I have been very busy of late travelling the length and breadth of the country meeting TPA supporters. In just the last few weeks, we have set-up new branches in Birmingham, Islington, East Kent, Brighton, Coventry & Warwickshire, Colchester, and Sheffield. There are also more in the pipeline. I have spoken to people in many other places and I will be arranging more supporter social evenings across the country to help bring people together. A big thank you goes to supporters who have volunteered their services.
We don’t want to stop there though. If there isn’t a TPA branch near you, then why not help form one yourself? You will have our full support and I will also send you a copy of our new ‘Grassroots Campaigner’s Handbook’. The handbook is packed full of useful information on how to set-up a new TPA branch and guides you through the process in easy steps.
Whether you can spare time to write a letter to your local newspaper, write a blog for our website, join a protest, help run a street stall, or organise a new branch, your help is greatly appreciated. Please come and join our rapidly expanding army of grassroots supporters who are helping to make a huge difference across the country.
How much does it cost to change a light bulb in a public toilet in Devon? Apparently, £30 is the answer. A report on cost-cutting by North Devon Council has revealed that 69 bulbs were replaced last year at a total cost of £2070. This year, 14 bulbs were changed at a cost of £420.
The lower number is being heralded as a success as the toilet bulbs are being steadily replaced by longer-lasting LED lights. When asked to explain the cost of changing light bulbs, the council’s executive member for the environment said ‘Putting them in is not the question, it is the purchasing and driving to and fro. You could be travelling 49 miles to replace some of them. North Devon is a very widespread area.’
A record was also made of the number of flushes at public toilets in order to decide whether the council can shut them over the winter period. It has already cut the number of functioning loos from 72 but is determined to replace some with more up to date toilet blocks.
The total cost of maintaining North Devon’s public loos has been reduced from £510,00 in 2009 to £374,000 in 2012 but this is due the controversial measure of closing many of them. ‘We have a duty to provide value for money and an efficient service, but there is still some way to go,’ said the councillor in charge.
Attempts to close public toilets in Bath and North-East Somerset have met with resistance from local groups.
‘These are quite little toilets that don’t look like they are being used much,’ says one protest organiser, ‘but in fact the strength of feeling in the community is profound. I have been approached by many people saying how much they need the toilets and how difficult life would be without them and how they would stay away from Larkhall.’ They fear this could have a negative effect on the area’s shops as fewer visitors return.
Many residents in small communities consider these public loos a fundamental part of their council services and do not want them shutting down. The council likes to show it is attempting to cost-cut but is not really getting to grips with reducing its own bloated bureaucracy.
Shopkeepers in Colchester are fed up with rising taxes and council parking charges—but they are doing something about it themselves by offering to pay for shoppers’ parking fees!
Crouch Street in Colchester is well known for its many small independent shops and is clearly thriving despite the economic downturn of the last few years, but even here local retailers have been feeling the pinch. I visited two independent local shops there to find out what they thought could be done to make life less difficult for their businesses. One of their main complaints was that local council car parking is too expensive. An employee at Ambiance on Crouch Street told me that ‘Colchester’s high street is being killed by the high price of car parking.’
‘Colchester Borough Council is simply not doing enough to encourage shoppers in the town centre,’ says Vicki Wheeler, owner of Ambiance. ‘In many other towns and cities, councils have tried to keep costs down for shoppers and local businesses by introducing special offers in council-owned car parks. Some local authorities run free car parks. The council should cut the prices for its car parks, and it should introduce more special offers. The first hour, or two hours, should be free.’
Now, innovative local traders are finding other ways to help customers who might otherwise be put off by the high cost of parking. Ambiance recently started offering to pay for parking in the nearby council run car park. Customers who spend £50 and have parked up to three hours can present their parking receipt at the till and the shop will pay it. Melissa Wheeler, head of marketing at Ambiance, says that a lot of shoppers visit other towns because of the free parking. ‘We know people want to shop locally and we know Colchester shoppers value the independent shops so we thought: “Why not work together”. We can’t just curl up and die.’
Another common complaint is that business rates, set by central government but collected locally, are far too high and make little sense. ‘Rates are definitely far too high,’ says Vicki. She and Melissa are both members of the British Independent Retail Association (BIRA) and sit on the committee of the Fashion Association of Britain (FAB). Members of both bodies are agitated about the rising cost of doing business, and would like the government to give small retailers a boost by cutting or, at least, freezing business rates.
Michelle, who runs Boutique 65 on Crouch Street, has been in business there for a year. ‘There’s just too much tax,’ she says. ‘We’re being squeezed.’ Business rates are far too high and are inconsistent. Michelle pays £22,000 per year for a floor space of 1000 square feet—business rates are assessed by looking at floor space and selling per square foot. A shopkeeper she knows on the high street, just around the corner, pays £21,000 for a much larger, four storey building.
Business rates and rents have been creeping up in line with inflation, and sales have not kept pace. In addition, customers have increasingly chosen to shop online, or where other costs – particularly parking – are cheaper. According to the British Retail Consortium, the overall cost of doing business has risen 21 per cent for shopkeepers, whilst total revenue from sales has only increased by 12 per cent. The number of shops in Britain is predicted to fall by a fifth by 2018, according to the Centre for Retail Research
The message is clear: local authorities and central government need to stop making life difficult for shopkeepers by imposing additional costs on them. Consumers should not have to pay so much extra to use high street stores. If the burden on shopkeepers and their customers can be lifted, traditional retailers can survive and succeed on their own terms. The decline of the high street is not inevitable. It doesn’t have to be this way.
You can help by joining our Freeze Business Rates campaign. Click on the following link to write to your MP and let them know your views.
Gloucestershire County Council (GCC) spent £3.3m of taxpayers’ money on developing plans for a waste incinerator—and then rejected it at their own planning committee!
The wasteful saga began five years ago when GCC initiated plans to develop a rubbish incinerator on a site at Javelin Park in Haresfield. Last year, they signed a 25-year multi-million pound contract with Urbaser Balfour Beatty to build the facility. Presumably thinking they’d easily walk the proposal through the planning committee, but they now face possibly further expenditure if any penalty clauses are triggered.
In the meantime, local protesters successfully galvanised a very vocal campaign against the incinerator that made councillors—ever mindful of re-election—reconsider their view on the project. At a packed planning committee meeting in March, all 18 councillors rejected their own council’s costly proposal. To the delight of local campaigners, a succession of parish council representatives railed against it. ‘There are much cheaper options than this £150million incinerator,’ said one. ‘A mechanical biological treatment facility costs £25million and a gasification plant costs £27million. This will cost us three times as much. The incinerator is not needed. It is a white elephant.’
‘The incinerator will be like five two-storey houses on top of each other,’ said another. ‘It is a monolith that they cannot camouflage or hide. This is going to be the gateway to Gloucestershire. Do we really want that?’ Well, until that meeting their county council was very keen on it!
The multi-million pound cost to the taxpayer of this failed proposal has only just been revealed. Following a Freedom of Information request, the council officer overseeing the project had to admit the details.
‘The average [cost] for a project is around 2.5% of its capital value for external advisors,’ he explained, ‘so for this project it would be about £5m. Our cost, including external and internal advisors, is around £3m. Some of it goes to run the internal team like me, my deputy, my technical officers, and some of the accountants, lawyers and technical experts. It’s all very carefully spent.’
‘It does take this long,’ he insisted, ‘it is about the norm. It takes this long because we started with 11 proposals and eight bidders. We’ve had to whittle that down to the final one.’ As for any details of penalty clauses faced by the local taxpayer, the council declined to reveal this…
Bristol Mayor George Ferguson seems intent on hurting motorists in Bristol, regardless of its impact on local traders. Mayor Ferguson is now proposing to raise the cost of business parking permits by up to 400 per cent. He wants local businesses to pay close to £500 per annual customer permit. ‘The whole point is to reduce the amount of traffic on the roads by commuters at peak hours,’ he claims. It’ll certainly help reduce the amount of business in the city.
The increased business permits will come as part of a scheme to create 18 residents’ parking zones (RPZ) throughout the city over the next 18 months. Normally, RPZs are introduced as a result of a consultation process with residents, but in this case Mayor Ferguson appears to want to impose them regardless of whether residents want them or not. Residents will have to pay between £48 and £192 for their parking permits.
‘The principle of RPZ is fine, in areas where people want them,’ says an opposition councillor. ‘But this one-size-fits-all scheme—which is being imposed on people whether they like it or not—is nothing less than a parking tax.’
‘They’re probably about a quarter of what the commercial charge for a parking space would be—albeit not a dedicated space,’ argues Ferguson. But local traders are already concerned about the impact on their businesses.
One painter and decorator said it would eat into his profits and when he works in a current RPZ zone he has to waste 1½ hours a day driving backwards and forwards to drop off his equipment. ‘I was painting an unoccupied flat so there was no one to give me a permit,’ he explained. ‘I had to drive from Kingsdown with my equipment, drop it off, drive back and then walk back to Cotham in order to work.’
‘My issue is recruitment—we have about 40 staff who work for us,’ says a nursery operator, ‘and there are several that genuinely need to park near to work.’ A council official told one of her members of staff, who lives seven miles away, to ‘use public transport or walk to work—this was impossible as she had to bring her child in every day so the only option she felt she had was to leave.’
‘Local business is already suffering from the loss of the parking at Bristol North Baths,’ says a spokesman for Gloucester Road independent traders. ‘If this toxic plan comes to fruition, one by one the traders will go and the high street will no longer be present.’
This is not the Mayor’s first proposed assault on Bristol car drivers and traders. He recently announced he is considering introducing a congestion charge to the city. ‘I’ve talked to Ken Livingstone about it,’ said Ferguson. ‘He was the first and the bravest in terms of taking some leadership on this issue.’ Although he conceded the concept was unpopular and had been dropped by all other cities throughout the UK.
‘Bristol is not London,’ responded a spokesman from the RAC. ‘We don’t have the investment in public transport, we don’t have a comprehensive underground system. The idea of just slapping on a congestion charge to Bristol as it stands will have a negative impact on motorists and the city’s economic livelihood.’
It seems that Mayor Ferguson is starting to suffer from the same tendency of other mayors, who often feel they need to embrace some grand transport scheme as their legacy. It invariably ends up costing the local taxpayer, driver and entrepreneur.
Tim Newark, South West TaxPayers’ Alliance
It has been a very busy few weeks for the TPA grassroots. Last week I attended the inaugural meeting of our new Birmingham Branch. The branch will be holding an action day on 15th June. More details to follow, but if you would like to help, please let me know.
Regular readers of this website will also know that we have a new coordinator in Islington. His name is Henry Zarb, and if you have any stories you would like to share with him, he will be delighted to hear from you.
We are also holding two supporter social evenings next week. The first will be in Cardiff, where I will be joining our Wales Coordinator, Lee Canning, at The Queens Vaults, 29 Westgate Street, Cardiff City Centre, at 7.30pm on Tuesday 21st May. Lee has some great ideas for new campaigns in Wales and would love to hear from you. If you can make it next Tuesday, please let Lee know. It will be great to see you there.
The second supporter social next week will be on Thursday 23rd May, in Hove. We will be meeting at The Exchange, 8 Goldstone Street, Hove, East Sussex, BN3 3RL at 7pm. A local supporter would like to start a new TPA branch in the Brighton area, so please come along for a chat with like minded people who would like to keep an eye on wasteful spending and high taxes in Sussex. If you can make it to Hove next Thursday, please let me know.
In addition to the supporter social events, I am also meeting with some supporters in Canterbury next Thursday at 1pm. If you would like to join us for lunch, drop me a line. It will be great to get an East Kent branch of the TPA off the ground very soon.
Finally, many thanks to all those who have volunteered their time to help us in our campaigns throughout the country. We will be holding more supporter events, so please look out for one happening near you.
Conwy council in North Wales claims that “lessons have been learned” after a bridge rebuilding project in Llandudno went £1m over budget. The Maesdu Bridge, which has even been described by Independent councillor Dave Cowans as “value for money” is one of the main transport links into the Conwy town. The bridge underwent a complete rebuild and was reopened in September 2010, however a report into the scheme has highlighted significant failings within the management of the scheme.
A report on the overspend, which was discussed by the principal scrutiny and overview committee, said that previous issues had now been addressed but the overall cost of a project this size wasn’t unreasonable. As reported by the BBC, Conwy Council claimed:
… with the possible exception of the design fees, the overall cost of the project is not unreasonable for a scheme of this size and complexity.
Geraint Edwards, the council’s Head of Environment, Roads and Facilities, admitted that it ‘doesn’t seem possible’ to build a bridge at the original cost and confirmed that certain planning items had been delegated to inexperienced staff leading to costings for essential works being over-looked. Further to this Mr Edwards claims that even the designer’s fees of £680,000 appeared excessive and that attempts by the council to negotiate any money back had failed.
Conwy Council has done everything but learn lessons from this expedition of mismanagement. To claim that designer’s fees are excessive is outrageous, simply due to the fact that all fees surely were agreed in advance. As for the matter of over £1m overspend, no one at Conwy Council wants to take responsibility.
A Somerset supporter draws our attention to some extravagant expenditure at Taunton Deane Borough Council. Over the last years, they have spent £450,000 of taxpayers’ money subsidising the failing Brewhouse theatre in Taunton. Two years ago it lost its Art Council funding, but still it continued to employ 20 full time staff and 15 part time staff to manage a 350-seat theatre that rarely sold more than 100 seats at a time.
Despite having nearly half a million pounds of taxpayers’ money poured into its coffers, the Brewhouse theatre finally went into administration four months ago—and if that wasn’t bad enough, the council now wants to spend more taxpayers’ money buying the building. And yet, at the same time as it is dishing out public money to support a failing theatre, it has been less than enthusiastic over plans for a privately-funded theatre to open in the town!
A recent Freedom of Information request revealed that Taunton Deane Borough Council (TDBC) has spent £456,000 supporting the Brewhouse theatre over the past three years. Now the council leader is arguing the case for the authority to take over the theatre completely. ‘The borough council’s bid, if accepted, will help us to safeguard the theatre building and contents as an important performing arts centre while a financially sustainable future is sought,’ says Cllr John Williams. ‘The council has no ambition to be the theatre operator but it is key that we work hard to find a sustainable and successful future for the venue.’ Really? It looks as though the council leader is doing his very best to turn himself into a theatrical impresario.
This wasteful and somewhat bizarre use of taxpayers’ money has infuriated local campaigner Jim Laflin who has backed a privately funded proposal to revive the Taunton Gaumont Palace Theatre into a major showcase for musical talent—at no cost to the local taxpayer. ‘Unfortunately there were people at the council who saw the proposed new theatre as a threat to the Brewhouse,’ said Laflin, ‘and they ignored the Project Gaumont proposal for three years despite it having the support of the Chairman of Brewhouse trustees and unanimous support at three meetings of elected councillors.’
As for the council’s plan to buy the Brewhouse, Laflin is astonished. ‘What is the point of that?’ he says. ‘Is it so that council staff can throw more council taxpayers’ money down the drain? There is no possibility that a 350-seat theatre can be commercially viable and there are already two theatres of that size in the town.’ It does make you wonder why the council leader is so wedded to spending yet more public money on a failing theatre?
Islington Council has sparked controversy by spending £38,307, or £339 pounds each, on 113 banners advertising its borough-wide 20mph speed limit. But that’s not the worst of it—they paid way too much for the banners in the first place!
The 20mph banners are placed high up on lampposts on main routes through the borough which are not controlled by TfL, and along which there is already a plethora of 20mph speed limit signs as well as road roundels. It is difficult to see what these signs add, other than another distraction for drivers who will have to take their eyes of the road to read them. The Council claims the signs are ‘essential’ if drivers are to be made properly aware of the new limit, but I cannot think of another instance anywhere in the UK in which the imposition of a speed limit has had to be advertised by anything other than the normal speed limit signs.
The banners have been condemned by opposition councillors as a waste of taxpayers’ money at a time when the Council should be trying to cut unnecessary spending. It is hard to disagree with that assessment. What struck me, however, was not just the obvious wastefulness of the whole exercise, but the sheer cost of the banners.
I have some knowledge, from previous experience in manufacturing and publishing, of printing costs on various materials and it seemed to me that these banners were extraordinarily expensive at £339 each, even taking into account installation costs. So I decided to do some research to find out whether or not the Council had even got value for money in its spending.
I measured one of the banners, on the Blackstock Road close to my home, and took a good look at the fittings associated with it. I searched for suppliers of printed PVC banners and post mounts, as well as sign installation contractors. The whole exercise took me an hour or so and some phone calls and emails. I was careful to get more than one quotation for each item, and to match the specifications the Council used as closely as possible.
At the end of this process, I found I could have the same banners printed and installed, including the use of the costly spring-type post mounts used by the Council, for under £21,500. In fact, I found that had the Council opted for equally robust rigid rather than sprung post mounts (the latter type are mainly to protect banners in high winds, not usually a feature of Islington in the Spring), the whole job could have been done for less than £13,500—or £119 each!
One is compelled to ask why the Council paid over £38,000, or nearly 80 per cent more to put up these banners than it would have cost anyone else. Their overspending is even more egregious if one accepts that rigid post-mounts could have done the job just as well for even less money. In the current climate, when taxpayers are being asked to put up with significant levels of council tax and reductions in services, it is quite wrong to ask them also to tolerate such huge inefficiencies in council purchasing.
Unfortunately for taxpayers, it is highly likely that this sort of entirely avoidable overpayment for goods and services is endemic, not just in Islington, but throughout all local and central government.
Despite recently published grand plans for spending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on refurbishing Bath’s historic Guildhall market, Bath & North East Somerset (B&NES) Council might like to consider giving the hard-working traders in the market a break when it comes to charging them for council services.
A Bath supporter of the TPA reveals to me the hidden costs of making changes to a stall in the market. B&NES demand that any such alterations must involved a Listed Building Application—and that’s just for a stall! ‘Listed Building Applications are supposed to be free,’ says the local businessman. ‘The problem is you have to pay for Pre-Application advice first.’
Section 93 of the Local Government Act 2003 specifies what charges can be made for services such as this and further guidance has been provided by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in the document ‘General Power for Best Value Authorities to Charge for Discretionary Services – Guidance on the Power in the Local Government Act 2003.’
Basically, the rules are that only the actual cost of providing the service can be charged. Indeed the document says ‘Authorities are not required to charge for discretionary services. They may provide them for free if they so decide.’ However, B&NES charges an eye-watering £70.00 (plus VAT) per hour for this service.
A subsequent FoI Request has shown that B&NES raised a total of £160,000 in 2012 just for Planning Pre-application advice and they are making no attempt, as required by the Act, to show that year-on-year income from this is no greater than the cost of providing the service.
‘If they make this much from just one area,’ says our local source, ‘how much more are they making from other such rackets?’
It is yet another extra burden on Bath’s hard-pressed traders, which they can ill afford in this economic climate.
Around 75 people attended the “Justice for Brid” protest last Saturday. The protest was reported by local media, and this story from the Hull Daily Mail contains video footage of the event.
As we have already said, this is just the beginning of the campaign, and we will be meeting shortly with all those interested in moving the campaign forward.
What is clear from those who attended the protest is they are angry and want answers. If ERYC think they can brush this under the carpet, and that the protesters will go away, they are in for a rude awakening.
If you live in the area and would like to take an active part in the campaign, please drop me a line.
The question of Scottish Independence is a burning issue both in Holyrood and Westminster, but the Welsh Government in Cardiff Bay has now managed to scuff together enough half-baked arguments to include itself in the discussion. This, of course, is regarding the debate over borrowing and tax raising powers.
In 2011, a referendum was held so that the Welsh people could decide if they wanted law making powers to be made available to their representatives.All four political parties approved of this move, but now the same political parties are also calling for the findings of Paul Silk (The Silk Commission) to be fully implemented. The Silk Commission argued that with further devolution should come limited powers to raise tax and borrows. For those of us living in Wales this means a travesty is on the horizon.
The Welsh Governments First Minster, Carwyn Jones, in a recent letter to the Chancellor called on the UK Government to give Wales the essential powers it apparently needs. Reported by the BBC, Mr Jones in a letter to the George Osborne appeals for the extra powers to defeat the Pro-Yes Lobby in Scotland. It is claimed, that if it is not made evident that the UK Government is willing to work with devolved nations, then this will simply add to the Pro-Yes vote in Scotland. The First Minister argues by empowering the Welsh Government, a clear example would be provided that devolved funding can be successfully reformed and that the UK Government is willing to work with devolved nations.
You would have thought that the 2011 referendum would have been enough to satisfy the argument that the UK Government isn’t reluctant to work with devolved partners. This move though appears to be nothing more than a ransom demand in the build-up to the Scottish referendum.