ramp
Nov 2013 04

I know from those times I pushed my late father around in a wheelchair how important disabled access is. I also know how great everyone is when they see you trying to manoeuvre your way through. Without exception, everyone would offer a helping hand.

There is currently a wheelchair ramp outside the Guildhall in Hull. It isn’t the prettiest ramp you have seen, however it does its job, although apparently it was erected as a temporary measure. Now Hull City Council wants to put something permanent in its place, even though there is disabled access through one of the side doors. The bill for building this new ramp comes in at an eye-watering £67,000!

I appreciate the Guildhall is a Grade II* listed building, but at a time of spending reductions does the council really need to construct a ramp made out of York stone, with the walls clad in granite to match the granite plinth of the building? Apparently so. Here’s what Cllr Councillor Rosie Nicola, Portfolio Holder for Learning Skills Equality, had to say:

I believe that the Guildhall is a beautiful building and is one of the architectural jewels in Hull’s crown. I am determined to ensure that everyone visiting the Council has an appropriate and attractive means of gaining access to and egress from the Guildhall and this new ramp will achieve that. It will be constructed from materials which will be in keeping with the Grade II* listing of the Guildhall and will enhance the entrance area.

Enhancing the entrance area? A ramp? If the council believes it is essential to have a ramp at the front of the building (which it currently does) then I cannot believe this is the only option, and I also cannot believe that those people requiring wheelchair access will think spending £67,000 on a ramp is a good use of their money.

Exeter students campaign for cut in cider tax
Oct 2013 30

Students from the University of Exeter gathered to support our Cut Cider Tax campaign. Inside the atrium of its impressive new Forum centre, they collected over 260 signatures for our petition calling on a cut in the Cider Duty Escalator, which automatically adds duty of 2% above inflation to a pint of cider.

‘Cutting cider tax will be a great boost to both the local economy in Devon and nationwide,’ says Exeter student Harry Chamberlain. ‘From a student’s perspective it will cut costs for many on a weekly basis, as well as boosting the sales of smaller businesses at a crucial time where many are struggling. It allows people who wish to drink responsibly to support local brands rather than paying for cheaper commercial cider that tends to be associated with irresponsible and problem drinking.’

After the signature collecting, students celebrated a successful action day with a few pints of cider at the Black Horse Inn, a local favourite with students. Local cider brews in Exeter include Green Valley, Old Rosie, Trickys Cider, Crafty Cider, Sheppys, Lymebaye Cider, Jack Rat and Dragon Tears. And, of course, there’s always West Country favourite Thatchers.

Interestingly, the spectacular Wilkinson Eyre Architects designed Forum building, opened in 2012, which hosted our Cut Cider Tax stall, and also houses a new student library, was built without any government funding. The money for the project came from loans, fundraising, and income from joint ventures. Another reason to raise a glass of cider to them!

Taxpayers are forking out £120,000 a year on an empty healthcare centre
Oct 2013 30

The Ongar War Memorial Medical Centre has stood empty for nearly two years because doctors at a nearby surgery cannot agree on the lease terms with NHS England, due to the absence of a crucial IT system.

NHS England spends £10,000 every month on the building, which cost £5.7 million to build. With the exception of some minor services, it has stood unoccupied for nearly two years. Some services like community blood-taking are likely to open in November, however the Bansons Lane practice – the building’s largest occupants – are unlikely to move in until February 2014.

Dr Hugh Taylor, GP principal of the Ongar Health Centre, said:

It transpired that they didn’t have the N3 network installed. We wouldn’t be able to move in without that network – we have now found a solution for exiting our current lease and hope to be moving by February next year.

Many members of the community are angry that the older Ongar War Memorial Hospital was demolished to make way for the newer building, which has stood empty for over 15 months. Local resident Henry Hart has been outspoken against the delays:

The War Memorial Hospital should never have been demolished. They should never have built the place before agreeing a tenant. They should have agreed a tenant long before they knocked down the old hospital.

Local residents have been deprived of essential healthcare services and must look further afield until the new medical centre opens. The surgery is paying for both locations, and taxpayers are footing the bills.

The delays waste money and put lives at risk. For the sake of patients and all of us who fund the NHS, the GP surgery and NHS England need to get their act together and end this shoddy situation.

More support in Cardiff for our campaign against monthly bin collections
Oct 2013 29

Despite torrential rain last Saturday in Cardiff, TPA supporters were out on the streets collecting signatures for our petition urging Cardiff City Council to abandon plans to introduce monthly bin collections. (If you haven’t already signed our petition, you can do so by clicking here) Just like the previous weekend, many shoppers were shocked to hear of the proposal and want their elected representatives to think again.

We will be back on the streets this coming Saturday in Canton. We will be meeting on Cowbridge Road East (outside Tesco Metro) at 11.00 am. The following Saturday, we will be in Cardiff City Centre. If you can help at either of those events, please get in touch.


Colchester Council considers Council Tax hike – but still wastes our money
Oct 2013 28

Colchester Borough Council is considering hiking Council Tax next year, despite wasting millions of pound of taxpayers’ money on expensive vanity projects and empty warehouses. Paul Smith, councillor for business and resources said that a rise in Council Tax could be necessary in the face of reductions in the central government grant. The grant will be cut by 16% in 2014 and 15% in 2015. Council Tax has been frozen for 3 years in the face of spending reductions.

Unpopular decisions have been taken, like the closure of the £76,000 Abbots Activity Centre, furiously opposed by elderly residents, local activists and the opposition on the council. But Colchester Borough Council has also been castigated by local residents for wasting money on a massively late and over-budget arts centre, a bus station that is far too small, a self-service website that doesn’t work and an unpopular car ban in the town centre.

The arts centre project at Firstsite, nicknamed the ‘golden banana’ by its admirers and given much ruder names by its opponents, cost £22.45 million to build, most of that put up by taxpayers. Construction costs projected at £16 million overshot to £28 million as a series of disastrous design flaws, delays, and flooding saw the cost spiral out of control. The Council recently recovered £5.75 million from the builders in a series of legal actions. Colchester Borough Council currently pays Firstsite an annual subsidy of £150,000 and a maintenance contribution of £15,000. Colchester MP Bob Russell has described the project as a waste of money.

The new bus station at Osborne Street (built to replace the one destroyed to make way for Firstsite) cost £1.62 million to build but many residents are unhappy with it, describing it as too small and cramped. A proposed extension to the bus station is expected to cost £300,000.

They spent £120,000 to create a self-service website bringing together Council Tax, Housing Benefits, bin collections and other services in a single place. Users have reported that a ‘Not Found’ page greets users trying to pay their Council Tax. In short, it doesn’t work.

They spent £10,000 on promoting a traffic ban in the town centre which was shut down within a month earlier this year. The scheme has since been re-launched and has created traffic chaos, with jams and breakdowns along East Hill and East Street.

The Council also pays £129,000 a year in Business Rates for empty commercial properties including a warehouse that has been derelict for more than a decade. This has so far cost taxpayers over £600,000.

In the face of all this waste, the argument that government cuts make tax hikes necessary is disingenuous at best, and at worst can be seen as an attempt to distract attention away from bad decisions taken by council leadership.  Hiking Council Tax will only make life much harder for families already struggling to pay the bills.

Across the country, the results of the last few years spending squeeze have been resoundingly positive, especially in Essex – 70 per cent of people polled are satisfied with the way their local council runs things, despite several years of spending cuts. Higher taxes are not the answer. The Council has, to its credit, frozen taxes and cut spending for three years. There is no reason why they should change direction now.

New laws to give you the right to record, blog, and tweet at council meetings
Oct 2013 25

Following on from our report exposing the councils in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire who ban the public recording, blogging, and tweeting at council meetings, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has announced that these rights will now be enshrined in legislation. The news laws will be part of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill, which is set to be debated by MPs in the House of Commons on Monday, having completed its Lords stages.

The DCLG press release goes to cite our report as a reason for changing the law:

A recent report from the Tax Payers’ Alliance revealed an alarming number of councils in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire who were still keeping democracy behind closed doors. Some councils had even banned local residents from recording, blogging and tweeting at council meetings. Ministers believe these councils are clinging to outdated analogue ideals in the face of a digital age.

This is great victory for transparency, and will force the most secretive council in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, the East Riding of Yorkshire Council, to open its doors to greater scrutiny. It is also a victory for campaign groups like ‘Justice for Bridlington‘ who have been fighting for greater transparency after millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money was wasted on a failed and botched regeneration scheme.

Although it is sad that councils like ERYC have had to be forced into allowing greater transparency, today’s announcement is great news for all who want the opportunity to record and report the decisions being made in our name.

It’s time top scrap welsh council propaganda rags
Oct 2013 25

In 2010 WalesOnline highlighted the issue of councils publishing free-sheets containing everything from local events and bus timetables to the cronyism of egoistical politicians. Never do these publications provide a critical view of local authorities, such as questioning cases of overspending on nonsensical projects or the negative performance of departments within the authority. WalesOnline revealed that that Welsh Councils spent more than £800,000 on the regular publication of propaganda rags. Unfortunately, it seems the council printing presses are just as busy.

These council propaganda publications are too often in competition to genuine journalism in the local area – the kind of journalism that exposes local council blundering, waste and empowers residents to hold local politicians to account. In the November edition of Cardiff’s Capital Times, it was noted on page three that the Council had appointed a new Chief Executive. Nowhere mention what his targets are and how much he gets paid to do the job, however it does mention how he is happy to take the position moving from his current position in New Zealand. In other words a puff piece designed to big up the new appointee. Surely an interview with a local journalist would have allowed the council to announce this appointment and give residents a better, independent, take on new chiefs priorities

This focus on council spin is played out throughout Wales, with Rhondda Cynon Taff’s (RTC) publication Outlook. On the front page of their last edition the headline is ‘UK GOVERNMENT AUSTERITY MEASURES WILL FORCE COUNCIL TO MAKE MANY ‘TOUGH DECISIONS’. The article attributes all spending cuts to the UK Government’s deficit reduction plan and doesn’t actually mention that the local authorities in Wales receive their funds directly from the Welsh Government.

Throughout the RTC publication there are again and again, the same old stories of regeneration scheme success. When readers reach page ten though, the reading does become interesting. On page ten a record of payments made to Council members has been published. I am sure the residents of RTC would be more interested in finding out why the council leader, Anthony Christopher, earned £52,213.43 in the 2012-13 financial year from his council role. Of course he has special responsibilities above the normal role of a councillor, but what exactly does he do to earn his money? How many hours does he work? As the leader doesn’t appear to publish his diary in Outlook, this is something local residents don’t know.

These propaganda rags are nothing more than a self-indulgent ego boost for local politicians.  Taxpayers’ money is spent telling local taxpayers how wonderful the council is. It is about time these publications were scrapped to save taxpayers’ cash and invest the money into front line services.

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