South West Surrey TPA Organiser and STAG Chairman Peter Webb led a delegation of taxpayers to Surrey County Hall last week to call for a freeze in Council Tax. This had been the first consultation a TaxPayers’ Alliance Branch has been invited to, however it had been the 4th for Peter Webb following on from his STAG days. Here he gives us a report of the consultation:
"Having been shown to reserved car-parking spaces in front of County Hall seven TaxPayers’ Alliance men in suits assembled for the Budget consultation meeting (STAG’s fourth). First we lunched in the staff subsidised canteen (Mousaka and chips and a bottle of water = £4.20). Then two of our party who have worked in County Hall found us a table and chairs in the Grand Hall to prepare for the meeting overlooked by two giant portraits of past monarchs.
At 2pm we entered the Ashcombe Suite to face Leader Mr Nick Skellett, flanked by Mr Phil Walker Chief Finance Officer and members of the Political Executive Committee. Other invitees with us at the ‘top table’ came from Local Business and the Voluntary Sector. The Trade Union representatives were to follow at 3pm
At the last minute we had been sent 20 pages of number crunching by Mr Walker. We had responded with a one page summary of our position and a question from Peter Rauch on staff/cost levels at particular points in 2005-07. These had been received. Mr Walker then gave a brief verbal report on the grants situation. It was then open session.
Peter Webb went first:
• The Council’s list of 4 priorities for 2008 was missing a fifth - taxpayer value. Two issues had great cost significance:
• Mainstream Schools were now self-governing and funded accordingly, leaving a diminishing County Council role. Management, Administration, Corporate services and Policy and Performance functions were not correspondingly down-sizing. Support services were increasingly chargeable to schools.
• The BDR (Business Delivery Review, to find savings in 2005-06) seemed to have run into the sand when it needed to continue. 7332 staff in April 2007 had grown to 8498 at October and to over 8500 by November.
• Mr Walker’s Report showed increasing funding deficits for alternative levels of tax precept increase between 5-3%. Peter Webb questioned the meaning of “appropriate” in “The Council must balance the level of council tax it considers appropriate”. He suggested that the decision was political not economic compromising at around 4.5%. We however asked for a freeze and believed that this was attainable even with higher spending on roads.
Mr Skellett responded that anything he could say would obviously not make Peter happy. He defended the County Council as doing well, efficient according to the Audit Commission and in comparison with other authorities. The Council was still responsible for school admissions, failing schools and transport. Another Councillor spoke on BDR savings made.
The meeting continued with questions from the other groups.
On the state of Surrey roads Turlough Bamber first acknowledged that Mr Skellett and colleagues, like their peers everywhere, took ‘slings and arrows’ and recalled that where we were on the same side we had offered to help. He went on to repeat that meetings had long since been held with highways Officers without result and that we had been campaigning with experienced and responsible questions including a report handed in at this meeting a year ago. He stressed the importance of the Foreman. Portfolio Holder Mr David Munro answered with a report of steady improvement. Turlough said this wasn’t the Godalming experience, or Guildford’s. Mr Munro said that 35 Road Inspectors were being recruited. (!)
Ernie Hughes protested at the continuing running sore of public pensions. Defined benefit schemes were now being forced to close in the private sector. The stock market was seriously threatened and could further worsen asset back-up. Mr Skellet said that he could only put this in the Government’s court.
The meeting lasted approx 75mins. At the closing both Turlough and Kevin Court were able to buttonhole Councillors. Peter Webb pressed into Nick Skellet’s hand an unanswered letter from 19/11/07 introducing TPA and reviewing outstanding ‘business’ at that date. A News Release had gone out from TPA HQ. Peter Webb would send County Councillors a lobbying message in advance of the full council meeting. We will consider next steps and are encouraged that after returning home Peter Rauch gave Peter Webb a phoned recommendation for a line of future action having been stimulated by the day’s experience after only recently coming to the subject
NOTE: We could not in practice expect to suddenly overturn the effect of the stringent grant settlement on Surrey in particular. It is a pity that, given the redistribution principle, the County cannot visibly show whether, and if so how, it is fighting for reform of the bases of calculation."