Rochdale Council boss to get £40,000 pay rise
Oct 2013 10

Rochdale Council raised Council Tax last year by 3.5 per cent last year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t try to increase Council Tax again next April. Despite these increases, a pay rise of £40,000 for the chief executive has been recommended, with other senior officers in line for whopping increases.

The current Chief Executive, Jim Taylor, is the lowest paid council boss in Greater Manchester. Struggling to live on a meagre £130,000 a year, he will see his salary rise to £170,000. This, of course,  is just the headline figure. When you factor in employer’s pension contributions and employer’s National Insurance contributions, the true cost of the increase to taxpayers is over £50,000.

Last year, the council leader, Cllr Colin Lambert, boasted he had appointed a new Chief Executive on a lower salary than his predecessor. So what’s changed? He should be proud of the fact he has kept the cost of senior salaries down. If Mr Taylor thought the salary on offer last year was too low, he wouldn’t have applied for the job. It’s a simple as that.

Those at the top should lead by example. Council staff are not receiving bumper pay rises, and some are facing redundancy. The majority of council staff in Rochdale do not earn £40,000 a year. It is simply unbelievable that Cllr Lambert thinks it’s right to award a pay rise of the that amount.

Come on Cllr Lambert: think again, do the right thing, and take this proposal off the table before it reaches full council next week.

Cornish councillors urge 6 per cent council tax rise
Oct 2013 10

Shockingly, Cornish councillors are urging a 6 per cent Council Tax rise next year! Five cross-party councillors have submitted this proposal to Cornwall Council.  ‘A 6 per cent rise would cost people about £1.50 a week,’ says one of these councillors, ‘but it would bring in an extra £9m, so even if we have to pay £1m for a referendum, we’d still have a bit of a buffer to help ease the pain of cutbacks that would will need to be made. A referendum would be expensive, but democracy costs money.’

Yes, taxpayers’ money—and they may well say ‘no’ to the imposition. ‘It’s not ideal,’ continues the councillor, ‘but many of us think it’s better.’

Fortunately, other Cornish councillors disagree. ‘I think putting up council tax by 6 per cent would be a mistake,’ said one. ‘I think that it is too much and it would put an unfair burden on too many people in Cornwall who simply can’t afford to pay it. I just simply don’t believe the people have the appetite for this. They wouldn’t vote for it, it is a costly exercise, and it would cost about £1m just to hold the referendum.’

Instead, other councillors are recommending a 1.97 per cent rise, just below the threshold that triggers a referendum. It seems Cornish taxpayers are being presented with the suggestion of 6 per cent increase and a referendum so that the smaller rise  appears more reasonable and sensible. Sadly though, it’s still a rise at a time when family budgets are already under immense pressure.

Cornwall Council has frozen tax increases for the past three years and should continue to do so. The cross-party proposal will be discussed at the next full council meeting on 22 October.

Hull City Council staff face forced changes to terms and conditions
Oct 2013 09

Two weeks ago I wrote about the unions emphatically rejecting changes to terms and conditions for staff at Hull City Council. The leader of the council, Steve Brady, has previously cited one of the highest mileage rates of any council in the country and high overtime costs as two examples of why changes are needed. These changes would have made savings of £2.8 million.

It was revealed in the Hull Daily Mail this morning that the council’s cabinet has agreed to start a 45-day consultation over the termination of current contracts, and will aim to replace them with new terms and conditions of employment. Staff will be re-employed on new contracts from 1 December unless agreement can be reached with the unions on the issue.

The unions only have themselves to blame. If they had agreed reasonable changes to terms and conditions, jobs would have been protected and the council’s leadership would not have had to resort to these measures to balance the books. There was a telling comment from Mick Whale, the National Union of Teachers Hull Secretary. Writing in The Socialist magazine, he said:

Increasingly, the battle to defend jobs, terms and conditions is taking on a political rather than simply industrial colour. Council employees are increasingly understanding that they need a different leadership in the council. Some see this as a change in the Labour leadership but many are questioning whether they can support Labour at all.

This battle has always been political rather than industrial. It has always been a battle between a council leadership making difficult choices and union leaders who ideologically refuse to move from their entrenched position. Instead of protecting their members’ interests, they may lose many of their members as their members lose their jobs.

I hope staff at Hull City Council will see sense, reject the advice they are getting from their union leaders, and accept reasonable changes that will save taxpayers’ money and help protect jobs. It’s a no-brainer really.

Cardiff Council’s barmy monthly bin collection plans
Oct 2013 09

If you asked local taxpayers for a list of vital council services they rely on, bin collections would be high on the list, and although many people freely recycle much of their rubbish, there still has to be a basic service provided for non-recyclable waste. In the past few days though, it has been reported in most of the national newspapers that Cardiff Council, in an attempt to meet the Welsh Government’s gold plated recycling targets, has proposed monthly bin and black bag collections.

The proposal could also see householders being charged ‘pay as you throw fees’ where they will pay less the more they recycle, and householders have also been warned they could face fines of £100 if they mix non-recyclables with recyclables.

Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has criticised the plans:

These barmy bin policies will harm the local environment by fuelling fly-tipping and back yard burning. Hard-working people will suffer from a derisory bin collection service in return for paying a fortune in council tax, which has not been frozen in Wales.

There are naturally fears that bins full of nappies, cat litter, and sanitary waste could be left rotting away for a month, but the council has insisted that it will collect sanitary and food waste more frequently than its normal general waste collections. Quite how more frequent this will be has not been made clear, however food waste is recycled into compost; sanitary waste is not. Why can’t the council continue to collect all general waste more frequently than once a month? The answer is it can. Many councils across the UK have successfully increased recycling rates without resorting to slashing services and threatening their residents. This only serves to anger them.

There are also other questions too. What if an elderly resident accidentally places wrong items into the wrong bin? Are they going to be fined? What if someone whose bin is full decides to place rubbish into a neighbour’s bin? How is the council going to decide who is responsible?

As Eric Pickles has said, there will be an increase in fly-tipping. There is also the increased risk of vermin and in the summer more flies and wasps to contend with. This really is a barmy proposal and one that we in the Welsh TaxPayers’ Alliance will be fighting strongly against.

Questionable expenditure from East Kent?
Oct 2013 08

East Kent is full of examples of questionable expenditure at the moment. Not just government and local government, but other public bodies, not all quite as accountable.

Globe trotting Kent University staff have enjoyed trips to exotic locations such as New Delhi, Shanghai, Las Vegas and Rio De Janeiro. Credit card statements for June obtained by the Kentish Gazette show more than £900 was spent on just the New Delhi Hotel and another £729 in Mumbai; £740 in Beijing and Shanghai, and £280 on Croatia’s coast. Other entries include £639 spent at the Istanbul Hilton, over £1,500 in Washington DC; £762 in Rio De Janeiro, and £668 in Dubai. December last year also saw almost £900 at restaurants and hotels on The Strip in Las Vegas. The university defended use of corporate credit cards in recruiting students from 120 countries after being forced to reveal details when the newspaper submitted a Freedom of Information request.

Elsewhere the documents revealed over £1,100 spent on flights to Brussels and Atlanta, and £700 at a London hotel. Also present were charges for flower delivery, payments to Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre and local hotels – Canterbury restaurants featured frequently – and Pizza Express. A university credit card was used to buy wine worth £494 from Majestic. The university refused to divulge which of its staff use the cards. They say use ID strictly governed and audited. The maximum daily spend per card is £250. Some small purchases included shops like Wilkinson, Starbucks and Currys, plus £145 for a TV licence. One transaction was for 69p to the Apple iTunes store.

In total, more than £270,000 was spent on Kent University’s hospitality cards between August 2009 and July 2013 on “wining and dining”. Nobody doubts the necessity to travel for the gaining of lucrative foreign students, but the question has to be asked: do these figures represent a good example at a time when students are running up debts?

It’s not just Kent University that has been racking up bills on credit cards, Kent Police have spent £309,000 since January 2012. They spent over £110,000 on hotels and flights and £21,341 on police staff meals. They also used them to buy books and magazines worth £2,454.

Staff at East Kent Hospitals Trust have been at it too, spending £89,701 on travel and hotels in the same period. However, much spending by police and the hospital trust’s corporate credit cards has been on everyday items like stationery and equipment. The Kent Fire and Rescue Service spent £119,000 on its corporate credit cards, almost all of it on things like parking, training courses and food. Around 80 per cet of spending on another card was for driving courses for staff.

Procurement cards can certainly be an efficient way of paying necessary bills, but that spending must be appropriate, controlled and transparent. One thing is certain from all this. Our public servants are still freely spending our money and not always too anxious to reveal the details.

Welfare reform in South Wales
Oct 2013 04

As the owner of a small business in South Wales, the news of an economic turnaround has really benefited us and created a fresh positivity amongst our customer base. Demand for our services is up to the point that we have gone regional and are on the verge of national expansion. However, I like many small business owners, are falling foul of the benefits system and a largely incompetent DWP.

As reported by ‘This is South Wales’, Jean Rashbridge, a local businesswoman from South Wales, has similar problems. She encountered a situation where her company ‘Smokers Angel’ received over 100 job applicants for an £8ph position within an hour of posting an advertisement with her local Job Centre Plus. After filtering the candidates and interviewing the final few, sadly Mrs Rashbridge found that the successful candidate didn’t even show up for the job.

She said she soon feared people had just been applying in a bid to fill an applications quota set down by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in order to keep their benefits, and this is the same position I find my business facing. Of the ten applicants we received on Tuesday this week, three were from varying parts of England; four submitted an application but their personal profile didn’t have any contact details; and out of the three remaining candidates, all declined an interview. One candidate, who could be described as being long-term unemployed, remarked that the £35 paid for five hours work would be an insult to him and his hard-working grandfather.

The Chancellor’s announcement this week that the Government is going to accept the recommendations we made in our ‘Work for the Dole’ report and yesterday’s announcement that people under the age of 25 who are not in education, employment or training should not be allowed to claim benefits, are welcome.

For small and medium sized businesses to grow, we need people with the right skills and a good work ethic. The majority of unemployed people do want to find employment, however there is a stubbornly number of people who have fallen into a rut, do not have the right skills, and the system needs to do everything it can to get those people into work.

Bristol’s very expensive new broom
Oct 2013 03

Bristol City Council (BCC) is keen to trumpet the departure of five senior managers, each earning £80,000, as part of its efforts, apparently, to ‘become a smaller but more efficient organisation’—but information has been passed to us that these directors will be simply replaced by four new directors each being paid £130,000—fifty grand more! So no saving there at all!

The departing directors of Finance, Major Projects, Education, Communications and Strategic Commissioning have all taken voluntary redundancy and will no doubt receive generous severance payments. But no sooner have they gone, than they will be replaced by four new directors. A sharp-eyed Bristol supporter noted BCC recently advertising for four strategic directors: Strategic Director—Business Change; Strategic Director—Neighbourhoods; Strategic Director—People; Strategic Director—Place. Each of them to be paid £130,909 plus benefits.

Now, presumably these peculiar, new council jargon titles are there to distinguish them from their predecessors, so the council can claim they have cut posts, but in reality they are simply replacing them with new senior managers, so not only is the Bristol taxpayer being expected to pay out hefty redundancy payments to the departing directors but to fork out yet more money for the new ones coming in. As our Bristol supporter puts it: ‘Over half a million for four council workers!! Digraceful!!!’

But what is the purpose of this costly game of musical chairs? Steve Mills, spokesman for Unison in Bristol, claims it is part of the price the local taxpayer is paying for getting a new City Director, Nicola Yates. ‘I don’t think it’s for the benefit of Bristol myself,’ he says. ‘[Yates has] just joined us after receiving a massive payout herself from Hull City Council. She survived and it seems like she wants a very expensive new broom to clean out some of the old officers and get her new people in.’

So, not only does Ms Yates get a generous pay-off from Hull City Council of £242,677, as reported by us, but she walks straight into a new job and gets the local taxpayer to fork out for a whole new management team for her too. Wow, the public purse seems to be bottomless when it comes to attracting ‘talent’ to run our local services…

Cornish pubs join VAT protest
Sep 2013 27

Cornish pubs joined in a protest across the South West by cutting the price of their food and drink by 7.5% as part of Tax Parity Day, reports The Cornishman. It’s part of a campaign to highlight the benefit of a reduction of VAT to 5% in the hospitality industry. Currently, food and drink in pubs is subject to 20% VAT, whereas supermarkets benefit from 0% VAT.

The protest follows on from French entrepreneur, Jacques Borel, who has campaigned successfully for VAT cuts in restaurants and bars across Europe, including France, Germany, Ireland and Sweden.

‘Our aim is to secure a more equal tax treatment for food sold through pubs, restaurants and food service operators compared to supermarkets,’ he says, ‘which benefit from a zero VAT rate. Our supporters are reducing their prices by 7.5% for one day, as this is the amount we believe prices would fall by if VAT were cut to 5%, as we estimate 60% of any reduction would be passed on to the customer.’

Pubs in Cornwall and Devon are calling on the government to make this reduction. St Austell Brewery reduced prices at its 25 managed pubs, and were joined by 19 of its tenanted businesses. ‘Creating a tax parity between pubs and restaurants and supermarkets will not only benefit consumers,’ says their managing director, ‘who will get lower prices, but the resulting increase in customers will mean more jobs are created in the sector. This could be up to an estimated 670,000 based on the experience of other European countries. St Austell Brewery is fully committed to supporting this campaign.’

Many JD Wetherspoons pubs in Cornwall and Devon joined in too. ‘We are keen to highlight the amount customers would save if VAT in pubs was lowered,’ said their manager in Falmouth. ‘So, for example, the total price of a meal and drinks for a customer at The Packet Station would be reduced from £10 to £9.25 on Tax Parity Day.’

‘We must be as competitive and compete on a level playing field,’ said head of tourism for VisitCornwall. ‘This initiative will clearly demonstrate what a difference it would make if taxation in the UK was at a par with many of our rivals.’

Jenny Pickles, Cornwall TaxPayers’ Alliance

Bristol support for cut to sky-high holiday tax
Sep 2013 26

South West TPA supporters gathered in Bristol Airport calling for a cut in Air Passenger Duty (APD) on Wednesday. Taxes on flights departing  from the UK are the highest in the world. Different rates apply according to the distance travelled. Britain’s exceptionally high taxes on flights in though make holidays much more expensive, as well as making it harder for Britain to compete as a destination for tourists and business investment.

Based in the main check-in area of the terminal, we handed out leaflets to arriving and departing passengers explaining the  tax. Our campaign mascot Hector the tax inspector was suitably attired in his holiday kit and attracted a lot of attention.

‘It’s ridiculous,’ said one passenger, ‘they’re screwing us every way they can.’ One young couple was flying first to Amsterdam and then onto Australia to avoid the most expensive duty. ‘That way we don’t pay the full tax,’ they said. A short standard rate flight to Amsterdam adds £26 each to their bill, but going all the way to Australia would add £188 each—making a total of almost £400! It’s not surprising they’d rather endure the inconvenience and tedium of two flights rather than one to save almost £350. But it’s not just an inconvenience though, this damages businesses and tourism in the UK.

When you add VAT and Insurance Premium Tax, the tax burden on going abroad and enjoying yourself is getting higher and higher. In 2012, the estimated total tax bill for holidays abroad was over £2 billion. That is £56 for each of the holidays abroad taken. A family of six travelling to Spain will have faced an average tax bill of £187 on their flights and holiday purchases in the UK. A family of four travelling to Florida will have faced an average tax bill of £350 on their flights and holiday purchases in the UK, an increase of £150 since 2008.

You can read more about the cost of holiday taxes here.

 

Are UNISON still in charge in Hull?
Sep 2013 25

It was revealed yesterday that the unions have emphatically rejected changes to their terms and conditions at Hull City Council. This has been a long running saga and something I have written about on many occasions. When Labour took control of the Guildhall in May 2011 from the Liberal Democrats, they said they would look at overtime rates and mileage allowances.

I can’t say I am surprised that proposals to change staff terms and conditions have been rejected. Negotiations (or the threat of them) have been going on for more than two years. Paying the HMRC recommended mileage rate of 45p per mile instead of the 65p  rate the council currently pay is fair, but the rhetoric coming from union leaders has more than implied they are up for a fight. Andrew Reed, vice-president of the Hull Trades Union Council, had this to say:

We fully support the staff at the council who are fighting against these cuts to their terms and conditions. It’s a disgrace that Labour councillors who are former union officials are even thinking of attacking their own workers like this.

With that level of realism about the financial crisis we find ourselves in, you can’t help but have some sympathy for the council leader, Steve Brady. I would have more sympathy for him though if he had not forced out a chief executive, without giving a valid reason, which cost taxpayers almost a quarter of million pounds in the process.

I have referred to the elections in May 2011 when Labour took control of Hull City Council. Just after that election, I was sent the picture below.

UNISON-300x225

Is it hardly surprising the council seems incapable of changing staff terms and conditions and getting the unions to agree to a fair mileage rate? If Cllr Brady had stood up to the unions for the start and made it clear these reforms were essential, he may not have found himself in this position. He has not been strong, despite his tub-thumping rhetoric, and this has come back to haunt him.

Former Hull Council Chief Executive gets a quarter of a million pounds pay-off
Sep 2013 24

Nicola Yates abruptly left her post as Chief Executive of Hull City Council fourteen months ago. The speed of her departure was breathtaking, and for a council that likes to think it is open and transparent, we still don’t know the reason why she was shown the door. There were rumours that the relationship between her and council leader, Steve Brady, had broken down so much that they were not returning each other’s calls and e-mails; but that’s all they were – rumours. At the time the council also refused to reveal how much she received as compensation for loss of office, even though ultimately it would have to be revealed in the 2012-13 accounts. Yesterday, we found out.

Ms Yates was paid £160,000 a year, and received a pay-off of £242,677 - the equivalent of more than eighteen months salary. It is hardly surprising the council were so secretive at the time. Not that this is an excuse. Council taxpayers in Hull have a right to know how their money is spent. Just because revealing the size of a pay-off may be politically embarrassing doesn’t mean they shouldn’t find out immediately rather than fourteen months down the line.

We have written before about the ‘public sector merry-go-round’. When Katherine Kerswell left her job as Managing Director of Kent County Council, the council was equally secretive about the amount she received to walk out of the door. It was later revealed that she was paid £420,000. Not that Ms Kerswell  found herself out of work for long. She quickly secured a job in the Cabinet Office, ironically in charge of Civil Service reform.

It’s the same story with Nicola Yates. Despite accepting an eye-watering amount of taxpayers’ money to leave Hull, she managed to secure the job of Bristol Council’s City Director. This is all part of a broken culture that accepts secrecy as the norm, and that accepts large pay-offs to go elsewhere as a price worth paying.

Try telling that to campaigners in Hull who are trying to stop the closure of the city’s only competition-sized swimming pool at Ennerdale Leisure Centre. In a very heated and nasty debate last week, councillors traded insults with each other and tried to settle old scores, but the news that Ms Yates received a pay-off of almost a quarter of a million pounds only adds insult to injury for them.

Is Ceredigion Council helping to create a property bubble?
Sep 2013 23

Houses prices in Ceredigion have seen huge monthly increases, in  fact the area was ranked in the top ten for August’s increases nationally. Potential buyers in Ceredigion faced a rise only 0.2% smaller than those in London for the same period.  Ceredigion Council hasn’t missed out on an opportunity though to bolster its bureaucratic army, and has appointed Sian Davies to the new post of Rural Housing Enabler.

This is what she had to say in a council press release:

My focus is on searching for development opportunities or empty properties to bring back into use so that we can boost the supply of affordable housing. I’m supported by the Welsh Government, Ceredigion County Council, Tai Ceredigion and Tai Cantref who are all committed to ensuring that people have access to affordable housing within their local community.

On the surface, moves to support the development of new housing may seem like a positive move and welcomed by those finding themselves priced out of the market. But what if the problem is not that councils aren’t doing enough to alleviate the shortage of homes, what if, in fact, their actions are contributing to the problem. Miss Davies’ appointment also raises questions over the actions of Ceredigion Council since the introduction of the Unitary Development Plan back in 2001 and more recently the Local Development Plan.

The main driver behind the increase in house prices is the lack of homes being built. Councils didn’t plan ahead and anticipate the amount of new homes that would be required. Many would argue this shouldn’t be their responsibility in the first place. But house building has certainly being restricted by a lack of willingness to approve planning applications, as in this example where the building of new homes was refused because the application was contrary to polices designed to protect the countryside.

Either way, when the council launched its loan guarantee scheme last year in conjunction with Lloyds TSB, those applying for the scheme can only purchase properties that already exist, and this in turn discourages the development of new build properties. This loan guarantee scheme could also help fuel a local housing bubble and get local residents into unaffordable debt.

Perhaps if the council would stand out of the way and let the market recover by itself, it wouldn’t need to create a new post?

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