Whether it’s the charge from the library for that book that you’ve had out too long, or getting a copy of your birth certificate, local authorities in England are finding increasingly imaginative ways to charge residents for services they’re already paying for.
First, the good news: excluding education services (which are increasingly being transferred to the Department for Education because of academisation), fees levied by local councils have fallen by 4.3 per cent between 2010/11 and 2015/16 in real terms. Each household paid on average £463 on top of their council tax in 2015/16.
And now the bad. As a proportion of total expenditure, the total sales, fees and charges to English residents have risen from 8.7 per cent to 9.7 per cent. In other words, councils are becoming more reliant on the (additional) money charged to residents for services.
Looking at specific areas of council spending, there have been some steep increases. Fees levied for housing benefit administration have increased 237 per cent during this six year period. Many local authorities also own transport assets. Newcastle Airport, for instance, is majority owned by seven local authorities in the North East. There has been a real terms increase of 109 per cent in fees between 2010 and 2016 for tolls, airports and harbours.
In spite of many councils curtailing the number of bin collection days, fees and charges were 37 per cent higher for waste collections, now generating £148 million for English councils. Even death is no longer a get-out from paying: authorities’ cemetery, cremation, and mortuary services generate £291m in fees, a rise of almost 20 per cent. Housing, environmental and planning services have all bucked the trend and seen increases in charges and fees.
Service charges are not necessarily unfair. Moving to a model where residents are charged for services that they actually use would be quite reasonable, and something that needs serious thought for future. But it’s fundamentally unfair to ask residents to pay twice for a service which should be covered in their council tax and business rates, and which may be better provided by the private sector.
Local authorities have seen steep reductions in central government grants since 2010. But they also need to be upfront about why charges are levied and whether they are doing all they can to eliminate wasteful spending.