Two days ago, I attended Surrey’s County Council’s debate on their proposed Council Tax referendum. According to Council Leader David Hodge before the meeting, they had no choice but to raise council tax by 15 per cent and trigger a referendum to approve that decision.
We have written before about the failings of Surrey County Council we were therefore very interested to see Mr Hodge and his cabinet attempt to defend the staggering 15 per cent increase.
The meeting was delayed for half an hour, and then another half an hour, and then for several more hours. The reason for the delay was, according to a Council press officer, that Mr Hodge was locked up in his office in a heated telephone conversation with…someone. But who?
The budget discussion finally got started at one in the afternoon when Mr Hodge said he and his cabinet ‘believe in the principle of low taxation’, that it was ‘against the grain to raise taxes’ and that tax hikes were ‘just not in our DNA’.
This was a big shock to me because Surrey has had nothing but Council Tax increases for 20 years. Rather than acknowledge this, though, Surrey’s cabinet declared themselves to be an ‘efficient council’ and preferred instead to blame central government: the reduction of their grant was ‘relentless and unprecedented’. Indeed, every time that ‘central government’ was mentioned, groans and jeers emerged from the party faithful in the chamber.
Mr Hodge proclaimed that ‘the government now understands the crisis. The government has listened to the facts and understands how unfair the system is.’ Therefore they are going to take a risk and see if the government listens.
Mr Hodge must have assumed that the people of Surrey would be grateful that he had stayed his hand; instead of a 15 per cent increase (that would be rebated next year if they lost the referendum), the taxpayer would “only” face a 4.99 per cent increase. The looming presence of the 15 per cent figure should not detract from the still too-high 4.99 per cent rise.
Francis of Assisi said that it was in giving that we receive, but St Francis never lived under Surrey County Council, where one gives in order to give yet more the following year. More to the council’s chief executive, more to the council leader, and more to wasteful projects like council-funded magazines and associate cabinet posts.
No member of the opposition groups seemed surprised by this last-minute deal. Instead, they attacked Mr Hodge for not having a concrete number from the central government after his communications. The opposition groups all took for granted that the referendum was just a threat to secure more money from the government.
With hindsight, the decision of the Council to amend certain sections of their substitute budget (which was subsequently agreed on) looks like an attempt to allow the cabinet to avoid proper scrutiny for the year ahead, regardless of whether they get more money or not. The following passage was removed in the amendment:
Agree that there will be a requirement for a transparent, member-led process, in conjunction with officers, to find an implement an additional £30m of cuts to achieve a balanced budget in 2017/18.
Not only does this remove the need for them to locate £30 million of spending reductions (perhaps because they know that they will not be needed?) it removes transparency as well.
Councillor Hazel Watson, the leader of the Surrey Opposition Forum, told the chamber how a Freedom of Information request revealed letters between Mr Hodge and 11 Surrey MPs. She asked what was in those heavily-redacted communications. But today revealed that these were not the only communications Mr Hodge conducted.
Jeremy Corbyn announced during Prime Minister’s Questions that he had seen a series of texts from Mr Hodge, supposedly discussing calling off the referendum after receiving funding assurances from the government. It is looking highly likely that some kind of accord has been made behind-the-scenes, but we await confirmation on that.
We at the TaxPayers’ Alliance are very happy that Surrey County Council has decided to call off the referendum, as hard-working residents should not bear the burden of the Council’s mistakes. However, the opacity of the discussions is not befitting conduct of public servants who are paid by the taxpayer; policy must be better formulated than this.