By Ian Taylor, grassroots coordinator for Kent
For a TaxPayers’ Alliance grassroots coordinator like me, the latest series of tax increases in my county of Kent is deeply disappointing. Yet again, most of Kent’s taxpayers face steep council tax rises. Kent County Council has gone for the maximum without a referendum again, meaning we face a huge increase but are deprived of the opportunity to send a message that we don’t want vastly higher taxes. The precepts for Police and Fire & Rescue have also been hiked, though at least in the case of the police there will be more officers on the ground to show for it. Smaller district, town and city councils vary. For instance, Folkestone & Hythe are raising council tax, but keeping their increase in line with inflation. By contrast, Canterbury are hiking it by an inflation-busting 2.3 per cent and their other neighbour Dover a massive 4 per cent.
It’s important to note too that plenty of councils are finding other ways of hitting ratepayers in the pocket, beyond headline rates. This is because in places like Canterbury, the burden is going up much further than the headline council tax increase of 2.3 per cent, via new, swingeing increases in charges.
From June a £45 charge (£2.13 per collection) for green bin garden waste collection will be introduced, but with no collections in January and February. Car Park tariffs in almost all car parks (including nearby Herne Bay and Whitstable, not just the City of Canterbury itself) will increase by 30 pence an hour over the next two years. They are already among Kent’s highest. The minimum charge will be one hour, used or not, and some currently free parking in the coastal towns will be abolished. Discounts for council leisure centre users are being scrapped. Enforcement, we are informed, will be stepped up, especially in rural areas.
Further charges, I fear, are not far away. There are concerning noises about following Scotland in adopting an economically damaging tourist tax. Whilst it is currently only a suggestion, attempting to raise extra tax revenue from the district’s 7.8 million annual visitors would be an error. Tourist taxes actively curtail the very tourism that they are dependent on, harming businesses and the local economy. Furthermore, collecting it from hotels, as has been mooted, would be ineffective compared to other parts of the country given the high proportion of people who come to Canterbury for the day.
Unsurprisingly, these tax increases are going hand in hand with big spending. It is not yet confirmed, but a major upgrade to St George’s Street, part of the main shopping centre – but an upgrade that will close or diminish a market currently held there – is proving very controversial. What is confirmed is the council’s move to a fancy new office. To be fair, the current building is quite old, somewhat delapidated and scores low marks environmentally, and upgrading or rebuilding on the same site would be very expensive. What is key, however, is that the council get full bang for their buck in the sale of the existing site to property developers. Councils do not have a good record at making a success of such deals.
Everyday spending is also surging in Kent. Much of the political class takes it as a matter of certainty that this needs to happen, and that the last decade of reduced central government funding has been a disaster. But this argument, put forward by numerous MPs at a recent debate, was taken apart by Keiran Neild-Ali last month. Local government continues to be rife with waste, and the TaxPayers’ Alliance’s regular War on Waste reports provide a nearly endless series of examples. If councils are insisting they are cut to the bone, I would ask whether they have implemented all of the measures in this handy government publication from 2012.
Last, but by no means least, is an across the board pay increase for all staff. This is £500 for staff earning under £29,000, and set at 1.8 per cent for those earning above that. Whilst this is by no means enormous compared to other councils around the country, any council which is increasing taxes should seriously reconsider awarding any pay increases to its own staff. Otherwise, people will feel they are paying extra tax but getting nothing for it in terms of frontline services.
This is a snapshot of the situation in Canterbury and Kent more broadly. The tax rises we face here help to show exactly how important it is that campaign groups that fight for the taxpayer - like the TaxPayers’ Alliance - are. There is huge political pressure for bigger spending and for taking more of people’s money. We need to provide the counterweight.