Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
As I’ve argued from day one, many local authorities simply don’t have their priorities right. This seems particularly clear in Walsall where councillors have awarded themselves a pay rise – although opposition members voted against it.
The basic allowance for members will now be set at £11,938 – an increase of over £500. But since 2017-18, remuneration will have risen by over £1,000. When it came to pay for special responsibility allowances (SRAs), there were huge hikes. Four options were proferred by an independent remuneration panel – the least expensive costing taxpayers just shy of £65,000 and nearly £110,000 at the high end. Councillors opted for the most expensive option. The council leader will see his SRA rise from £22,841 to £33,325 – a 45.9 per cent increase. The deputy leader also enjoys a significant bump of £5,698 and cabinet members receive a £5,356 boost to their allowances.
At the same time, a council tax rise of 4.99 per cent has been approved. If you include parish precepts, residents of Walsall have seen their bills shoot up from £1,600 (Band D) in 2015-16 to £2,007 in 2020-21. Bills are likely to exceed £2,100 for the coming year.
This double-whammy of councillor pay rises and tax hikes isn’t fair. Many households have suffered profound economic hardship in the last year. Councillors should consider their plight before awarding themselves lavish allowances.
Saving for a rainy day
With many local authorities increasing tax by the maximum permissible amount, it’s often interesting to read their justifications for doing so. A statement released by Tunbridge Wells Borough Council (TWBC) mentioned it will have to “bear a quarter of the expected £3 million loss of income for 2020/21”. They could have covered the loss easily had they not wasted cash on a vanity project that never left the drawing board.
Back in July 2019, the TaxPayers’ Alliance campaigned against plans by TWBC to spend £108 million on a controversial development. Calverley Square was an ambitious plan to relocate the council headquarters – and build a theatre, office block, and underground car park with plenty of public space. There was a vociferous backlash from the local community even before it was revealed that a loan of £77 million would be required. Worse still, it would take half a century to pay back with yearly interest payments of £2.4 million.
As the TPA pointed out at the time this would have to be paid for by council tax increases and very likely cuts to public services. All the while the TWBC had a perfectly usable town hall that just needed refurbishing. Indeed this is exactly what happened. After cancelling the Calverley Square project, the existing HQ is being re-modernised for a fraction of the cost at £625,000.
Unfortunately, despite a spade never going in the ground, the doomed project still cost the taxpayer £10.6 million in legal fees and compulsory purchases. Things could have been far worse of course had the project gone ahead. But this is why it is so important that councils are careful with every pound of taxpayers’ money. They can’t afford to waste it, otherwise it will come back to bite them in future.
A place to call home
On the subject of council offices, Shropshire County Council has approved plans to build new premises at a cost of £12.5 million. On the face of it, the decision seems very sensible. The current Shirehall building is uneconomical to run and refurbishments are estimated at £24 million, although nearly £400,000 was spent on consultants to establish that.
It already owns the site it plans to develop – Pride Hill shopping centre was bought for £51 million in 2018. At the time it was argued that it would bring returns of £2.7 million of annual income. So the council seems to have given up on that now. Even before the pandemic, many organisations including the TaxPayers’ Alliance, have argued that commercial property is far from a safe investment.
You can’t change history though, the decision has been made and it makes a lot of sense to repurpose the site. But I have to question if the council has fully thought things through. Given the uncertainty around the economy, wouldn’t it be better to wait and see how the cards fall? After all, it is very possible that a glut of cheap office space could come onto the market, following more staff working from home and businesses going bust.
And who knows if £12.5 million will be the final bill. This is the council that splurged £130,000 of taxpayers’ cash to hire a ‘pothole expert’. As I’ve seen across the country, local authorities have a far from perfect record when it comes to big projects. Shropshire council must get it right; otherwise, it’s taxpayers who are left to pick up the tab.