By Harry Fone, grassroots campaign manager
We are in unprecedented times and many things remain unclear. What is certain though, is that the public finances will be in need of urgent repair in the coming years. Politicians should not solve budget holes by raising taxes when there is an imperative to make savings.
This applies at least as much at the local level, where millions of unfortunate taxpayers see their council tax bill skyrocket every year. In England alone, council tax increased by 57 per cent in real terms between 1997 and 2017. Our recent polling showed more than three quarters of voters want a cap on their rates.
We recently published three policy recommendations to help with the coronavirus crisis. On the list was freezing council tax, combined with a re-focus of council funding on frontline health and social care services. Local authorities must stop wasting taxpayers’ money, particularly at a time like this. Taking inspiration from former secretary of state for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, I’ve laid out some suggestions for how they could do that.
Stop all non-essential spending
This ought to be obvious. Unfortunately, on a near daily basis I get reports showing that councils haven’t got the message. Be it Milton Keynes council putting moss on their walls at huge expense, Shropshire council hiring a £160,000 ‘pothole expert’ or Conwy council blowing cash on unsuitable buildings, councils are determined to continue with their pet projects.
Added to that, TaxPayers’ Alliance research has shown local authorities splashing taxpayer money on all sorts of unnecessary goodies, ranging from first class travel to awards ceremonies, press officers, artworks and plenty else. These may be nice to have, but they come second to delivering quality frontline services for residents.
Stop travelling to meetings and embrace video conferencing
This is especially relevant when so many of us are working from home. In this advanced technological age, it seems mad that so much time and money is spent travelling large distances for face-to-face meetings when high definition video conferencing exists. Councils should embrace this technology to reduce their travel costs. Better still, it’s good for the environment!
Cut printing costs
In a similar technological vein it should be possible to cut printing costs. Almost everyone you encounter in an office environment has access to a computer or a smartphone/tablet when out of the office. It should not be necessary to print out endless reams of documents that could be viewed electronically. Similarly, councils should only print documents, such as leaflets and brochures (and council tax letters themselves!), when absolutely necessary.
Use less expensive software
Thanks to the growth of computers and the internet, there are many free alternatives to paid for office software. For example, OpenOffice is a free alternative to Microsoft Office and in many cases is more than suitable for end users needs. Just using less expensive software is a step in the right direction. In 2006 Bristol City Council switched to StarOffice and saved £1.1 million in the process.
Use cash reserves
This isn’t necessarily a way to save money, but using reserves can stop inflation-busting council tax rises. Local authorities have combined reserves of over £25 billion and many are simply sitting on them. Releasing just a portion of this pot to plug shortfalls would mean that taxpayers could enjoy lower council tax bills. Now, surely, is the time for councils to use these reserves. If not now, then when? Emergencies like the coronavirus crisis are exactly what these rainy day funds are for. A prudent council that is finding efficiencies will have plenty of opportunity to rebuild those reserves in years to come.
A number of councils have saved money by sharing resources and manpower to deliver frontline services. In some cases, local authorities have shared department bosses to split their salary bill across two councils. This reduces staff costs and increases efficiency. Far better to have two councils paying an executive £120,000 per year (£60,000 each), for example, than to have each council paying their own executive £100,000 per year. Recently, three councils in Norfolk recently agreed a deal to manage bin services together and they expect to make significant savings in the long run.
Research by the TPA in 2017 revealed that councils paid their staff millions more than they should in mileage payments. Nearly 200 were paying employees above the HMRC set rate of 45 pence. This is needless waste and any councils paying above this should stop immediately. Changes could be implemented overnight.
Get rid of canteens
Incredibly some councils still have subsidised canteens which cost taxpayers millions of pounds every year. Given the huge array of takeout options on Britain’s high streets it’s not asking too much for staff to source their own lunch. It would also provide the perfect opportunity for entrepreneurs with sandwich vans to pay the council a visit at lunchtime.
What really irks many people I speak to is when councillors, many of whom the public feel are underperforming, award themselves generous, above inflation rises in their allowances. Some can enjoy remuneration so high it puts their pay above that of an MP! Council tax rises should not be used to fund bumper allowances. Rightly, this has been recognised in terms of pensions (in England), and councillors no longer receive pensions for their roles.
Councillors should take a stand and reject any proposed increases to their pay. I am pleased to say that TPA local coordinator and town councillor Charles Amos recently did exactly this. East Grinstead council approved an increase in allowances but Charles took a stand and paid his portion back to local taxpayers. More should follow his example, but it would even better if council leaders stopped hiking councillor pay.
Council fat cats
It’s not only councillors. Sky-high wage packets are paid to council executives across the country. As our soon-to-be released thirteenth edition of the Town Hall Rich List (THRL) will show, many town hall bosses are continuing to pocket huge remuneration packages, with staggering pay-outs for those leaving their jobs. For example, last year’s THRL showed that Slough’s interim chief executive received a remuneration package of nearly £600,000.
Local residents are fed up of paying more in taxes and seeing the quality of services decline. Many feel council executives are being rewarded for failure. Executive pay needs to be more proportionate. At the same time, executives should be less of a protected species - failing bosses should be got rid of, and people actually worth the money brought in.
Check out next week’s update to the Town Hall Rich List and check for yourself if your own local authority is getting value for money from its senior staff.
These are just a few simple ways that councils can save money. More than ever, local authorities need to get a grip on their finances, eradicate all wasteful spending and concentrate on delivering the best services for their residents.