Back in February, in our Council Spending Uncovered paper on pensions we pointed out that instead of just talking in Westminster about how the burden of public expenditure might be lifted under a possible future Conservative Government, the Conservatives should, if they really meant it, use their vast presence in local government to make a difference now:
There have been welcome calls for public sector pension reform from the Opposition. In November 2006, Shadow Chancellor George Osborne said: “Let me make this clear – a future Conservative government will not consider itself bound by the deal done between the Labour Party and the unions. Those retiring on public sector pensions are increasingly being supported by those entering the private sector workforce. That is plainly unfair.”
The Conservative Party does not need to wait for a change of government to help alleviate the burden of local government pensions on ordinary taxpayers. The Conservatives are now the largest party in local government and so have a real opportunity to put taxpayers first and campaign hard to make reform a reality.
That, of course, doesn't just apply to pensions. Indeed, there are many areas where councils have near total control of their policies and could make a big difference to the council tax burden very quickly. In areas like waste policies, wage inflation and unnecessary spending the Conservatives should be walking the walk now at a local level if they expect anyone to believe their talk about Government nationally.
It's encouraging to learn, then (from a Tory Councillor who is also a TPA supporter) that last week Eric Pickles, the Conservatives' Shadow Local Government Minister, wrote to all of his party's councillors to warn against bin taxes.
I reproduce the letter here in full:
Dear Councillor *****,
GOVERNMENT PLANS FOR BIN TAXES & THE 2009 ELECTIONS
I wanted to provide you with an update on the Labour Government's plans to levy new bin taxes on family homes. Despite repeated briefings by Downing Street that Gordon Brown is scared that bin taxes will be unpopular, the Government is moving ahead with legislation to introduce new charges for the collection of household rubbish.
Initially, five pilot schemes will adopt these new taxes; the Government's own predictions then forecast that the taxes will be extended to two out of three homes. Ministers have written this week to every local authority chief executive, to try to invite councils to take part in such schemes. This is a trap to attempt to entice Conservatives councils into supporting the Government's deeply unpopular plans. I believe that every Conservative councillor has a key role to play in defending families from these taxes.
The key arguments against participating in such pilots are as follows:
· Higher taxes on families: Families across the country are suffering from a soaring cost of living. Bin taxes will punish families for having children. Even the Government's own optimistic Impact Assessment admits that families will pay £72.31 a year more. The Treasury has openly admitted the new 'waste incentives' are officially a tax.
· Increasing the tax burden: Labour Ministers claim that such schemes could be revenue neutral. They made the same empty promises about the council tax revaluation in Wales. Representations from councils across the country have warned that the Government's sums do not add up due to the set-up, administration, collection and enforcement costs of a brand new tax, as well as the need for new lockable bins. As the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management have warned:
"Costs will be incurred to councils for administration and enforcement. This means that in terms of value added such initiatives would therefore do nothing to assist councils manage their waste budget in the face of rising costs. If the costs for administration are expected to increase substantially in order for householders to be monitored and billed accordingly, but with overall council tax remain bill remaining the same, then either householders who are recycling will pay a proportionately larger slice (this may be significant sums per annum, as has occurred in Ireland, where costs of 300-400 Euros are not uncommon for waste collection), or other council services might have to be reduced in order for revenue to be redirected to cover waste administration."
· Harmful to the environment: Bin taxes will lead to a surge in fly-tipping and backyard burning. Fly-tipping has already soared in the last three years due to higher landfill taxes. Bin taxes will give perverse incentives to households to dump their rubbish, stuff it in bins other than their own, or contaminate recycling collections. In the Republic of Ireland, bin taxes have led to 4 in 10 households now burning their rubbish, and such burning of now causes 73% of all dioxin emissions. Under the Government's proposals, civil amenity sites will have to remain free for household waste. Many residents will therefore drive to the local dump to avoid bin taxes – increasing carbon emissions and congestion.
· Electorally unpopular: The politics of rubbish is very high on media's agenda and a great cause of public concern. Councils which introduce bin taxes will be vilified in the popular press and punished at the polls. I am sure that Liberal Democrats will happily be two-faced in opposing them locally, even though they support the taxes in Cowley Street. Nationally, we will not hesitate to criticise any supposedly-Conservative council which collaborates with the Labour Ministers and props up Gordon Brown's discredited stealth tax regime.
In short, bin taxes will harm the local environment and increase the cost of living. This is just another cynical Labour attempt to tax families more by stealth, but with a thick coat of greenwash. The Government should be working instead with councils to extend recycling collections, and make it easier for all households to go green. There is certainly a role for incentives, but not for taxes or charges.
There is great concern in local government about the growing cost of waste. The Government is imposing massive regulatory costs on local councils through LATS and landfill tax. But the answer is not to increase taxes on families, but for the Government to compensate councils for those costs.
With a significant set of local and European elections in 2009, Conservatives need a unified front in opposing these new taxes. We intend to provide a campaign pack against bin taxes in due course, which will provide you with ammunition to take on our opponents in the run up to the elections. We can take the fight to Labour on an issue which will resonate with every household in the land. Opposition to Brown's bin taxes is a vote winner.
I want every Conservative councillor to show how people can vote blue, go green and keep the cost of living down.
ERIC PICKLES MP
Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
This is encouraging and precisely the kind of thing we were talking about. At the moment, irrespective of what their party leaders might be saying or advising, there are a lot of bad councils from every party. It's no use leaders talking in Westminster about keeping tax down, reducing unecessary expenditure, not levying unfair and unmanageable taxes like the bin tax if the councils allied to them then go and jump in head first to exactly the opposite. Pickles' pledge that
Nationally, we will not hesitate to criticise any supposedly-Conservative council which collaborates with the Labour Ministers and props up Gordon Brown's discredited stealth tax regime.
is particularly significant. If the Tories are realising that the bad, high-spending, stealth-taxing behaviour of some of their local representatives is undermining to their national message then it'll be good to see some of the local high taxers put on the spot.
I'm sure there will be a lot of councils from other parties, too, that will oppose the bin tax but it's important for as many councils as possible to realise from the outset that the bin tax is not a solution to the waste problem, and will only add to the crippling financial burden.
From the TPA's point of view, this is a good start, though it remains to be seen how many Conservative councils will resist the temptation to dress up in environmental clothes and then squeeze taxpayers for even more money. Needless to say, we don't accept the conclusion that central government should just dish out more taxpayers' cash to local councils, but the first and most important battle is to stop the bin tax in its tracks.