Dec 2007 06

Congratulations to Hammersmith and Fulham Council, who have announced today that they are delivering another 3% cut in council tax.

Across the country, council tax has doubled in the last ten years and yet councils claim they still don’t have enough money. Taxes, they claim, must be raised further. Services, they say, must also be cut.

H&F’s example gives the lie to all this blather and blarney.

Instead of squeezing taxpayers further and starving services of investment, they have now cut taxes for two years in a row and improved their performance rating to the 4-star top ranking.

The conclusion must be that the other councils have got their policies wrong – their simplistic link between money in from taxes and performance out through services is a misrepresentation. Somewhere along the line there are clearly other sinks that money is falling into; otherwise the doubling in council tax would have had a much bigger impact on services.

It is to identify some of the inefficiencies and costly irrelevancies that have swallowed all that extra tax revenue that the TaxPayers’ Alliance has launched the Council Spending Uncovered Series, the first paper of which was published this week. That paper revealed that, far from divert money into crumbling services, Britain’s councils have increased spending on publicity by 130% in the last ten years. The problem is, at least in part, one of priorities – glossy newsletters, costly advertising and PR appear to be valued in many Town Halls above meals on wheels, policing, refuse collection and the other things which actually improve quality of life for ordinary people.

The Council Spending Uncovered Series aims to shine the spotlight on areas where money is spent unnecessarily, or which are wrongly prioritised at the expense of more important activities.

Hammersmith and Fulham have done a superb job of diagnosing many of these illnesses themselves. They have correctly identified the two things that should be their priorities – reducing the tax burden on hard-pressed taxpayers and delivering front line services. Everything else in between, be it surplus office space or self-congratulatory pamphlets that no-one reads, is just so much fluff. By rightly downgrading spending on irrelevant or illusory projects, they are improving the quality of services, allowing taxpayers to keep more of their own money and materially making life better for the people they were elected to serve.

That is what local Government should be about.

Even if other councils cannot find it in themselves to follow H&F’s example out of a genuine wish to do the best for people, they should pay heed to the approval ratings that come with performance like this. It is so simple that politicians sometimes seem to overlook the basic fact that actually doing a good job, actually making people happy, is the best way to convince them to vote for you – and it’s a great deal cheaper than trying to buy approval with spin.

Dec 2007 05

Burglar_2 WMTPA friends at the West Midlands NO! campaign have been active in their protest against the ‘City Region’ plans by beating the authorities to the punch and registering the proposed name of the ‘Birmingham, Coventry and Black Country City Region’ themselves.

The City Region, which combines West Midlands’ councils and quangos alike, will no doubt become increasingly prominent, particularly with the demise of the West Midlands Regional Assembly. Like the assemblies, City Regions create another tier of government and threaten to sap even more of our money.

The campaigners at West Midlands NO! aren’t the only ones who are sceptical (to say the least!) about introducing the Birmingham, Coventry and Black Country City Region. Sandwell councillor Bob Piper (Lab) also challenges the idea on his website, asking ‘What is a City Region…and who wants it?’:

“So what is it, and what will it do? Well, it is going to be a City Region Company Limited by Guarantee… or, a Quango to anyone else. It seems to consist of the Leaders and Chief Executives of the It is expected to meet in private (except its AGM), and as far as I know it won’t publish its minutes or agendas, and it won’t have any sense of democratic accountability.”

Stuart Parr, also a WMTPA activist, states that as the electorate hadn’t been consulted on the introduction of our new City Region it was a natural step to register the name without consulting those involved with it’s creation. The powers that be left themselves wide open to sabotage by releasing the name publicly without securing it.

Mr. Parr, along with many of the West Midlands NO! supporters, comes from Telford – a city that not even mentioned in the title of this new body, despite being part of the area it presides over. Apparently the title ‘West Midlands City Region’ would have been unsuitable as the Stoke area is to have its own.

Seems like there are certainly going to be plenty of them…

Unfortunately this protest is unlikely to derail the City Region ambition, which will no doubt resurface under a pseudonym and live on to endlessly consult and “promote the interests of the citizens of the City Region” as is its ambiguous remit. 

Dec 2007 05

The Birmingham Post reports today that Solihull Council are planning to review some controversial parking restrictions just two weeks after they were introduced.

Local residents living in an area that becomes clogged with cars parked by shoppers patronising the nearby town centre had called for a straightforward parking permit system, but this was thrown out by the council in favour of a complex set of restrictions, only allowing motorists to park at certain times, and the introduction of four parking zones.Parking

As a consequence of these new rules many local residents have fallen foul of parking wardens, and several have resorted to converting their front gardens into driveways to avoid any penalties for parking within reach of their own houses.

So now, after just a fortnight, the £25,000 scheme is being reviewed and with all likelihood the residents will see the introduction of the parking permits they requested in the first place. But obviously at an additional cost to the taxpayer.

We can perhaps sympathise a little with Solihull Council who complain that the area was too large to implement a parking permit scheme, but that does not excuse the fact that they have essentially wasted £25,000 on a deeply flawed and highly unpopular alternative.

In putting this new system into operation against popular opinion, Solihull Council clearly didn’t envisage a scenario in which they would have to succumb to the wishes of the community they are employed to serve, and now that they have woken up to their own mistakes it will fall to the local taxpayer to foot the bill.

Dec 2007 05

In the news today there are two more stories of dismal public sector failure.  Despite countless billions in extra spending within both the education system and the health service we are slipping down the international rankings for educational attainment and primary healthcare service standards are declining.  The Telegraph’s leader captures the reasons for this widespread failure well:

"Only the dismantling of centrally dictated, government-monopoly structures will switch control of public-service priorities from the producer to the consumer, and provide the responsive, high-quality services that modern Britons have a right to expect."

There are a number of issues here:

  1. Centralisation:  While the NHS does contain 152 Primary Care Trusts and innumerable other local bodies these are not independent local healthcare providers.  Important decisions from the selection of drugs to the allocation of resources within the NHS are made centrally.  All the Trusts are subject to targets and other impositions from above.  The Trusts are still best understood as outposts of a monolithic NHS.  The attempt to run such a huge organisation, the third largest – in terms of number of staff – in the world, as a single bureaucracy is doomed to failure.  Centralised decision making can’t take account of local knowledge and differing circumstances.
  2. Political management:  This ensures that ultimate control of these services lies with politicians who invariably lack management experience and subject knowledge.  The structural problems with these services are compounded by inexperienced leadership.  Services aren’t under the control of local staff and genuinely accountable to their users but instead under the control of a politician with a very limited understanding of what people need and how it can be supplied to them.
  3. Monopolies:  Monopoly suppliers have no competition, no threat of customer loss or bankruptcy.  Customers have no choice and no redress.  Monopolies therefore remove the basic tools of management and kill the need to innovate, improve and reduce costs.  Hence politicians set up the Competition Commission to protect the public from business – but not from themselves and their civil servants.
Dec 2007 05

Launching a new report into childrens’ educational attainment yesterday, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría emphasized the importance of education for the development of people and society: "Effective and innovative education policies open enormous opportunities for individuals….In the highly competitive globalised economy of today, quality education is one of the most valuable assets that a society and an individual can have".

So it is depressing – even more so because it is unsurprising – to see that the UK has been found to have fallen behind other countries in its levels of educational achievement. The new study, compiled by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA-an arm of the OECD), looked at the educational attainment among 15 year olds in 57 countries. Since 2000, the UK cohort was found to have fallen from 8th to 24th in maths; from 7th to 17th in reading; and in science, an area in which the UK as a whole excels, they fell from 4th to 14th. Taken as a whole the findings constitute – as a reporter on the Today programme put it this morning – a discernable slip for the UK from a premier league of industrialised countries to a first division.

Coming, as this report does, on the back of another which found reading standards among primary school children to have slipped in recent years, it seems that the government’s policy of ‘spend and meddle’ has been entirely fruitless. It hasn’t, it seems, even kept us at our previous position; we have fallen back, rather than improved. Between 1995 and 2004, driven by the mantra of ‘education, education, education’, UK Government spending on education has increased by 75%, while education spending across the OECD as a whole has only increased by 39%. Why has this surge in spending in the UK not delivered?

A close look at those countries who enjoy excellent and improving levels of educational attainment – South Korea and Finland in particular – reveals that it is not money that improves education, but the correct policy. The British government’s education policy has been misdirected from the start, entrenching problems which will take years to undo. South Korea and Finland pay less per pupil than in the UK, limit places at teaching colleges to foster genuine competition, provide well equipped specialist schools for those in need of them, and critically, devolve much of the responsibility for planning how children should be taught down to schools themselves. We have instead created a glut of second rate teachers competing for places in overcrowded schools which labour under the intense micromanagement of a bloated Department of Education and Skills. Shackled and sick it is no wonder our educational system is failing to deliver. What it needs is not more or new government policy though, but simply less government involvement altogether.

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