On Monday we launched the Ten Percent Challenge - throwing down the gauntlet to councils by identifying savings from non-essential and over-inflated budgets that could be used to reduce council tax by 3.5% across England and Scotland.
As you might expect, the reactions of people around the country has been enthusiastic. Council tax has doubled in the last ten years, and has reached simply unsustainable levels. We've had a lot of people get in touch with us and sign up to support the TPA.
The reaction from councils has been rather more mixed. This was to be expected - many of them have after all been telling their local electorate that there isn't any slack in their budgets and council tax has got to rise even further while services are cut yet again. The revelation that even a small reduction in only three budgets could produce savings of £660 million rather exposes their previous claims as a sham.
Whilst we expected some attempts at cogent (though erroneous) argument against our proposal, I was slightly surprised at the tone and level of some of the responses.
The Gazette in Essex reported the Challenge with reaction from the leaders of Essex County Council and Basildon District Council. They were, shall we say, less than edifying.
Lord Hanningfield, the leader of Essex County Council said:
"We wouldn't spend £4.3million on publicity. I think the total for last year was something more like £2million. They don't have a clue how we operate."
Unfortunately for Lord H, they very much would spend £4.3 million on publicity - judging from the fact that they did so. Here's a shot of their own 2006-07 accounts saying so:
So in fact, not only would they spend £4.3 million on publicity, in the year before the spent over £5 million. In fact, Lord H seems to make a habit of spending quite a bit more than £2 million on publicity. As Lord Hanningfield has been the leader of Essex County Council for some years, it is rather unfortunate that it appears even he "doesnt have a clue how [they] operate"!
The reference to how much he spent last year is interesting, as if he is referring to 2007-08's spending, the accounts haven't actually been published yet - though if he's got a copy he'd like to send to us we'd be very interested to have a look...
Next up in the queue came Cllr Malcolm Buckley, leader of Basildon Council with some aspersions of his own to cast:
"We are the fourth-biggest district council in the country so we would expect to spend more in those areas than the other Essex districts. I don't think the TaxPayers' Alliance do their research properly and come up with misleading ideas."
This is a barefaced piece of misinformation. The size of the council doesn't make hide nor hair of difference, because we are talking about how much could be saved from the average council tax bill, something that is always going to be spread across the population however large it is. There's no reason at all that Basildon District Council shouldn't be directly comparable to any other District.
As it happens, Basildon are the highest spenders on publicity, management and employer pension contributions of any District Council in Essex. I can't help but think Cllr Buckley would have been better off explaining his sky-high expenditure on non-essential budgets rather than mud slinging.
A welcome contrast can be seen in the reaction of Hammersmith and Fulham council leader Cllr Stephen Greenhalgh, though. He "backed" the Challenge, saying:
“Hammersmith & Fulham Council has managed to slash council tax by three per cent for the second year running by applying business nous to the way we run the council. The H&F story proves that it is possible to cut council tax and improve council services."
“We have successfully focussed our energy on delivering high quality public services and cutting red tape and inefficiency. We are the only council in the country to spend less on communications that we did ten years ago and we have recouped printing costs by allowing advertising by local businesses in our publications.
“H&F has been given the highest rating of four stars by the Audit Commission for the quality of our services and that’s why resident satisfaction is up for the second year in a row. This shows once and for all that local authorities can reduce the tax burden on residents while improving the way the services are run.
“We have done things differently here and that’s why we have been able to cut council tax by more than any other local authority in the country.”
Which shows that Hammersmith and Fulham are succeeding where Essex and Basildon are failing miserably for one fundamental reason - H&F acknowledge that "local authorities can reduce the tax burden on residents while improving the way the services are run". Until councils accept that the problem lies in their behaviour not in council tax not being high enough, things won't get better.
Here's one last bit of food for thought. Given part of the issue is publicity and communications spending, how do the different councils perform? I phoned Essex County Council's press office on Monday to correct the untrue comments made by Lord Hanningfield. They haven't returned my calls. His taxpayer-funded blog ("my attempt to connect directly with the people of Essex") has been written on only five times this year so far.
I emailed Cllr Malcolm Buckley on Monday pointing out his errors and asking his views on the level of council tax. He hasn't replied.
By contrast, Hammersmith and Fulham got in touch with me to pass on their leader's statement and thank us for the report. What a revealing difference.