Harry Fone: For Slough Council to blame others for the “cost of living crisis” is laughable

10 May

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Sometimes I have to admire the sheer lack of awareness by councillors. Cllr Christine Hulme is the Cabinet Member for Children’s Services at Slough Council and has put forward a motion demanding a windfall tax on energy companies. She says this is necessary “to ease the cost of living crisis”. Now leaving aside that windfall taxes don’t work, as my colleague Tom Ryan adeptly explains, I have to question what exactly her council has done to reduce the burden on local residents?

After all, this is the same council that will likely have to increase council tax by the maximum amount for many years until it can fill in the enormous financial black hole in its accounts. Furthermore, perhaps if the administration and Hulme hadn’t been so careless with taxpayers’ cash, then residents wouldn’t have suffered a £60 increase in Band D bills this year.

It’s laughable that a council that splashed tens of millions on a Silicon Valley-esque headquarters and is having to sell £600 million of its extravagant property portfolio, thinks it knows how to ease the cost of living crisis.

Welsh council reserves increase during the pandemic

New data from the Welsh government has revealed an increase in council reserves during the pandemic. As of March 2021, total usable reserves across Welsh councils stood at £2.1 billion; an increase of £0.6 billion or nearly 42 per cent on the previous year. The biggest increase in both cash and percentage terms came in Blaenau Gwent where reserves increased by £63.7 million and 297 per cent respectively. The average increase was just shy of 57 per cent.

As I’ve said before and I will say again if the pandemic wasn’t the time to use council tax reserves then when will be? It seems nonsensical that many taxpayers in Wales suffered inflation-busting council tax rises in 2020-21, at a time when they needed all the help they could get to make ends meet. Why did councils choose to plough even more money into their coffers?

The Council Tax rebate is an utter shambles

There have been numerous reports about the delays in handing out the £150 council tax rebate. It makes me question why the government opted for such an ill-thought through approach? As reported in The Telegraph last week, numerous councils failed to make the repayments on time. Swale Council somehow managed to take £150 from taxpayers’ accounts!

I don’t think councils are entirely to blame though and it seems to me the rebate could have applied in a much simpler way. The big problem is that local authorities do not necessarily have direct debit details for eligible residents – many pay by debit/credit card, cheque, or even cash. Where authorities lack the necessary banking information the government has advised them to “make all reasonable efforts to contact the household as early as possible to make them aware of the scheme and invite them to make a claim.”

All well and good, but I suspect that will take a considerable amount of time, effort, and money to send out letters, emails, make calls, and handle the responses. Although the government has allocated £28 million to help administer the payments, did they have to go down this route in the first place?

Wouldn’t it have been better for councils to send out council tax bills at the start of the year minus the rebate to all eligible households? Each local authority already has the necessary data to achieve this and the government could have sent the corresponding funds to cover the rebates. The cynic in me wonders if the system is deliberately complicated in the hope that many won’t claim the rebate and save the Treasury a potential fortune in the process. Am I wrong? Let me know in the comments.