Nov 2007 08

Policy Exchange have released a report (PDF) examing the effectiveness of expensive regeneration schemes designed to create a renaissance in poor inner cities.  Their research team’s findings offer a fascinating insight into how the divide between successful suburb and poor inner city has actually grown over time:

"On GVA, the gap between ‘urban policy towns’ and the national average has widened from them being 9% behind in 1997 to 13% behind in 2004 (the latest year for which figures are calculable). The successful towns sample set, conversely, increased their lead over the national average.

On personal income, the ‘urban policy towns’ began 17% behind the UK average in 1997 and ended 18% behind in 2005. Again, successful towns which do not receive substantial urban regeneration funding improved on their position of a decade ago.   

Nor has there been any improvement in unemployment levels in our urban policy sample since 1997, relative either to the national average or to the sample of successful towns. Unemployment is still a stubborn 50% higher in ‘urban policy towns’ than it is nationally or in successful towns suggesting that Britain does not have an economy-wide unemployment problem, but rather quite marked pockets of unemployment in some big cities."

At £30 billion we have spent a lot of money on these schemes for them to be failing so thoroughly.  These regions have still not recovered from the decline of the old staple industries at the start of the twentieth century and outside money appears unable to help.  The truth is that rather than big new industrial projects what these regions really need is the freedom for new, private-sector, industries to develop.  An urban renaissance will have to be driven by the entrepreneurial citizens of that town itself.

David B Smith set out how big government gets in the way of such renewal earlier this year in the Economic Research Council’s Britain and Overseas (PDF).  Unfortunately, national government – which sets a minimum wage too high for these areas and offers salaries that, in these areas, can outcompete the private sector – crowds out the private enterprise.  Each city’s entrepreneurial talent is devoted to securing a better political deal rather than creating new enterprises and employment.

Nov 2007 08

The Telegraph reports new government plans for slow readers to stay behind after school for "back-to-basics lessons in how to recognise words and extra time practising silent reading to bring them up to scratch".

It is tempting to argue for or against this as a policy in isolation.  Will the pupils take advantage of the extra time?  Do schools have the resources?  How much improvement in reading ability will it lead to?  Are there more efficient ways of improving reading standards?

However, that really misses the point.  What our education system really needs is for politicians to stop making this kind of decision.  When the question of whether to teach students literacy for an extra hour after school has nothing to do with government advisors, Education Secretaries or – particularly – Prime Ministers our education system might finally start to shine.  Getting politicians out of the management  of education will lead to better decision making for a host of reasons, here are two particularly relevant to this case:

1)  It might well be that different schools should be taking very different decisions.  Different schools, with different pupils, resources and ideas might want to try very different strategies for improving the literacy of slow readers.  There is almost certainly not one ‘correct’ education policy for the entire country.

2)  The best way to see if this and many other measures designed to improve educational standards work is through real experimentation.  Not the special circumstances of a pilot but different schools trying new things and offering a model to others.

Nov 2007 08

Today at the pumps

The back story

Just take a moment to make sure you understand what’s going on here.

Since Labour came to power, the average pump price of unleaded petrol has increased from 55.8p per litre to 100.06p, a rise of 44.3p (79%).

Of that extra 44.3p, no less than 24.6p comprises higher tax- more than half of the total price hike.

Or to put it another way, this government has racked up petrol taxes twice as fast as inflation (a tax increase of 57% vs inflation of 30%).

Despite those $100 per barrel oil prices, more than two-thirds of today’s ruinous petrol price is tax.

Simple as.

Pix: Today- Mail. Back story- PetrolPrices.com

Nov 2007 07

Peter Webb is branch organiser for the South West Surrey Branch of the TaxPayers’ Alliance including STAG (the Surrey Tax Action Group).  Here he explains how he got involved in activism and offers some good tips as to how other activists can get involved and hold their authorities to account:

Peterwebb3_2I have long believed that taxpayers have been badly served and under-represented.  It was good therefore to discover this small band calling themselves the TaxPayers’ Alliance, and early contact was made followed later by membership.

Before that the 2003/04 accumulating council tax increase of 19% hit us in Surrey as elsewhere. My co-founder Peter Jellfs (now retired) and I at art class said angrily “SOMETHING MUST BE DONE”. Then we went into Cpl Jones mode and wondered what. We believed it was a local issue and councillors must be strongly asked to explain. A letter of the week in the local paper brought support and local village meetings were held. High Street protesting and recruiting took place. A Committee was formed and bank account opened. The Internet produced contact with others outside Surrey.  We discovered that we were not alone. Christine Melsom of Isitfair was out there and would soon lead us into Trafalgar Square making a fighting speech. The TPA people were there too.

It wasn’t long before brains kicked in and we realised that the whole local funding system is flawed, council tax effectively a centrally controlled property based wealth tax, and councillors could claim ‘not my fault’.. But we did gain recognition from the big-spender, Surrey County Council Executive Committee who let us into the council chamber for consultation at budget time.  It has been our general aim to question them on several important issues. On occasions I e-mail all 81 county councillors to embarrass them or sting them into some kind of action. They do not like it up ‘em Sir but continue to be meekly silent. We had sport when they found themselves £50m short. Councillors were invited before a local “Select Committee” to suggest savings. More than one suggested stopping free biscuits with coffee at meetings. Wow!

My professional and industrial experience, with my personal turn of mind, has taken me into the reform debate and after submissions, early to DETR, Balance of Funding Group, appearance before the Bennett Committee and Lyons Inquiry (he consulted me in Guildford). My submission to the Communities and Local Government Select Committee may have contributed to a 2007 conclusion that it is time to stop faffing about on reform after 30 wasted years of getting it wrong. I am therefore pleased that the TPA is campaigning for Better Government.

We raise all and any issues in the local press or in letters emails to councillors. At the outset I met at length with certain local government people to hear their point of view and advice. One result was encouragement to attend County local meetings in the Boroughs. The first half hour is open to questions without notice in front of the press.

It has been my observation that campaigning is as much a function of the particular passions and interests of those fired-up as it is of subjects for protest. Undoubtedly my doings are personally driven.

With me have been Steve Bowers, with me disgusted of Guildford since long before STAG, who is an insurance broker and passionate and knowledgeable on pensions inequities and cost to taxpayers.

Ernie Hughes was instrumental in guiding us in a co-operative line with the County Council and trying to get them to help us say things up the line that they cannot.

Turlough Bamber a world-wide traveller and as a Civil Engineer has been able to look at local gullies and immediately sum up the technical and supervision failures in road repair that we pay for in taxes. I join him from experience of contracting with government. Together we have forensically attacked the Council for its management and financial control failures. The District Auditor is also on the case.

John Kettle, who has now had to leave us, majored on the ‘numbers’ attack on the County finances.

Barry Smith and Angela Mayer are also great people to have in the team for their support and contribution. Others not on the Committee have given welcome feedback and support. Gillian Young from Cranleigh came and spoke feelingly at a meeting with Minister Woolas in 2005 with our two MPs and myself.

And so we evolve and welcome our promotion into the South West Surrey TaxPayers’ Alliance (STAG and South West Surrey) and look forward to continuing the campaign for lower taxes and better government.

If you want to get involved in the South West Surrey TaxPayers’ Alliance email Peter at [email protected].

Nov 2007 07

With the new practice of trailing the Queen’s Speech in advance, and testing the water on various proposals, people could perhaps be forgiven for not getting as excited as is traditional about the Bills laid out yesterday. After all, the issues are all fairly recognisable and much-debated already, agree with them or not – apprenticeships, nuclear power, anti-terror laws, cutting carbon emissions, seizing money left in bank accounts from its rightful owners….

Hang on – what was that last one?

Yes, that’s right, the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill will give the Government powers to seize money left in bank accounts for 15 years or more. There are quite a number of grounds for objection to this, as you can imagine.

First off, labelling accounts as "dormant" just because the money has been left in them for some time is extremely disingenuous. After all, isn’t it rather the point of bank accounts that money is left in them? It should not be a punishable offence to save money – an activity the Government regularly claims it wants to encourage.

Beyond that, even if it is money someone has forgotten about, what right has the taxman to it? I am sure there are a few coppers down the back of my sofa, and maybe even a fiver in an old jacket if I’m lucky, but even if I am neglecting those resources that in no way diminishes my ownership of them. Still less does it give Gordon the right to rummage down the back of the sofa or raid my bank accounts.

I may be wrong – and please correct me on this if I am – but this would, to my knowledge, be Britain’s first 100% tax. All monies left in a bank account for 15 years would simply be forfeit.

Of course, the Government has already started attempting to make the idea more acceptable to the public. The money, we are told, will be spent on improving youth facilities. The fact is still inescapable, though, that ill-gotten gains remain ill-gotten no matter what one uses the money on.

More terrifying from the taxpayers’ point of view is the safety net that will be written in to the Bill. If anyone has money seized and then wants it back, they will be able to apply to get it back from the Treasury. Whilst it is better to have a refund scheme than not, it is all too easy to envisage the large amount of money that will be spent on the complex admin of assessing claims. identifying claimants and refunding the huge amounts of money that people will – understandably and entirely predictably – want back when they find that the State has pilfered it.

As well as being a bad, unjustifiable idea, the scheme may well end up being more trouble – and more expense – than it’s worth.

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