Jan 2008 08

Stephen_carterStephen Carter, Gordon Brown’s new Principal Special Advisor, may be familiar to assiduous students of TPA campaigns.

Back in November, when we launched the 2007 Public Sector Rich List, Mr Carter came in at Number 32 with a stonking remuneration package of almost £400,000. Having come under fire, he defended himself in the Sunday Times by claiming “I am on the TaxPayers’ Alliance hitlist".

The Carter paranoia complex can only have been further fuelled, then, by the fact that we have been prominent today in criticising his £137,000 salary as Gordon’s latest spin doctor. I would like to take this opportunity to reassure Mr Carter that it’s not a personal vendetta against him per se, and there is a sure fire way of making sure we never have to criticise him again: stop costing the taxpayer so much money.

Jan 2008 07

It’s that time of year again, when we hear of our council tax and other local taxes going up and up.  Yet we’re seeing more and more elected representatives standing up for the taxpayer and committing themselves to fighting against tax increases.  First we reported how Hammersmith and Fulham council are cutting council tax for the second year running.  Now TPA activist Cllr Neil Martin of Wembury Parish Council explains here why he will be voting against his local Parish Precept increase at tonight’s Parish Council meeting:

Neil_martin_2“Currently, I serve as a member of a fairly well off parish council in Devon. Last year, I promised to vote against any rise in our precept and to produce an alternative budget. Although we’ve got few real responsibilities and are at the bottom of the council tax food chain – with the district and county councils, police and fire service all getting in on the act – the only way to demonstrate that services can be provided for a lower cost is to start at the very bottom where people can see things, especially as parish councils are the only tier of local government that is funded wholly by local taxpayers.

However, this isn’t just about high falutin’ principles that I can discard until the next election: it’s a question of efficiency and good budget management.  In common with other parish councils, we’ve got pretty hefty reserves, and we don’t have any major projects planned.  If we were a larger council, questions would be asked – if we were a private company, we’d be giving money back to the shareholders.  We’re in a position to levy a precept of getting on for zero and still have the money to run things for a year: even including an increase in staff costs.

Staffing costs are another issue altogether: here in Devon national pay scales increase costs way beyond comparable jobs locally. This is at a very local level admittedly – I’m not pretending this is a major part of the council tax – but it’s something that will resonate with people in rural areas who wonder why they pay loads and don’t seem to get very much. In a way, we’re lucky that it can even be considered- people in urban areas don’t come close to this kind of relationship with how their money is spent.

So, with families facing rising costs everywhere, and with money in the bank, I will be voting against any precept rise and in favour of a cut.

Cllr. Neil Martin
Wembury Parish Council”

Cllr Martin raises some very good points TPA activists should be asking their district, town and parish councils.  How hefty are their reserves?  Where can savings be made, leading to cuts in the future?  These questions need to be answered so we can hold to account any council that increases taxes.

If you’re an elected councillor, of any party, and you’re making a bold stand against tax hikes, then do get in touch with me so we can publicise your fight for taxpayers and show the depth of support for tax cuts in the country.

Jan 2008 07

Victorian engineering wins

So who’s going to pay for the new Forth road bridge (nearest in the pic)?

In case you missed it, the existing road bridge (middle one) is falling apart. And the damage is so bad, Scotland’s SNP government has decided it will be cheaper to build a whole new one alongside. So at an estimated cost of £3.25bn -£4.22bn, that’s exactly what they’re going to do. The new bridge will supposedly open in about 2016, and the old bridge will be closed.

For taxpayers, alarm bells should be ringing.

First, how come the existing bridge is falling apart so badly it can’t be economically repaired? The thing is only 40 years old and was supposed to have a design life of 120 years.

We’ve been told it’s being pounded from carrying more than its theoretical vehicle capacity. That was 30,000 vehicles per day, whereas today’s traffic is approaching an average 40,000, with weekday peaks of up to 60,000. Then again, the Golden Gate Bridge now carries 100,000, having initially carried less than 10,000.

But the key reason the Forth bridge is falling apart doesn’t seem to be traffic per se, but corrosion. A couple of years back they took a close look at the cables and discovered 22 of the individual wire strands (out of 11,000) had snapped. As we can all imagine, that’s somewhat less than ideal in a suspension bridge, and in this case, it turns out to be terminal.

But why did they design it like that? Hadn’t they realised the Forth estuary is a tad on the damp and salty side? And how come they’d never thought of looking inside the cable coverings until a couple of years ago?

I’m no engineer, but the old GG seems to have managed to survive an equally damp and hostile environment.

Second, how come the cost has already escalated from the initial 2005 wishful thought of £500m (A Darling when Scottish Sec), through last June’s £1.5bn (government appointed consultants), to today’s £3.25-4.22bn? And which end of that range do you think it will be? Given our normal rules of thumb on project over-runs (eg see this blog), we reckon the final cost will be £5-8bn.

Third, who will pay?

The previous bridge was tolled, but the Scottish government has already said it’s against tolling in future.

So who does that leave? Scottish taxpayers? Yes, certainly them. But given the way Scotland depends on fiscal transfers from England for c10% of its national income (see previous blogs), English taxpayers will also be called upon to dig deep. And they almost certainly won’t want to.

Finally, there’s the question of financing structure. Given the bare fiscal cupboard, this has to be another PFI deal.

PFI is well established for bridges and can work pretty well (eg the Dartford Bridge and Second Severn crossing). Because of their local monopoly, operating risk is contained, and pricing should be correspondingly keen. Except that is, with the Simple Shopper representing us at the negotiating table, none of us should expect anything approaching a fair commercial deal.

A combination of tax-funding and PFI would therefore be alarming. Taxpayers- especially English taxpayers- should insist the bridge is fully tolled.

How fortunate we are that our wallets are not in the hands of a Prime Minister from one bank of the Forth and a Chancellor from the other. Who are under extreme pressure North of the border from an infinitely superior political operator who’s in charge of the Scottish government.

Oh just a minute, they are.

PS Just for fun, here’s an Open University style home movie of that famous Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse. Its replacement opened in 1950 (built on same foundations and anchorage points as the original), and it’s still going strong- albeit with a second parallel bridge alongside to handle traffic growth.

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Jan 2008 07

The Telegraph reports that both Cambridge and the LSE have drawn up a list of subjects that are considered insufficiently academic to form a preparation for candidates to study at their universities.  These include business studies, travel and tourism and media studies.  The universities have confirmed what has been apparent for some time:  these courses are not as rigorous and have been concealing, in the exam results at least, declining educational standards.

Vocational study can be very valuable if it develops useful career skills but there is no sense in claiming that vocational A-Levels, or the Government’s new diplomas, represent the same academic challenge posed in traditional subjects.  Trying to pretend that they do may improve the Government’s statistics but misleads students and conceals failures in the education system.

Jan 2008 07

Near the end of last month the European Services Strategy Unit released a study (PDF) looking at cost overruns in outsourced government IT projects.  They looked at 105 contracts and found:

"The average percentage cost overrun is 30.5%.

57% of contracts experienced cost overruns."

Compare this with the results of our study Beyond the Dome:  Government Projects £23 Billion Over Budget which looked at 305 big government projects of various kinds and found an average overrun of 33.7 per cent and that 57 per cent of projects overran.  The evidence that we are paying a substantial price for endemic overruns becomes stronger by the day.  These overruns are a result of the politicians and civil servants responsible failing to properly specify what is desired from a project before the project begins, underestimating costs to get the project approved and paying over the odds in an attempt to solve the problem.

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