By Sara Rainwater, Operations Director
Sutton council has impeccable timing. At 8.01pm on the evening of Wednesday 18th March - a mere three hours after the Education Secretary announced the closure of schools in England in the wake of the coronavirus crisis - the council sent out this email to all its residents:
At a time where so many people around Sutton - and indeed the world - are wondering how the coronavirus pandemic will hit their personal finances, council officials announced that they were very kindly increasing our council tax by 3.9%. A band D property is going from £1,694.32 a year to £1,760.69.
The disclaimer saying this email was written “prior to recent events” didn't do much to make me feel better at this uneasy time. It wasn’t even edited to say “we’re sorry to have to do this, even though you may be facing major economic uncertainty at home right now.” No, just a simple disclaimer telling me I need to know this information.
But no disclaimer can excuse these constant demands for evermore cash, in good times and bad. Or explain why the council’s ‘pioneering’ pet projects take precedence over our household finances. The council seems far more interested in political point scoring, repeating the old mantra of ‘Government austerity’, than offering an explanation for it.
Yes, central government funding has been cut. Yes, it has impacted local budgets. Yes, the vulnerable in our local community need care. However, councils never take any responsibility themselves. From letters like these, you would think councils don’t waste a penny. That's because, of course, they don't want scrutiny of their spending decisions, or to raise suspicions that are wasting our tax money. It’s much easier to simply blame 'austerity'.
Sutton council certainly wouldn’t want to highlight the fact that:
- 11 members of council staff were paid over £100,000 in 2017-18, with the chief executive taking home more than £170,000
- The council owns 1,200 pieces of art with an estimated value of £100,000
- There were 23 empty commercial properties under the council’s authority which cost taxpayers £45,000 to maintain
- They spent more than £20,000 on award ceremonies between 2014-15 and 2017-18
- More than £8,500 of taxpayers’ cash was spent by the council on flights to Europe and across the world
Nor does the council doesn’t want to remind anyone that, in fact, they’re keeping more business rate income than they were in 2010. Funny they don’t mention that in their letter, eh?
But it’s not just Sutton council who are engaging in smoke-and-mirrors with council tax rises. Local authorities up and down the country use the same tactics to divert attention. Have a look at the letter sent in to us from a supporter recently from Enfield Council. Again, talk of rooting out waste in their own operation is scant, though they are very happy to talk about projects including their new Council Climate Change Task Force, a report they’ve commissioned into poverty and inequality and, of course, a vitally important ‘Brexit Panel’. It definitely doesn't mention that Enfield council had 16 members of council staff on over £100,000 in 2017-18, with the chief executive taking home more than £180,000.
Last week, the details of the level of council tax set by local authorities in England for financial year 2020 to 2021 were released, so you can have a look for yourself to see what local authorities across the country have planned. Unsurprisingly, most are putting up rates. But councils should always examine their own finances more closely before asking local residents to cough up even more, especially in such extreme circumstances.
In our response to the government’s coronavirus measures, we said that councils should freeze council tax for this coming year, to help hard-pressed households in these difficult times. Wherever possible, councils funds should be freed up for the delivery of frontline public health and social care services. And before councils claim that’s impossible because of government cuts, they should look to find the cash by immediately suspending all non-essential and low level spending, including councillor allowances, newspapers and, indeed, hard copy council tax letters like these! Combined with the necessary cancellation of all planned conferences and trips, as well as a sensible recruitment freeze, this should provide a good starting point for savings.
If they are still looking for ideas, the TaxPayers’ Alliance would be delighted to help. We’ll be publishing even more examples of possible savings this week, along with our annual Town Hall Rich List just around the corner, to remind residents just how much their council chiefs are being paid to write these council tax letters.
As we all sit at home pondering what the new economic realities may be for our households, local areas, the country and the world, now is the worst possible time for council tax hikes. It’s a time when councils should be focusing every penny on the frontline services people desperately need. It’s a shame local authorities like Sutton and Enfield didn’t get the memo.