Harry Fone: Parish councils can waste money too

26 Jan

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

The TaxPayers’ Alliance is well-known for scrutinising spending in the higher tiers of local government such as unitary, county, and city councils. However, over the past few weeks my inbox has been inundated with emails from concerned ratepayers detailing the largesse of their parish and town councils.

These lowest tier authorities are typically not subjected to the same rigour and scrutiny as their larger counterparts – they are not in the scope of the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, for example. Indeed, this makes a lot of sense; odds are it would not be efficient to constantly monitor all of England’s approximately 10,000 parish and town councils.

But that doesn’t mean they should be able to get away with wasteful and inefficient spending. For the current financial year, 2020-21, £596 million will be raised through parish precepts which is £42 million higher than the previous year. Based on a band D property, the highest precept was £334.96 (Bodmin) and the lowest just £0.27 (Surfleet).

On average, the charge is £69.89 which may seem small when compared to four-figure council tax bills. But try telling that to a family on a low income – it’s enough to pay for a week’s worth of food. Add to this the parlous state of the country’s finances and every penny of public money matters.

On one end of the scale, Chearsley Parish Council in Buckinghamshire is set to purchase 10 high visibility jackets to be customised with the embroidery of the village emblem at a total cost of £540. Is it necessary that the emblem be added to the jackets? The same number of ‘non-emblemed’ jackets would only cost £200.

Again, critics will argue that such spending is trivial when compared to the millions and billions wasted by successive governments. Whilst true, what really enrages ratepayers is the seemingly thoughtless attitude towards their hard-earned taxes. How can we trust public officials and elected representatives to look after the pounds if they can’t look after the pennies?

At the other end of the scale, just like their larger counterparts, parish councils are borrowing large sums from the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB). Between 2015 and 2020 parish and town councils took out loans totalling £106.5 million. In the last two years alone that figure is £53.9 million across 180 councils. Ten parishes borrowed £1 million or more.

The loans can be used for a variety of reasons – Huntingdon Town Council borrowed £6.7 million to fund construction of a crematorium. Some parishes are engaging in commercial ventures. Pailton Parish Council in Warwickshire has borrowed £525,000 from the PWLB to try and resurrect its village pub which has been closed since 2013. £250,000 was used to purchase the pub and the remaining cash to cover the costs of refurbishment. The council’s business plan states the risk of the venture failing is low because they “visited & corresponded with other local establishments, who are doing very well.” – sounds like they enjoyed a good pub crawl to me.

Just like we have seen in Croydon and Nottingham if the investment isn’t profitable, residents will end up footing the bill through higher taxes. An extraordinary general meeting of Pailton council revealed that the precept would have to increase by £107.23 (Band D) if the business gamble failed – a rise of 161 per cent. Such a huge hike would not require a referendum. Currently, there is no cap on increases for parish and town councils – although the government is set to revisit the issue in the near future after attempting to introduce legislation in 2016.

Not all parishes charge a precept though. Around 1,000 are so-called “non-precepting parishes” and raise revenue through other means such as car parking charges, room hire, and even local lotteries. Perhaps more should use these methods. After all, they could be considered a form of voluntary taxation and might even raise more funds. Parishes might also be discouraged from borrowing huge sums of money for risky investments. The removal of the precept, a virtually guaranteed source of income, could well lead to greater fiscal prudence.

It must be said that parish and town councils play an important role in the upkeep of an area and ensuring that residents’ needs are met. Likewise, I suspect that in the majority of cases most are well run with sound finances. But based on the examples above and with tens of millions of pounds in borrowed cash at stake, I suspect many ratepayers will wonder if more oversight is needed.

Meirion Jenkins: The Conservatives have a real chance to win in Birmingham

21 Jan

Cllr Meirion Jenkins is the Shadow Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources on Birmingham City Council.

The dreaded date has now been confirmed (again) and the Labour administration in Birmingham will introduce the city centre driving tax (known as CAZ or Clean Air Zone) in June. This is a tax with no mandate (Labour omitted its plans from its manifesto in the run up to the election) and which is likely to be very damaging for the city. If I were on the Left, I would say it is a regressive tax because it will harm those least able to afford it and will increase pollution in some of the city’s poorest areas as traffic is moved to the ring road. Labour says that the Government forced them to introduce this tax, but this is not true. The Government said that the city needed to improve air quality, and, in our last election campaign, we laid out plans to do just this without a tax on hard working motorists. There should be no doubt that a profound anti-car culture sits as the root of Labour’s plans. If elected in 2022, we will reverse this policy and remove the city centre driving tax.

Apart from London (which is a very different environment), nowhere else in the UK taxes motorists in this way, although Bristol and Bath might follow. There have been several referendums (Manchester, Durham) which have rejected such schemes. Labour knows that the people of Birmingham would also have voted against a tax of this nature had they been given an opportunity.

Further evidence of the absurd approach displayed by Labour towards transport can be seen in the Sutton Coldfield ring road cycle lane. Labour spent £75,000 on a cycle lane of about 0.5 mile in Sutton Coldfield, only to be forced to remove it in the face of fierce local opposition before it saw a single cyclist. At the time of writing, we have asked how much it cost to remove the failed scheme and we were told ‘about the same’ as it cost to build. We will submit a question to full council in February to establish the true cost but, for now, it looks like a dreadful waste of £150,000 of taxpayers’ money.

The Labour administration in Birmingham is hopelessly incapable of delivering value for money. In this column, I have written previously about the Commonwealth Games athletes’ village fiasco. The Commonwealth Games accommodation was part of the Perry Barr Regeneration Scheme – which now won’t be able to accommodate any athletes because of delays on the project. This was the only part of the games organisation that sat solely with the city council. Therefore, the project has now become a large property development (speculation?) on the part of the city council. If property prices climb, then it may be fine, but, if property values do not climb, then there is considerable financial risk for the Birmingham taxpayers. Echoing many of our concerns, the external auditors, once again, have imposed a value for money qualification on the city’s statutory accounts because of the Perry Barr scheme. There was also a second value for money qualification because of Labour’s failed handling of the highways contract.

Another example of eye-watering waste has come to light. Our group has recently called in a decision relating to a report about the home to school transport scandal. This involved a serious breakdown in the service provided to transport vulnerable and special needs children to school, many of whom were put at risk because of failings in the way that Labour had administered the scheme. It’s also a service that had been criticised at scrutiny committee for budget over-spends for several years. The report, which was commissioned at a cost of £92,000, only managed to consult with nine external people, i.e. £10,000 per consultation. Users of the service were further frustrated when the Leader said that the ‘Parent & Carer Forum’ were happy with the progress being made, only to be swiftly rebutted by that same group who made it clear that they were anything but happy.

Whatever view one takes on the effectiveness of lockdowns as a strategy, the recent increases in restrictions have provided the Labour administration in Birmingham with an opportunity to extend virtual meetings well into the future. We will soon be at the point where there have been no proper council meetings for over a year. Whilst Teams may work, to an extent, for smaller committee meetings (such as audit committee or scrutiny), it is a hopeless format for full council meetings – which are close to a complete waste of time in terms of what they achieve for the residents of Birmingham. I noticed that the proceedings in Washington recently were conducted in person, albeit with the precaution of wearing masks.

So what are the chances of us winning Birmingham in May 2022 – and will any of these matters influence the way that people vote? Is there the Birmingham equivalent of a ‘red wall’ across the central areas of the city or an issue that will galvanise voters in the way that Boris v Corbyn, or Brexit v Remain, did in the General Election? On the face of it, with the council currently being made up of 101 councillors, of which we have 25, Labour 65, Lib Dems eight (surprised they managed that many) and three others/vacancies, one might think it is a difficult ask. However, as ever in a first past the post system, a relatively small shift in the vote can make a large difference to the seat distribution.

Remember that in 2018 we had a five per cent swing against us nationally, and yet in Birmingham we achieved a six per cent increase in our vote share, adding 18,000 votes, with Labour down 0.5 per cent. We need only 4,483 more people to vote Tory (or 2,242 to change how they vote), albeit in the right place, to give us a seat majority in the chamber. Excluding London, there is no other large urban authority in the country where the Party is this close to winning. In 2018, there were five seats where we lost by only a handful of votes; these included Longbridge 15 votes, Pype Hayes 17 votes, Vesey 105 votes, Kings Norton 127 votes, and Oscott 300 votes. With sufficient campaigning resource, we believe that we can bring the days of this failing Labour administration to a timely end.

Izzi Seccombe: Councils need simple and efficient public procurement to ensure the best value for public money

14 Jan

Cllr Izzi Seccombe is the Leader of the Conservative Group of the Local Government Association and the Leader of Warwickshire County Council.

The announcement of the trade deal with the EU on Christmas Eve means that, four and a half years after the referendum, Brexit is now complete.

Conservatives in local government welcomed the announcement of the deal, which provides much needed certainty for the businesses and residents that we represent, and I am sure that all Conservative Home readers will join with me in congratulating the Prime Minister for delivering on his promise at the 2019 General Election to ‘Get Brexit Done.’

So now that we have the trade deal, what are the opportunities for local government that result from our exit from the EU?

In the limited amount of space available here, I want to focus on three particularly important issues: procurement, state aid, and the new UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

Prior to Brexit, councils had to follow EU-wide advertising and award procedures when they bought goods and services. Not only did this process often sit uneasily with their aim of supporting the local economy, it could also take between three and eighteen months, which is twice as long as typical private sector procurement

Councils need a simple and efficient public procurement regime which ensures the best value for public money and respects local decision-making. Shorter timescales, lighter-touch advertising requirements and award procedures, a speedier way of dealing with legal challenges, greater negotiation with suppliers, and a new focus on SMEs and Voluntary Community and Social Enterprises (VCSEs) are all potential benefits of a reformed UK-legislated procurement process.

In this new environment, developing procurement skills within councils is crucial to helping us achieve significant savings for the taxpayer and deliver improved services for residents.

In recognition of this, the LGA has been working with the Cabinet Office to offer contract management training for council officers, and more than a thousand have taken advantage of this offer to date. Councils or councillors interested in this can email productivity@local.gov.uk for more details.

Encouragingly, the Government has already launched a Green Paper, Transforming Public Procurement, which sets out its proposed changes to the UK’s procurement rules, putting value for money and transparency at the heart of the new approach and including plans to help unleash wider social benefits in line with the existing spirit of the Public Services (Social Value) Act that councils have been following since 2012.

The proposals also include measures that councils have been calling for to assist them in the procurement process, including providing more scope to exclude suppliers for poor past performance and corruption-related issues, as well as reforming the remedies system by making the court review process faster and less costly, capping damages, and investigating the feasibility of tribunals.

Bearing all this in mind, I would encourage all those involved in public procurement to have their say and respond to the consultation by the deadline of the 10th March.

Secondly, our exit from the EU also provides an opportunity to reform how grants and public subsidies work. In so doing, I am clear that any new state aid rules should be based on local government’s experience of what works on the ground.

Processes can be simplified by introducing flexibilities for councils. For example, future changes to the UK’s state aid policy could allow support for non-profit-making activities or social enterprises who reinvest surplus back into the local community. Similarly, those organisations that operate in the culture, heritage, arts, or non-profit sports sectors may also merit a more flexible approach.

Thirdly, since the referendum, the LGA has been lobbying the Government to ensure that there will be a suitable domestic replacement for EU regional funding. Put simply, Brexit provides an opportunity to give local areas a greater say over how to target a new and simplified regional aid fund at local projects for the benefit of local people.

This should nicely complement the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, and I was pleased that the recent Spending Review contained the “Heads of Terms” for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (the Government’s replacement of the European Structural and Investment Funds), whilst also confirming that the fund itself will be worth at least £1.5 billion a year.

I welcome the clarity this announcement has brought, and local government has made an offer to co-design the programme with Government and also the investment framework for local areas that sits behind it. The investment proposals and specific outcomes outlined in the UK wide investment framework need to be locally determined by councils and combined authorities as they have a democratic mandate to represent their communities, and it also needs to respect current local decision making and devolution agreements.

The additional £220 million to help local areas transition to the UKSPF in 2021/2022 by running pilots and new approaches is also to be welcomed. We are working with the Government and local areas to ensure there is a smooth transition to the new funding regime.

However we individually voted in the 2016 referendum, the reality is that Brexit has happened and it provides the opportunity for local government to build on the ambitious programme of devolution of powers to local communities that has taken place since 2010.

I am determined that in 2021 we seize the opportunities that are now offered to us to provide services in a more efficient, flexible, and responsive way to the residents that we represent.

Harry Fone: Reserves should be used to limit Council Tax rises. If this isn’t a “rainy day”, what is?

13 Jan

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

Less than two weeks into January and councils are already telling residents to expect another year of inflation-busting rate rises. Local authorities will be permitted to raise Council Tax by up to 4.99 per cent and many have already indicated they will do so. A typical band D household could see their bills rise by as much as £106.

However, there is promising news from the home of the concrete cows. Milton Keynes Council (MKC) has taken the welcome step of using its sizable reserves to implement a more bearable rise of 2.5 per cent. The council leader has clearly listened to the concerns of local residents, saying, “the time has come to use those emergency reserves during a crisis rather than cut vital services”.

According to the most recent figures, reserves from all councils totalled £25.5 billion. It seems there is plenty of money for a rainy day and residents of Milton Keynes will be grateful for the lowest rate rise in five years. But could the council have done more?

MKC has been no stranger to wasteful spending in recent times. In January 2020 as part of efforts to tackle climate change, £95,000 of ratepayers’ cash was allocated to adorn underpasses and bus shelters with moss. But this pales into insignificance compared to the cost of refurbishing council offices that went at least £7.8 million over budget. Perhaps MKC should focus on stamping out largesse before plundering its coffers.

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In Hampshire, the Police and Crime Commissioner Michael Lane – who enjoys a taxpayer-funded salary of £86,700 – has called for the policing precept, which makes up part of Council Tax bills, to be increased. Both he and the chief constable of Hampshire Constabulary are recommending a rise by the maximum permissible £15. The injection of cash will be used to fund the “early recruitment of 50 new police officers”.

But like Milton Keynes, could this hike have been averted? The Daily Mail discovered that since 2012 Hampshire Police and Crime Commissioners splurged £51,000 on merchandise such as keyrings and stress balls. Unfortunately as is so often the case the wasteful spending didn’t stop there.

In 2014, Thames Valley Police and Hampshire Constabulary combined their efforts and money to create a new 999 call management system. Like most public sector IT projects it has been plagued with delays and cost overruns. In July last year operators in the emergency control centre had to resort to pen and paper after the “cutting edge” system crashed.

Originally forecast to cost £27 million, the bill to the taxpayer has skyrocketed to at least £39 million. That’s £6 million that each force saw go down the drain. Given it costs around £75,000 to train and hire a police officer for one year, Hampshire Constabulary could have put 80 bobbies on the beat, never mind 50. More rigorous oversight and project management could have avoided punishing rate rises for residents and made streets safer.

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In recent years many councils have drastically cut staff numbers in an effort to balance the books and increase efficiency. News that Leeds City Council intends to axe 914 jobs recently caught my eye and made me wonder how the English “Core Cities” (Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield) match up in terms of the number of council employees to the number of residents. The results are quite varied but there are some noteworthy observations.

Using the latest data, Leeds had 12,868 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff. Birmingham, the biggest of the core cities in terms of population, had 696 fewer FTE employees, despite having a population around 40 per cent greater than Leeds. To put it another way, Leeds has 1 council employee for every 61 residents, compared to Birmingham’s 93. I was surprised to discover that Liverpool came out on top of all the English core cities, with 1 council employee for every 103 residents.

Of course, fewer employees per head doesn’t necessarily mean better results for ratepayers. But between 1997 and 2017 Council Tax increased by 50.5 per cent (in real terms) for Leeds and only 23.6 per cent for Birmingham.

There are undoubtedly more factors other than the number of employees that affect Council Tax bills. But, as staffing costs make up a large chunk of expenditure, local authorities should ensure they have the most efficient workforce possible – culling non-jobs would be a good start – saving their residents potentially millions of pounds in the process.

Chris Whitehouse: Councillor allowances should go up, not down

1 Jan

Chris Whitehouse leads the team at his public affairs agency, The Whitehouse Consultancy, and previously served on South Bucks District Council and the Isle of Wight Council.

As an instinctive supporter of the initiatives of the Taxpayer’s Alliance, I was perturbed by the argument put forward by Harry Fone, the Alliance’s Grassroots Campaign Manager, that councillors’ allowances should be cut to reduce their annual cost of £255 million. This is short-sighted and would be completely counter-productive.

First, I am staggered that the total cost of such allowances is as low as £255 million to fund the thousands of individuals who give up their time to serve their local communities. If the sums in question were broken down over hours served, the rate for most councillors would be demonstrably insulting.

Second, Fone is identifying a problem correctly, namely that despite the generally altruistic desire to serve in public office, the current arrangements, in some areas, are not attracting candidates of the right calibre properly to set strategic objectives and to hold senior management to account for producing and implementing strategies to achieve them.

Third, for all local government’s moans about government interference and control, the reality is that councillors today, particularly during the pandemic, are in some cases taking decisions which impact directly on the life chances and the quality of life of thousands of their residents. Nothing has impressed me more than the way in which some of our councillor colleagues have stepped up to provide real leadership to their communities, to drive forward new school, public health, and social care strategies; to think outside the box about practical changes to policies that will help local economies and reconfigure services rapidly to meet their local need.

Even in good times, the relevant cabinet portfolio holders may have to make individual decisions of huge impact and importance: to close a school, to reorganise a service, to set budgets, to recruit senior officers, to close a care home and rehouse the residents. The responsibility is huge, and I have seen it weigh heavily on colleagues under pressure, and indeed on me when, for example, I found myself Children’s Services Portfolio Holder as an Academy Trust announced the closure of one of our local high schools on the morning of the elections to the council.

Very few councillors will ever have had to take such important decisions in their personal or professional lives – and council Cabinet Members certainly shoulder more responsibility than any backbench Member of Parliament – and I should know having worked in Westminster for nearly 40 years. Put simply, MPs have influence on government and law (a little) but local government makes decisions, day in, day out.

Let me be clear, I also served in local government for many years as both a district councillor in South Bucks and, more recently, as a member of the Isle Wight Council, which is similar to a unitary authority, but with a few shared arrangements with Hampshire. During my service on both councils, I never claimed any expenses, declined special responsibility allowances, and each year donated my basic allowance to local charities and voluntary organisations. I was happy to do so, because I could afford to at the time. But in most cases, the allowances really are paltry and are not the motivation of most councillors – of all political parties and none.

Take that allowance away and the practical consequence is the disbarring from public office of whole sections of the population, particularly carers and single parents, and those whose income ties them to a business or job with no flexibility. In short, the role starts to make sense only for those who no longer have to work, draw a pension, and have no caring or home-making responsibilities.

Do the Taxpayer’s Alliance really want councillors to be a self-selecting bunch of largely retired, white men? Because that’s what they will get if allowances do not attract individuals of calibre, of motivation, and of decision-making experience.

Tinkering with already modest, in some cases derisory, allowances will merely exacerbate the situation that in some areas we are already missing the input of younger talented individuals from a wider range of backgrounds, who can be trusted with their hands on the levers of power – for there really is power in local government.

No, we need to approach this from the other end. Given the huge, and growing, responsibilities of local government, and the pressure on and accountability of its cabinet members, what do we as a party need to do to ensure we are attracting and fielding the right candidates who can deliver effective and efficient services to our local communities? Local Government Secretary, Robert Jenrick, needs to set local government free to reinvent itself for its local communities after the pandemic, and encourage them to make their own decisions, for which they are accountable to their local electorate, about how best to recruit, retain, and motivate candidates of the highest possible calibre.

Harry Fone: £255 million a year is spent on councillor allowances. That is where the economy drive should begin.

30 Dec

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

The TaxPayers’ Alliance is well-known for scrutinising the pay of council bosses but our latest research has focused attention on allowances for elected representatives. In 2018-19 alone, the cost of councillors was at least £255 million. As witnessed across numerous local authorities, members vote through an increase in their allowances whilst often claiming they don’t have enough money for statutory services.

There was little surprise when an opposition councillor at West Sussex County Council (WSCC) met with fierce resistance after suggesting that cabinet members have their special responsibility allowances (SRAs) cut by 25 per cent. SRAs are typically paid to chairs of committees, cabinet members, and opposition leaders in addition to a basic allowance.

At the heart of the dispute were plans to cut the SRAs of the opposition leaders whilst cabinet members and committee chairs saw no decrease. It’s always welcome when councils make savings but some will question why the cuts fell almost solely on the opposition.

This spurred one opposition leader to propose an amendment calling for a cut in all SRAs. Even if this was an act of retribution, savings of around £90,000 a year would no doubt be well received by ratepayers. Councillors should be compensated for their efforts but the role should not be treated as a full-time job with a decent salary. Civic duty should be put above all else.

Given WSCC’s recent poor performance – notably “systemic and prolonged” failures in children’s services and the £265,000 golden goodbye to controversial former chief executive Nathan Elvery – you would think councillors would want to do everything possible to make amends with constituents.

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Across the border in East Sussex, Brighton and Hove City Council is forecasting a budget shortfall of around £15 million next year. With residents facing a rate rise of five per cent, it has to be asked if better decision-making might have mitigated such a large increase.

The ongoing saga that is the i360 observation tower is failing to deliver on its promises. Funded by £36.2 million of council loans (via the Public Works Loan Board) to a private management company, the 530 feet “doughnut on a stick” has never really got off the ground. Even before the pandemic, it was plagued with low passenger numbers and frequent breakdowns.

Adding insult to injury, loan repayments have regularly been deferred due to financial difficulties. To date, only £5.9 million has been repaid, with £33 million now outstanding.

One of the key players behind the project, former leader of Brighton council, Jason Kitcat, claimed back in 2014:

 “The project will provide a new source of income to help shore up vital frontline services.”

It seems there’s a long way to go before the council will see the estimated “£1 million a year” profit from its investment.

While residents are still shouldering the burden of this white elephant, Kitcat, a self-described “recovering politician” has fared rather better financially. After being asked to stand down as council leader by his own party, he became the Executive Director of Corporate Development at Essex County Council. A role that remunerated him to the tune of £190,000 in 2018-19 and gifted him a payout of nearly £164,000 when he left shortly after.

Let’s hope for a change in the i360’s fortunes so that local ratepayers see a ‘recovery’ in the council’s balance sheet.

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Following a recent government review, fears are mounting that Nottingham City Council (NCC) could fall foul of bankruptcy. As residents of Croydon and Northamptonshire know all too well, a Section 114 notice is far from desirable.

The similarities between Croydon and Nottingham are disconcerting. Both authorities engaged in ambitious commercial investments with well paid council employees lacking the necessary financial expertise, as borrowing exceeded £1 billion – Nottingham has the third highest debt to net budget of all the core cities.

Over recent years, NCC has seen its reserves dwindle mostly due to the collapse of its ill-judged energy company. Formed in 2015, Robin Hood Energy (RHE) tried and failed to compete in the highly competitive and regulated energy sector. Financed with £43 million of public money, RHE failed to make a profit in every single year of operation. Total losses are estimated at £38 million.

The government’s report is particularly scathing of RHE’s directors who are described as “unable to critically appraise the trading position and a forecast profit [£202,000] outturned as a significant loss [£1.6 million]”. Another damning report by auditors Grant Thornton went further saying there was “institutional blindness within the Council.”

Despite warnings from NCC’s Section 151 officer about RHE’s worsening finances, the authority failed to take action. The report doesn’t specifically blame then chief executive, Ian Curryer, for failing to act but does state, “The Council does not appear to have a mechanism for setting targets and goals for its Chief Executive and holding the postholder to account for it.” Local residents may be irked to learn that between 2012 and 2020 Mr Curryer received total taxpayer-funded remuneration of over £1.3 million.

As Robert Jenrick, the Local Government Secretary, put it:

“Taxpayers and residents have been let down by years of disgraceful mismanagement and inept ventures”.

A series of recommendations have been put in place to turn the ship around but councils all across the country must learn from Nottingham’s mistakes.

Tony Jefferson: Rebellion in the shires over the economic damage of continued lockdowns

28 Dec

Cllr Tony Jefferson is the Leader of Stratford-on-Avon District Council

Stratford-on-Avon is a rural district and, by area, it is 48 per cent of Warwickshire. Rural areas have, unsurprisingly, a lower prevalence of Covid-19 than urban areas. We have consistently had the lowest metrics against the indicators of all areas in Warwickshire.

Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on the local economy. Early on in the outbreak Stratford-on-Avon was estimated to be the local government area where it would have the fourth worst impact. More recently it has been estimated that we are the most adversely impacted in the West Midlands. Our two biggest industries are the motor industry and tourism. Tourism drives hospitality and retail. We are therefore very sensitive to the decisions on tiers. Indeed, it is obvious from the correspondence and questions I get that many people monitor the situation closely, are fully aware of the metrics, and can compare our metrics with those of other areas.

Our residents can see the economic damage being done every time they walk down Bridge Street and High Street. The number of empty shops continues to grow. Family members, friends, and neighbours are furloughed from restaurants and pubs. The RSC has its theatres closed. Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust was able to open only one of its four properties. At one stage when I added together the number of unemployed, the number on furlough, and the number receiving Self-Employed Income Support the total came to 43 per cent of the working population of the District.

Until the announcement of the mutant strain of Covid-19 people were becoming far more concerned about the economic damage than the health impact. Although, the mental health issues caused by the length of the pandemic are an increasing factor in people’s disquiet.

This is why, when the decisions on tiers were made on 26th November and we were placed in Tier 3, we were less than happy. When the following day there was a chart in the Financial Times showing the metrics for Stratford-on-Avon were at the bottom of the areas in Tier 3 and below about 75 per cent of those in Tier 2 the credibility of the decision was suspect. So we decided to send a Judicial Review pre-action protocol letter to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (the DHSC). This was not a decision taken lightly but was fully and unanimously supported by our Cabinet.

Subsequent comments I received indicate there was real anger locally about being in Tier 3. The level of anger came as a surprise but reinforced the view that people are becoming more concerned about the economic impact. This was compounded and intensified when it was realised that we had been lumped in with Coventry and Solihull.

The local reaction to taking action against the government has been running more than 10 in favour for every one against. People have been coming up me in the street (as close as social distancing will allow) to congratulate me on taking the action we did.

I would draw three obvious conclusions from this experience:

  • It is important to make decisions based on areas people can identify with, rather than areas based on administrative convenience. The more local the better.
  • Decisions that directly impact people will be very closely scrutinised and need to be capable of withstanding analysis by intelligent and capable people.
  • Peoples views of what is important change over time and as a result of experience.

It is gratifying that in the latest round of decisions on tiers, lower-tier local government areas have been considered separately. Disappointingly, all our metrics have gone up so we have not yet benefitted. The message has, however, got through.

Covid-19 has had a huge impact on the District Council finances. It has cost us about £7.5 million. We are now left with a funding gap of about £4 million per annum out of a net budget of about £16 million. We have a substantial amount of commercial income from things like car parks. This has taken a very big hit. We are currently working up our five-year Medium Term Financial Strategy and, by exhausting our reserves we can get through the next 5 years. However, what this means is that many of the things we want to do to enable place-shaping and underpin economic development and recovery have been squeezed out. This is far from ideal. We have, under the current government constraints, very limited room to increase the Council Tax. Much as I don’t like the idea of increasing Council Tax if it is a choice between doing that and constraining investing in economic development and the recovery then that is a choice I would make.

On a very positive note, the response of councillors, especially my fellow cabinet members and officers, has been superb. Flexible, responsive, and always willing to go the extra mile.

Stratford on Avon has always been a prosperous district; over the next two years at least our local economy will be hit very hard. I never thought that we may need to be part of the “levelling up” agenda.

2020 was the year everything changed.

Duncan McGinty: A remote single council for Somerset would be unpopular and mean missed opportunities

22 Dec

Cllr Duncan McGinty is the Leader of Sedgemoor District Council.

If you’re a Conservative Home reader who doesn’t live in Somerset, you may be tempted to look away now. You may consider this a little local dispute between Conservative councillors, unworthy of your attention. But you’d be wrong. The competing bids for local government reorganisation in Somerset are about far more than boundaries and bureaucrats – they speak to what modern Conservatism means for local communities.

My colleague Faye Purbrick, a Conservative Somerset county councillor, set out the county council case for the bid known as ‘One Somerset’ here. We agree on many things: we share a love of the ancient county of Somerset, and its traditions, landscape, and people; we concur that the current two-tier system, with one county council and district councils underneath, is no longer an acceptable way to deliver services; we want what is best for all the people of Somerset, from the hoteliers of Minehead to the aerospace engineers of Yeovil.

Where we differ is on the question of ambition. Our bid – Stronger Somerset – is ambitious for Somerset. Crucially, it is imbued with Conservative values, especially on the questions of economic growth, increasing revenues, and reducing the need for government handouts.

Under our proposals, people living throughout the county would have one seamless level of unitary government. Importantly, though, our bid recognises that there are marked economic differences between the western and eastern parts of Somerset. We cannot ignore these differences, nor wish them away, nor impose a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution from on-high.

Instead, our Stronger Somerset bid proposes a smarter solution: we want two unitary authorities, taking into account, not ignoring, regional differences within Somerset. The areas covered by Sedgemoor and Somerset West and Taunton to the west, and Mendip and South Somerset to the east form distinct sub-regions, with different local economies. For example, the economies of Glastonbury, Wells, and Yeovil are very different to Minehead, Bridgwater, and Taunton.

A western Somerset unitary would be able to focus on economic opportunities from Hinkley Point, and tourism to our beautiful coastline, once the pandemic is beaten. The eastern unitary would be able to capitalise on aerospace and hi-tech manufacturing around Yeovil. By recognising the realities of the local economy, each unitary would be able to play to its strengths and level up local communities.

A remote county-level authority would risk excluding communities from wealth, growth, and new opportunities, and that would be a tragedy. We believe that our Stronger Somerset bid will deliver the post-pandemic growth that means we become a net contributor to the Exchequer, paying our own way, and contributing to UK Plc. You don’t get much more Conservative than that. Using the Treasury model, we calculate £204 million of financial benefits resulting from our proposal, £35 million more than the other one.

Our proposal takes Somerset from five councils, with their duplicated costs, to two. And local people will pay their Council Tax to one Somerset council and receive services from one Somerset Council. Simpler, more efficient, cheaper. No wonder that the Stronger Somerset bid is more popular with local people. The latest Ipsos Mori poll shows clear support for Stronger Somerset over all other possibilities.

The other bid has resorted to some bizarre name-calling about our ambitious plans. For example, the claim that Stronger Somerset involves a ‘Berlin Wall’ across the county. That wins the prize for Trumpian spin, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Of course, there will be no physical divide between east and west Somerset, any more than there is between east and west Sussex or the east and west Midlands. The only place the ‘Berlin Wall across Somerset’ exists is in the minds of the spin doctors who concocted it to scare people. Under the Stronger Somerset plans, people will still proudly live in Somerset, regardless of the name of the local authority providing their services.

Indeed, our Stronger Somerset bid goes further in recognising and bolstering this traditional county identity. Unlike the other bid, we are ambitious that our proposal sets us on a path to a combined authority for Somerset as part of a package of real devolution to local people. This could encapsulate the borders, not just the current administrative unit, but the traditional historic borders of Somerset. The other bid, with its lack of ambition, is silent on the devolution agenda.

The most important thing is that we deliver value-for-money services to local people. That’s the bedrock of successful Conservative local government. That’s why we propose innovative cost-efficient services such as a Community-Interest Company (CIC) under a single Director of Children’s Services delivering across both unitary council areas. We have seen how this works well in Kingston-upon-Thames and Richmond councils. For adult social care, what will work best is adult services run by each unitary. The point is that we can flexible, responsive and innovative.

We mustn’t lose sight of the democratic element. The other bid promises all kinds of baubles to town and parish councils, but then caveats it with the weasel words ‘if appropriate’. We all know what that means. What Stronger Somerset offers instead is a real partnership with town and parish councils, backed by a new Charter of rights, to reverse decades of over-centralisation.

We are ambitious for Somerset, and we embrace the ways it will change. We understand that post-pandemic and with the tech revolution, more households and businesses will want to move away from cities, and more British people will want to enjoy the British seaside and countryside instead of flying abroad. That means that Somerset’s population will grow, something the other ‘off-the-shelf’ bid fails to acknowledge.

We believe that Stronger Somerset delivers better services, more democracy, stronger regional identity, and best of all it delivers a Somerset that pays its way, like London or the South East. Why create ‘one Somerset’ that ends up weaker, poorer and divided, when we could be united, prosperous and stronger?

Faye Purbrick: Don’t split Somerset in half

16 Dec

Cllr Faye Purbrick is the Cabinet Member for Education and Transformation on Somerset County Council

In 2009, Conservatives ended 16 years of Lib Dem control on Somerset County Council and set about doing what good Conservative authorities do; delivering efficient local public services and value for money. Of course, there have been challenges along the way, but we’ve balanced the books and are now in an enviable position with decent reserves and a stronger financial position than probably any other county council, despite Covid-19 pressures.

And we want that to continue. We also want to go further and be able to make sure that Somerset plays a leading role as we emerge from the effects of the pandemic, particularly in creating and attracting jobs and businesses with the long-term investment and infrastructure that we will need. The events of the last year have illustrated that local government has a key role to play in supporting local communities. But they have also shown the limitations of the current system with unnecessary boundaries, duplication and inefficiencies.

Let’s be very clear, this is not about district vs county. Indeed, the county council and the four districts (one Conservative and three Lib Dem) are agreed on one thing; that the current two-tier structure has run its path and is no longer fit for purpose.

The options therefore come down to a choice between one single council for Somerset, ‘One Somerset’, supported by the county council, the majority of MPs, local businesses, the Police Crime Commissioner and a majority of the people of Somerset who favour an end to confusion, duplication, and the generation of savings to reinvest in frontline public services.

The alternative proposal, backed by the districts, would in effect see a Berlin Wall placed down the middle of the county splitting it into small, rival East/West unitaries whilst creating a separate “Alternative Delivery Model” for children’s services, a shared services company, and an elected mayor/combined authority sitting over the top. It would therefore replace the existing five authorities, each with their own staff and separate cultures, with, five organisations, each with their own staff and separate cultures. Not only would this create confusion, it would disrupt existing county services (notably care for vulnerable adults and children) whilst each east/west unitary would struggle to be able to exist, serving a population smaller than the figure government believes is a credible entity. And that is before we start to look at the discrepancies in deprivation between East and West, twice as bad for those living in the West of the county – not just a split in our county but a blocker to aspiration and levelling-up.

A single unitary model has worked well in those areas that have adopted it in recent years including Dorset, Wiltshire, and Buckinghamshire. It is favoured by partners in the police, probation, and health service who care little about local government boundaries. It would allow Somerset to have a unified single voice, critical in attracting inward investment, and would join up local public services.

On every test, a single council delivers over the alternative five organisation approach; greater and quicker savings that can be reinvested back into public services with lower costs of implementation.

It would also deliver a boost to local democracy by creating a network of local community networks, working with local parish and town councils and at the heart of neighbourhoods and communities. People identify with their local village or town and their county and want to see services delivered at those levels; in fact, they just want to receive great quality and value, local services. And that’s what the One Somerset proposal would give them.

We have submitted a business case to the Secretary of State to do exactly this, but we are also setting out a series of clear commitments to the people of Somerset over the coming months to ensure that One Somerset delivers on what they want:

  1. No disruption to local services as we change, and a promise to keep residents fully informed.
  2. We will protect those front-line staff working with vulnerable people across the county.
  3. Council tax will not increase because of moving to a single unitary council.
  4. Physical, face-to-face council contact points across the county.
  5. One telephone number and one website to access ALL council services.
  6. Improved services for our vulnerable residents including housing, adults’ & children’s services.
  7. Improved services for our children and young people, including education, training, jobs and transport.
  8. More local decision making by our town and parish councils and new local community networks.
  9. Closer relationships with partners including the NHS, police, education, and the voluntary sector to deliver better services.
  10. And finally, we will not split Somerset in half, divide communities, lose our proud identity, or weaken our standing on a local, regional and national level.

What we are offering is simple and based on good Conservative philosophy: a blueprint for better services, better value for money and reduced bureaucracy, no artificial boundaries – and certainly not splitting our great county in half as we look to rebuild our communities and country following Covid. That’s what Conservatives stand for and that’s what we will deliver if we are given the opportunity to continue the journey that we started in 2009.

Harry Fone: Bristol is consulting on a Council Tax rise. But will it take any notice of the response?

15 Dec

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance. This is the first of a new column from him.

With many households struggling to pay their bills, it is hoped that councils across the country are tightening their belts and eradicating wasteful spending to avoid inflation-busting rate rises. Some local authorities are certainly trying but others leave a lot to be desired.

In Bristol, residents are taking part in a consultation on whether or not to increase council tax. Looking at the last five years, Bristol has hiked rates by the maximum permissible sum every time. It’s hard to imagine that council members would freeze tax even if everyone called for it.

The consultation lays out the economic challenges Bristol City Council faces. A shortfall of £9 million is forecast for this financial year – to be expected given the pandemic. But maybe the shortfall didn’t need to be so great given the millions of pounds of wasteful spending uncovered by the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

The council spent over £900,000 on taxis alone between February and September this year. Add to this, £12 million on an entertainment arena that has yet to get off the drawing board and £37.7 million up in smoke on a failed energy company. Perhaps most ridiculous of all, councillors awarded themselves an allowances increase totalling £180,000, just as the pandemic was starting to take hold.

Rates could rise by as much as five per cent – described as “modest” by Bristol Council. Hardly modest when households in a typical band D property would see bills rise by nearly £90 to £1,846 (more than £2,100 when you include parish precepts).

The council asking residents for their feedback is most welcome. But given Bristol’s repeated tax hikes and poor record with taxpayers’ cash will it actually listen?

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In Lincolnshire there has been “fierce backlash” to South Kesteven District Council’s (SKDC) plan to potentially spend £100,000 of public funds to unveil a statue of Margaret Thatcher.

The leader of SKDC, Cllr Matthew Lee said:

“My expectation and that of our Cabinet is that the cost of the event will be fully met through donations and not the public purse. The Council will simply be providing a cash flow situation to support the forward funding of the event of up to £100,000.”

Of course there’s no guarantee that the council will recoup the money in full and there are more pressing local concerns. As one South Kesteven councillor put it to me:

“Some of our tenants have gone through two winters without proper heating in place. Rather than focusing on the needs of our residents, the Cabinet has decided to devote time and resources to a vanity project.”

I’m inclined to agree. Data shows that between 1997 and 2017, council tax has increased by 65 per cent in real terms for South Kesteven residents – every penny of their taxes must be used to procure the best frontline services possible.

The council has history when it comes to vanity projects. In 2019, SKDC announced plans to spend £103,000 on a giant outdoor TV screen “as part of its drive to develop the cultural scene in the district.” Given the threat of another rate rise many people will not be pleased to see precious funds spent on an unveiling ceremony.

Mrs Thatcher was very much a champion of getting the best possible deal for the taxpayer. After all she uttered the famous line:

“There is no such thing as public money, there is only taxpayers’ money.”

It has to be asked, would the Iron Lady herself approve of this largesse?

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Good news east of Lincolnshire though. Reports suggest that Stoke City Council is set to trim the number of staff on its books. The authority is aiming to cut four roles from its senior management team. One idea is to merge the directors of Housing and Place into a single role. The most recent figures reveal each received remuneration in excess of £150,000. No wonder the council estimates savings of £360,000 a year.

Since 2007, the TaxPayers’ Alliance has compiled an annual list of council employees who receive remuneration in excess of £100,000. As of 2018-19, 2,667 individuals across 384 councils enjoyed six-figure pay packets – remuneration totalled £360.1 million. The average salary, excluding bonuses, pension contributions, expenses and loss of office payments, was £116,478. If each of the 384 councils were (on average) to cut just one position, recurring nationwide savings in the years ahead would be around £45 million.

It’s pleasing to see Stoke council taking positive steps to cut down on a bloated management structure. Other authorities must now follow their lead. For the sake of ratepayers who pay their wages, council bosses should be minimising wasteful spending and maximising efficiency wherever possible.