Alicia Kearns: Rural areas are not getting a fair deal

9 Apr

Alicia Kearns is the MP for Rutland and Melton.

Over the last year, our local councils have pulled off Herculean efforts to help our communities survive the pandemic. In Rutland and Melton, our local councils have swiftly distributed grants to businesses, provided urgent support to those most in need, and played a major role setting up rapid testing facilities and vaccination sites.

On top of this, they have kept the normal business of local government running and helped enforce the various public health guidelines that keep us safe.

In my case, the pandemic has been a reminder of how efficient and effective local councils can be, and how that should be rewarded in future funding settlements.

Despite running some of the most efficient councils in the country – Rutland manages to be ranked first in adult social care while also having one of the smallest per capita spends of a unitary authority – the East Midlands has some of the least well-funded councils in the country. Spending is only £8,879 per head, ten per cent lower than the UK average. This is despite East Midlands authorities often serving large rural areas like mine which is far more expensive. Meanwhile, Leicestershire has been named as the most productive county for three years in a row – keeping costs down while maintaining services.

Rural councils continue to have significant gaps in funding levels unrelated to their underlying requirements. If Leicestershire County Council was funded at the same level as Camden, it would receive an additional £350 million a year. If LCC was funded at the same level as Surrey, another rural and suburban council, it would receive an additional £104 million. That doesn’t mean that the solution is simply pouring more money into local councils with no questions asked. The fairer funding review should be a cornerstone of our levelling up agenda. Because to truly level up, we must grow our rural areas, so that they can generate the development and tax base necessary to provide better public services. But this often requires front-end investment to unlock opportunities.

For example, authorities throughout the East Midlands have been working together to expand the A1, which, at the moment, becomes easily congested, redirects traffic through town centres, and causes significant productivity losses throughout the East Midlands. Yet, cost-benefit analyses devised by the Treasury have historically failed to capture the potential development opportunities provided by a larger and more accessible A1, and so for many years, local councils have dealt with increased infrastructure costs in their local roads, adding further to the difficulties in providing adequate services in local areas.

We should be proud that our Conservative Government has taken these issues seriously, and changed Treasury models to make sure the strategic case, rather than a rigid cost-benefit analysis, can be used to invest in the most important infrastructure projects.

That’s not to say old-fashioned Conservative fiscal prudence should go out the window, far from it. Instead, councils should be rewarded for their diligence. In Rutland and Melton, my councils are some of the most efficient in the country. Unfortunately, the current funding model looks primarily at past spending levels, so instead of being recognised for their fiscal rectitude, councils are expected to make do with historically low funding levels. We thus end up in the bizarre situation where inefficient Labour councils aren’t incentivised to improve, and Conservative councils aren’t recognised for their leadership.

This is particularly frustrating when the East Midlands is an area of strong potential growth for our country and governed by some excellent Conservative councils.

That is why the Government’s announced Fairer Funding Review is so important. It is a real opportunity for the Conservative Party to rebalance local government spending, and make sure that every citizen, wherever they live, has access to similar levels of local services.

The Government has already taken important steps to build a more equitable country. Changes to the green book will help unlock projects that bring meaningful strategic and regional benefits, like improvements to the A1 – a major artery of our country. The £100 billion in new capital investment, as well as the roll-out of new rural gigabit vouchers will further empower our rural communities and provide the economic opportunities they need to raise incomes and create businesses.

However, if local councils aren’t able to provide high quality, comprehensive local services because their funding levels can’t accommodate rapid growth in the short and medium-term, much of this work will be undone. Every major piece of infrastructure requires an accompanying commitment to provide local services. There are too many instances where local councils are constrained by short-term budgetary considerations and, as a result, miss out on the opportunity for long-term growth. This is completely understandable though, in the context of uneven local authority funding that has persisted for generations.

Our local councils create the conditions of growth by building communities that are well served and that people want to live in. As Conservatives, we should not only ensure the fairer funding review rewards efficient councils, but also ensure the additional costs of providing services in rural areas, and for smaller councils, are tackled once and for all. Fairer levels of funding will truly unlock the levelling up agenda and power our recovery from the pandemic.

Harry Fone: Almost 700,000 council staff are paid over £150,000 a year

8 Apr

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

Despite everything the pandemic has thrown at taxpayers in the last year, they’ve still had to suffer yet another round of inflation-busting council tax rises. Analysis by the TaxPayers’ Alliance has shown that more than a third of local authorities in England are now charging over £2,000 for a Band D property. Over one hundred councils have now crossed the Rubicon, with many more surely planning to follow.

This is the latest development in a long-running tale of tax hikes. In less than 20 years, bills in England have increased on average by 111 per cent in cash terms. This year, out of 147 authorities who could increase council tax by the maximum amount of 4.99 per cent, 89 councils (61 per cent) did so. Consequently, the average bill is £1,898 – more than £300 higher than it was in 2018-19.

In Wales, the double-digit rises we’ve previously seen seem to be on hold, but bills are still climbing. Scottish ratepayers enjoyed a council tax freeze this year. This was only possible, however, thanks to a significant cash injection from the Scottish government. One way or another, the public will be footing the bill. That’s why it’s so important that local authorities do everything possible to keep rises to an absolute minimum.

A common defence from councils is that there is no more waste to find and they are focussing every penny on essential services despite years of central funding cuts. I’d have some sympathy for this argument, were it not for the fact that I continue to see example after example of taxpayers’ cash going down the drain. No sooner do they plead poverty and claim there are no more savings to make, than councils set up an energy company, set up a new pet project, or splash on pay rises.

That’s what we see in this year’s edition of the TPA’s Town Hall Rich List. Our list details all council employees in the UK who receive remuneration in excess of £100,000. The figures show that in 2019-20 at least 2,802 local authority employees did so. That’s an increase of 135 compared to the previous. 693 staff enjoyed pay packets of £150,000 or more – another increase.

Every region of the country – with the exception of the North East – has experienced an increase in the number of council bosses receiving over £100,000. Essex County Council topped the charts for the third year in the row, for the most employees taking home more than six figures.

Now at this point, councils argue that they have to pay these salaries to attract the best people for the job. In principle, I would agree with that. If council bosses are working hard, eradicating wasteful spending, ramping up efficiency, providing good frontline services, and keeping council tax bills under control, then residents have no complaints. But as I’ve seen first-hand, many authorities are simply not up to scratch.

Take Nottingham City Council. It employed nine members of senior staff receiving over £100,000 in total remuneration. What did local taxpayers get for their money? A failed council-owned energy company that suffered losses of nearly £40 million. In 2021-22 residents will endure the highest Band D council tax bill in the whole of the UK, at a staggering £2,226.

And consider the shambles we’ve seen at Liverpool City Council in recent weeks. The Town Hall Rich List revealed 14 staff got more than £100,000, 5 of whom enjoyed more than £150,000. The total cost of these wage packets came in at over £2 million. Liverpudlians pay the highest council tax (Band D) bills in the North West at £2,129, yet their council has let them down terribly. Residents are paying top dollar and not getting bang for their buck.

Wherever we live in the country, we can all think of a council like that. Look at the top 20 list of highest remunerated employees and some familiar names pop out. Nathan Elvery, former chief executive of West Sussex County Council, took home £427,653 which included a loss of office payment of £170,000. He left the job following a report which documented “systemic and prolonged” failures in children’s services. But this was nothing compared to the £395,110 golden goodbye that Coventry’s deputy chief executive, Martin Yardley enjoyed. His total remuneration was over £570,000. During his four years in the top job, Band D council tax bills increased by £312.

Examples like this are exactly why we fought so hard for a cap on exit payments. Despite the short-lived life span of the legislation – which was introduced last year only to be revoked in March – it’s reassuring to hear that the chief secretary to the Treasury, Steve Barclay, is keen to reinstate a cap as soon as possible. Based on what we see in this latest Town Hall Rich List, I urge him to act quickly.

As I’ve written previously, the examples above are just the tip of the iceberg. Undoubtedly many more will be uncovered in the coming weeks and months. The TPA’s inbox is flooded daily with tip-offs from angry residents complaining about their council’s wasteful practices. Residents expect their councillors to be holding town hall bosses to account and putting an end to these wasteful practices. Instead, we’ve seen multiple instances of councillors voting to increase their own allowances during the pandemic.

It’s quite possible that in 2022-23, nearly two-thirds of English councils will be charging over £2,000. This can’t go on. Getting spending under control and reining in overly generous salaries is one of the surest ways to keep bills as low as possible. Otherwise, well-paid bosses should be spending time finding savings elsewhere. Taxpayers expect nothing less.

Harry Fone: Councillors in Walsall give themselves a big increase in allowances

9 Mar

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.

Harry Fone: Whip withdrawn on Conservative councillors in Kent – for opposing Council Tax rise

23 Feb

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

It’s all kicking off in Kent, after a dispute over Council Tax led to two Conservative councillors having the whip withdrawn. The axe was swift to fall after Paul Cooper and Gary Cooke spoke out against a five per cent rates rise.

Delving into Kent County Council’s budget for 2021-22, it seems clear that a smaller increase could have been implemented. Despite everything that has happened in the last twelve months, KCC “is still forecasting a significant underspend in the current year [2020-21], primarily due to the reduced demand for core services”. Furthemore there will be a £14 million increase in general reserves. As I have argued before, surely this is the perfect time to be using the hoards of cash that councils have squirreled away over the years.

Then we get to what I think many will find to be the most egregious part of the budget. Council staff are to be rewarded with a two per cent pay rise, costing Kent households £4.6 million. Given that private sector workers have endured tremendous hardship, and many can only dream of a boost to their pay, this really isn’t a good look for the council. I don’t doubt that KCC employees have worked hard, but their salaries and pensions have been virtually guaranteed this year. Many in the private sector have not been so fortunate.

Defenders of the Council Tax hike will argue that it only equates to a rise of £1.30 a week for a Band D property but that ignores the countless inflation-busting rises households have suffered in recent years. Councils like Kent must try harder to avert these hikes in future.

Slough’s swanky council offices

An inside source at Slough Borough Council recently sent me photos of the authority’s swanky new headquarters. The interior is rather luxurious and looks like an office you would expect to find in Silicon Valley rather than Berkshire. Staff are able to relax in rooms with bean bags, rocking chairs, designer lighting suspended on ropes and even sprawl out on artificial grass carpet if they desire.

Staff need somewhere decent to work but I suspect local residents will be flabbergasted that the council has splashed their hard-earned cash on such ostentatious offices. If the bean bags aren’t comfortable enough, the photos also reveal more seating available in ‘padded pods’ complete with flat screen TVs. My mole informs me that nearly £30,000 was spent on fake plants and even ping pong tables in an attempt to reduce the amount of staff sick days.

Recently the council revealed it had a £10 million black hole in its budget. Worth noting then that the HQ was purchased in 2018 for £39 million and a further £8.5 million spent on refurbishment, with annual running costs of £1.3 million. Given that council tax increased by four per cent last year (Slough has only cut it once in the last 20 years) perhaps authority bosses should consider focusing funds on essential services rather than lavish workspaces and the accompanying accoutrements.

Very accommodating councils

Last Autumn, I sent freedom of information requests to all councils in the UK, asking for a breakdown of their spending on putting up those affected by homelessness in hotels for 2019-20 and 2020-21.

Across all local authorities spending was at least £198 million. Edinburgh had the largest expenditure at just shy of £24 million, followed by Lewisham at £14.7 million. London councils featured prominently in the top ten biggest spenders. As you might expect, spending dramatically increased due to the pandemic. This isn’t unreasonable, but what I have to question is some of the hotel choices by certain councils.

For example, Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council seems to have a penchant for 4-star accommodation. It booked some 855 nights at luxury hotels such as the Basingstoke Country Hotel & Spa, plus Mercure hotels in Newbury and Winchester. Similarly, councils in Stratford-on-Avon, Broxtowe, Doncaster, Eastleigh, Erewash, Greenwich, and Wakefield also opted for high-end stays. Cambridge City Council even forked out public money on £3,381 worth of  “deep cleaning” and a further £203,505 for “on-site security”.

Now, it may well be that these rooms were the best value for money given the options available at the time. But it doesn’t send the right message to taxpayers, who in many cases can barely afford to pay their Council Tax each month, let alone enjoy a stay in a 4-star hotel. Councils must be able to demonstrate that they achieved the best value for money in these instances.

Abi Brown: In Stoke, we now have the freedom to decide our own procurement policy

22 Feb

Cllr Abi Brown is the Leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Few words make the average council leader’s blood run colder than procurement. It sounds clinical, technical, and is often the bad guy in the room, blamed for why things can’t be done easily. The reality though, is far from that – and getting it right, or at least being able to explore its options, holds the key to so much potential success, for both local residents and businesses.

Councils run on procurement, the obtaining of goods and services. There’s been much said in recent years of how procurement can be used to benefit your area through the positioning of it within the local economy, and in the wake of coronavirus and Brexit, is certain to be something that many councils return to look at.

Intrinsically, we all look to ensure that money is not only well spent, but also spent well, ideally locally. There is a whole spectrum of thought on how procurement can address that, whether through a singular focus on achieving value for money, or at the other end of the scale, ensuring the benefits are felt locally. In recent years, joint procurement has pushed these benefits even further, demonstrating the power of public sector spending to influence the local economy.

Of course, we all want to ensure local businesses and people benefit from the purchasing power of the local authority, but if the emphasis on only spending locally creates a fortress effect and creates a local monopoly, value for money could be very low indeed. Similarly, if value for money is pursued at all costs, the all important buy-in of local residents and businesses, particularly to large scale capital projects, can often be lost.

The middle ground though, can be easily accessible with a bit of thought and consideration, particularly around social value. It’s often easier for councils to purchase off large, already established, procurement frameworks, though of course these are normally by nature regional or national, meaning the likelihood of getting a local company is slim, although value for money is likely to be high. In Stoke-on-Trent, we have started to increasingly look at whether establishing our own procurement frameworks gives a better deal across all areas.

The largest and most ambitious framework we have established to date is for Professional Services. With an ambitious £750 million capital investment programme, and a desire to keep as much of the ‘Stoke pound in Stoke’, we decided that having our own framework would work well both for local businesses and also the taxpayer. And of course, as a regionally important city, we can also offer our framework, not only to other public sector organisations based in Stoke-on-Trent, but also further afield, giving them the confidence of locally based businesses and a likely shared vision of social value.

Despite a growing reputation nationally, professional services is not a sector that the city has been strong in, however increasingly we are seeing more growth in this area. The framework ‘lots’ were created to ensure parity for younger local businesses wanting to get some experience, as well as ensuring there was sufficient interest to create a good marketplace. Our social value weighting was a respectable 20 per cent, driven by a clear view that whilst we wanted value for money, a commitment to our city in some way would also be expected. On top of this, we also asked that successful businesses identify how they would support our number one priority of improving outcomes for children and young people, especially those within the care of the local authority. What we buy therefore runs to the core of what we do.

Interest was high in the framework, and although local businesses accounted for less than ten per cent of the tenders submitted, just over 50 per cent of the successful tenders are either based in the city, have a presence here, or have committed to locating locally – supporting jobs and the local supply chain. Without doubt, the clarity of the lots has also encouraged growth within professional services locally, who can see that there is opportunity to establish here. Staffordshire University – based in Stoke-on-Trent – will shortly open an architecture degree, and are also looking at other complimentary courses. Local firms also tell me that inclusion on our framework has helped them to secure work elsewhere in the country, based on the experience gained. This also supports to expand the sectors, increasing local knowledge, and adding to opportunities for our young people.

With a modest fee for use of the framework, interest from local and regional organisations is high, again ensuring there is a pipeline of projects for local businesses to tender for, and continued interest from larger national firms who may have been squeezed out because they didn’t have a local presence in perhaps considering Stoke-on-Trent in future for a regional base. Offers of work experience and apprenticeships for our children in care also help to ensure we all feel the benefit from ‘the family business’ doing the right thing too.

And the big winner is the taxpayer – great value for money and support for the local economy. Perhaps procurement is not so terrifying after all.

Harry Fone: Holding council meetings online can save millions in travel expenses

11 Feb

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

Across the country, local authorities have had to adapt to the challenges the pandemic has brought. One key area has been the ability to continue to hold regular council meetings using online services like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. In order to make this possible, the government has temporarily removed the legal requirement for public meetings to be held in person.

As a result, many councils have made saving courtesy of reduced travel expenses claimed by members. Powys County Council estimates it can save £40,000 per year by using a mixture of online and in-person meetings. Similarly, West Sussex County Council has stopped shelling out “some £6,000 per month” in expenses.

Based on back of the envelope calculations, and using Powys as a guide, across the UK’s 26 county councils and 120 unitary authorities, savings could be just shy of £6 million per year. And that’s before adding borough and district councils into the mix. The environmental benefits shouldn’t be ignored too. A reduction in car journeys would help authorities meet their ambitious green targets.

It begs the question: should things continue this way after the pandemic is over? After all, many in the private sector are embracing the working from home revolution. Especially given the huge savings afforded to them by reducing the size of expensive city centre offices.

There are undoubtedly concerns around whether holding meetings in this way would be good for democracy. Technology should be aiding councils’ decision-making processes, not hindering them. But potential multi-million pound savings shouldn’t be ignored.

Councils must get their priorities straight

One benefit the internet definitely has brought, is the ability to scrutinise local and national government more easily. The TaxPayers’ Alliance frequently scours the Contracts Finder website – which allows anyone to see tenders by the public sector – as part of our efforts to ensure money is spent wisely.

In most cases, contracts put forward by councils are more than reasonable, such as the provision of grass cutting or bin collections. But this week I found two examples that show a worrying attitude to taxpayers’ cash by public officials.

We’re all fed up of covid and can’t wait to see the back of it. But many will question whether Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council has its priorities in the right place. It plans to spend £10,000 on “suitable experienced lighting companies” to project messages onto buildings that “will encourage the community to think about what they would like to tell themselves in a year’s time once things have changed and some sort of normality is hoped to have resumed.”

Fylde is another council that clearly thinks money grows on trees. It awarded a three year contract worth nearly £65,000 for a mayoral chauffeur. When households are struggling to put food on the table, it is nothing short of outrageous that council bosses think this is an acceptable use of money for what is a largely ceremonial role.

In the scheme of local government spending this is relatively small fry. But wouldn’t it have been far better to put this money into essential frontline services?

Keeping a tight grip on the purse strings

Following a tip off, I sent a freedom of information request to all councils in the UK asking how much money they had overpaid to staff (e.g. in salary, bonuses, expense, pensions etc) and of any excess payments, what amount had been successfully reclaimed. I’m pleased to say that at a majority of authorities only a microscopic sum of money was written off. But there were quite a few that didn’t fare so well.

In total for the financial years 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20, £2.5 million was written off across a total of 57 councils. Much of this was made up by The Highland Council, whose response was particularly concerning. In just three years, it overpaid staff to the tune of £1.1 million but couldn’t say how much had been recovered, stating its “policy is to pursue all overpayments.” It’s worrying that they can’t provide a figure; let’s hope for the taxpayers’ sake, they’ve managed to claw back a decent percentage rather than nothing at all.

There is no doubt that payroll is a complicated area and correcting all errors may be almost impossible. But why is it that some authorities are able to recoup nearly all monies while others lag so far behind? Whatever the answer, councils should remember that they have a tremendous responsibility to taxpayers and must strive to get the best possible value for every penny.

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.