Peter Webb is branch organiser for the South West Surrey Branch of the TaxPayers' Alliance including STAG (the Surrey Tax Action Group). Here he explains how he got involved in activism and offers some good tips as to how other activists can get involved and hold their authorities to account:
I have long believed that taxpayers have been badly served and under-represented. It was good therefore to discover this small band calling themselves the TaxPayers’ Alliance, and early contact was made followed later by membership.
Before that the 2003/04 accumulating council tax increase of 19% hit us in Surrey as elsewhere. My co-founder Peter Jellfs (now retired) and I at art class said angrily “SOMETHING MUST BE DONE”. Then we went into Cpl Jones mode and wondered what. We believed it was a local issue and councillors must be strongly asked to explain. A letter of the week in the local paper brought support and local village meetings were held. High Street protesting and recruiting took place. A Committee was formed and bank account opened. The Internet produced contact with others outside Surrey. We discovered that we were not alone. Christine Melsom of Isitfair was out there and would soon lead us into Trafalgar Square making a fighting speech. The TPA people were there too.
It wasn’t long before brains kicked in and we realised that the whole local funding system is flawed, council tax effectively a centrally controlled property based wealth tax, and councillors could claim ‘not my fault’.. But we did gain recognition from the big-spender, Surrey County Council Executive Committee who let us into the council chamber for consultation at budget time. It has been our general aim to question them on several important issues. On occasions I e-mail all 81 county councillors to embarrass them or sting them into some kind of action. They do not like it up ‘em Sir but continue to be meekly silent. We had sport when they found themselves £50m short. Councillors were invited before a local “Select Committee” to suggest savings. More than one suggested stopping free biscuits with coffee at meetings. Wow!
My professional and industrial experience, with my personal turn of mind, has taken me into the reform debate and after submissions, early to DETR, Balance of Funding Group, appearance before the Bennett Committee and Lyons Inquiry (he consulted me in Guildford). My submission to the Communities and Local Government Select Committee may have contributed to a 2007 conclusion that it is time to stop faffing about on reform after 30 wasted years of getting it wrong. I am therefore pleased that the TPA is campaigning for Better Government.
We raise all and any issues in the local press or in letters emails to councillors. At the outset I met at length with certain local government people to hear their point of view and advice. One result was encouragement to attend County local meetings in the Boroughs. The first half hour is open to questions without notice in front of the press.
It has been my observation that campaigning is as much a function of the particular passions and interests of those fired-up as it is of subjects for protest. Undoubtedly my doings are personally driven.
With me have been Steve Bowers, with me disgusted of Guildford since long before STAG, who is an insurance broker and passionate and knowledgeable on pensions inequities and cost to taxpayers.
Ernie Hughes was instrumental in guiding us in a co-operative line with the County Council and trying to get them to help us say things up the line that they cannot.
Turlough Bamber a world-wide traveller and as a Civil Engineer has been able to look at local gullies and immediately sum up the technical and supervision failures in road repair that we pay for in taxes. I join him from experience of contracting with government. Together we have forensically attacked the Council for its management and financial control failures. The District Auditor is also on the case.
John Kettle, who has now had to leave us, majored on the ‘numbers’ attack on the County finances.
Barry Smith and Angela Mayer are also great people to have in the team for their support and contribution. Others not on the Committee have given welcome feedback and support. Gillian Young from Cranleigh came and spoke feelingly at a meeting with Minister Woolas in 2005 with our two MPs and myself.
And so we evolve and welcome our promotion into the South West Surrey TaxPayers’ Alliance (STAG and South West Surrey) and look forward to continuing the campaign for lower taxes and better government.
If you want to get involved in the South West Surrey TaxPayers' Alliance email Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org.