View Across East Kent: Considering Raised Council Tax & The Role of Local Authorities

April 26, 2012 5:35 PM

My third subject is council tax. Most councils in the country took the money on offer from central government in order to freeze it for another year. Canterbury did so, also Shepway and Ashford. Disappointingly, Dover did not. Their council tax has increased 3.45% They announced this as “a small increase of an average 0.65%” That was disingenuous – they arrived at that figure by taking the percentage of all tax taken by Kent County Council, Police, Fire and the town/parish councils. Kent froze theirs – the largest portion. It is worth noting that in the last year, Dover has offloaded some functions, valued but not legally binding (like public toilets) to town and parish councils – some of whom have increased their precepts.
Of the three councils studied, none emerge as perfect. Canterbury, which started as the most expensive place to be, has imposed the biggest hike in parking charges but frozen council tax and not imposed a garden waste collection charge. Shepway plans an increase in some parking charges but has considerably watered down the proposals after furious public protests; they already charged for garden waste collection, but have frozen council tax. Dover started as the cheapest place to be, but have increased some parking charges, introduced a new charge for garden waste collection and increased council tax – so it looks like they take the booby prize. That is all the more distressing because on a previous occasion that I talked face to face with their Leader, Cllr Paul Watkins, he professed to be a supporter of the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Should he read this perhaps he will reconsider what he has done.
There is a wider question here of just how our money is being spent by local authorities generally. This was brought to the fore by Emma Boon’s recent excellent contribution to the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2, concerning Wirral Council sponsoring the local football team. That prompted me to consider Kent County Council’s activities over the last two or three years. Four examples come to mind.
To save money they have closed all Registry Offices, moving the function into either “Gateway Centres” (combined offices with districts manned jointly and offering “one-stop” access to all council services) or to public libraries. Staff have been shed. However, whereas once, registering births and deaths was a walk-in service, it is now by appointment. Waiting lists have become a reality, taking up to two weeks to register a death. Local undertakers complained that bodies were piling up. An example of good intentions but failing to see consequences.
Then there’s the investment of public money into outside enterprises. One of these was the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery in Margate. That at least may be a success. Not so the money put into starting air flights from Manston Airport to Virginia, USA as a spur to develop the airport. They failed dismally and public money was lost.
Kent County Council operates a Commercial Services arm, which enjoys a considerable turnover. The council insist that it is an arm’s length organisation, kept separate from council business, and that it saves money for taxpayers. However, two of its main activities are Kent Top Temps, an employment agency, much used by the council itself, and Kent Top Travel, a bus and coach for hire business, that tenders for contracts offered, in the main, by – Kent County Council, for subsidised bus routes. Conflict of interest? Commercial firms have complained bitterly, and as a result a committee was set up to oversee activities and ensure nothing untoward went on. It has not met since May 2011.
Should local authorities be involving themselves in such activities at all? I suggest that we all need to take a step back, a deep breath, and decide just what our local authorities are for; what we want them to do – and just as important, not do. Also, are the multi-tiered layers of authority too many and too complicated? – the more councils, the more admin, duplication and potential waste. Localism is the current vogue, and some things are indeed best decided locally. But some may best run centrally. The more locally diverse we get, the more services are bound to become different across areas, and some of the same people who shout for local accountability then complain about suffering from a “postcode lottery”. They really cannot have it both ways.
So my final word is one used by those who set school examinations: “Discuss”.

 My third subject is council tax. Most councils in the country took the money on offer from central government in order to freeze it for another year. Canterbury did so, also Shepway and Ashford. Disappointingly, Dover did not. Their council tax has increased 3.45% They announced this as “a small increase of an average 0.65%” That was disingenuous – they arrived at that figure by taking the percentage of all tax taken by Kent County Council, Police, Fire and the town/parish councils. Kent froze theirs – the largest portion. It is worth noting that in the last year, Dover has offloaded some functions, valued but not legally binding (like public toilets) to town and parish councils – some of whom have increased their precepts.
Of the three councils studied, none emerge as perfect. Canterbury, which started as the most expensive place to be, has imposed the biggest hike in parking charges but frozen council tax and not imposed a garden waste collection charge. Shepway plans an increase in some parking charges but has considerably watered down the proposals after furious public protests; they already charged for garden waste collection, but have frozen council tax. Dover started as the cheapest place to be, but have increased some parking charges, introduced a new charge for garden waste collection and increased council tax – so it looks like they take the booby prize. That is all the more distressing because on a previous occasion that I talked face to face with their Leader, Cllr Paul Watkins, he professed to be a supporter of the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Should he read this perhaps he will reconsider what he has done.
There is a wider question here of just how our money is being spent by local authorities generally. This was brought to the fore by Emma Boon’s recent excellent contribution to the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2, concerning Wirral Council sponsoring the local football team. That prompted me to consider Kent County Council’s activities over the last two or three years. Four examples come to mind.
To save money they have closed all Registry Offices, moving the function into either “Gateway Centres” (combined offices with districts manned jointly and offering “one-stop” access to all council services) or to public libraries. Staff have been shed. However, whereas once, registering births and deaths was a walk-in service, it is now by appointment. Waiting lists have become a reality, taking up to two weeks to register a death. Local undertakers complained that bodies were piling up. An example of good intentions but failing to see consequences.
Then there’s the investment of public money into outside enterprises. One of these was the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery in Margate. That at least may be a success. Not so the money put into starting air flights from Manston Airport to Virginia, USA as a spur to develop the airport. They failed dismally and public money was lost.
Kent County Council operates a Commercial Services arm, which enjoys a considerable turnover. The council insist that it is an arm’s length organisation, kept separate from council business, and that it saves money for taxpayers. However, two of its main activities are Kent Top Temps, an employment agency, much used by the council itself, and Kent Top Travel, a bus and coach for hire business, that tenders for contracts offered, in the main, by – Kent County Council, for subsidised bus routes. Conflict of interest? Commercial firms have complained bitterly, and as a result a committee was set up to oversee activities and ensure nothing untoward went on. It has not met since May 2011.
Should local authorities be involving themselves in such activities at all? I suggest that we all need to take a step back, a deep breath, and decide just what our local authorities are for; what we want them to do – and just as important, not do. Also, are the multi-tiered layers of authority too many and too complicated? – the more councils, the more admin, duplication and potential waste. Localism is the current vogue, and some things are indeed best decided locally. But some may best run centrally. The more locally diverse we get, the more services are bound to become different across areas, and some of the same people who shout for local accountability then complain about suffering from a “postcode lottery”. They really cannot have it both ways.
So my final word is one used by those who set school examinations: “Discuss”.

 

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