Colchester Borough Council is considering hiking Council Tax next year, despite wasting millions of pound of taxpayers’ money on expensive vanity projects and empty warehouses. Paul Smith, councillor for business and resources said that a rise in Council Tax could be necessary in the face of reductions in the central government grant. The grant will be cut by 16% in 2014 and 15% in 2015. Council Tax has been frozen for 3 years in the face of spending reductions.
Unpopular decisions have been taken, like the closure of the £76,000 Abbots Activity Centre, furiously opposed by elderly residents, local activists and the opposition on the council. But Colchester Borough Council has also been castigated by local residents for wasting money on a massively late and over-budget arts centre, a bus station that is far too small, a self-service website that doesn't work and an unpopular car ban in the town centre.
The arts centre project at Firstsite, nicknamed the ‘golden banana’ by its admirers and given much ruder names by its opponents, cost £22.45 million to build, most of that put up by taxpayers. Construction costs projected at £16 million overshot to £28 million as a series of disastrous design flaws, delays, and flooding saw the cost spiral out of control. The Council recently recovered £5.75 million from the builders in a series of legal actions. Colchester Borough Council currently pays Firstsite an annual subsidy of £150,000 and a maintenance contribution of £15,000. Colchester MP Bob Russell has described the project as a waste of money.
The new bus station at Osborne Street (built to replace the one destroyed to make way for Firstsite) cost £1.62 million to build but many residents are unhappy with it, describing it as too small and cramped. A proposed extension to the bus station is expected to cost £300,000.
They spent £120,000 to create a self-service website bringing together Council Tax, Housing Benefits, bin collections and other services in a single place. Users have reported that a ‘Not Found’ page greets users trying to pay their Council Tax. In short, it doesn’t work.
They spent £10,000 on promoting a traffic ban in the town centre which was shut down within a month earlier this year. The scheme has since been re-launched and has created traffic chaos, with jams and breakdowns along East Hill and East Street.
The Council also pays £129,000 a year in Business Rates for empty commercial properties including a warehouse that has been derelict for more than a decade. This has so far cost taxpayers over £600,000.
In the face of all this waste, the argument that government cuts make tax hikes necessary is disingenuous at best, and at worst can be seen as an attempt to distract attention away from bad decisions taken by council leadership. Hiking Council Tax will only make life much harder for families already struggling to pay the bills.
Across the country, the results of the last few years spending squeeze have been resoundingly positive, especially in Essex – 70 per cent of people polled are satisfied with the way their local council runs things, despite several years of spending cuts. Higher taxes are not the answer. The Council has, to its credit, frozen taxes and cut spending for three years. There is no reason why they should change direction now.