Peter Golds: The skewed enforcement priorities of Tower Hamlets Council

21 Oct

Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.

Here are two matters of concern taking place on the same road. They give an indication as to why my local authority has problems with the public.

My first example concerns a single mother living in a house with her daughter. She is qualified in both banking and architecture and holds a responsible job with a major corporation. In order to work, she employs a properly registered child-minder and ensures that all tax and national insurance with regard to the child-minder is paid and correctly recorded. She is, by any standard, a model citizen and is both active and popular within her local community.

A while ago, and to her surprise, she suddenly received correspondence from the borough’s council tax that she was living with a person aged over 18. She was quickly able to prove that she lived with her daughter and a dog.

Next, and very disturbingly, she received an early morning visit from two officers from the council’s social services. They were checking allegations of “neglect of her child” and “illegal employment.” This was easily proven to be false, but the resident lost a day’s work. I was approached, as the local councillor, to see where the council stood in this. I got no further than the council has to investigate all allegations.

This was followed by a formal visit from Ofsted investigating a complaint that this resident was operating an “unlicensed child care facility,” where a child was being neglected. This was again quickly proven to be untrue, confirming the presence at the address of a registered carer looking after a single child, at home, whilst the parent was at work.

Then she began to receive, on a daily basis, addressed envelopes with nothing inside. The police were contacted but undertook no investigation despite being made aware that this appeared to be part of an ongoing campaign of harassment of a single woman living alone with a child.

The most recent problem she had was while replacing rear doors and windows. To ensure this was in order she obtained a “certificate of lawfulness” from the council’s planning department and went ahead. One morning recently, a man appeared at her front door, saying that he was from Tower Hamlets council’s building control department investigating a complaint and demanding entrance to view the work. He flashed an official council pass, but would not permit the resident to photograph the pass or take details. After a stand off, she secured the name of the officer. Despite producing the council’s certificate of lawfulness, an inspection took place. It is obvious that somebody, somewhere, aware that planning was completely lawful, complained to building control, who appeared not to work with planning within the same local authority.

This completely law-abiding and popular local citizen, facing continuous harassment and vexatious complaints, then sought information as to the source of these incidents via the Freedom of Information process. This has been refused by Tower Hamlets Council. The question I have asked is how much longer will this continue and how many other council departments will be involved? Equally, the police should be taking this seriously. We have a single, law-abiding woman, living with a child, facing an ongoing and organised campaign of harassment and threats. She deserves more than a CAD number.

Further up the same road is a small housing development called Thames Circle. It includes some flats and a row of town houses around a circle. Within the area is an uncompleted piece of land for which planning permission for a block of flats was given eighteen years ago – but the consent lapsed. For a period, portacabins were placed in this area and used by a local school on a temporary planning consent. The council declined to extend the temporary planning consent for the school and it moved elsewhere.

A few months ago portacabins arrived on the site and a takeaway kitchen commenced operation. This involved preparing food for adjoining residencies and a local Church, and the distribution of the food by car, scooter, and bicycle. The scooters are all badged with an L plate. Thames Circle is off a busy major A road, with bus routes, one of which operates 24/7 and on a curve. Scooters and cycles moving in and out of the development, dodging traffic and ignoring the local speed limit, on top of the emissions and smell from the kitchens do not add to the quality of life.

I met residents and made enquiries of the council who wrote to me to confirm that the site does not have planning consent for the operation of the kitchens. The council has “an ongoing inspection concerning smoke complaints” and no licence has been issued to the operator regarding licensable activities. In addition, I discovered that there is no traffic management scheme. The operator ultimately applied for a retrospective planning application in June but there was “missing information that would be required to be able to make it valid and add to the planning register.”

In short, this is a business operating without planning or licensing, while the council took no enforcement action whatsoever.

We have two important council concerns on the same road, just a short distance apart. There is a completely innocent woman facing a campaign of harassment by a person or persons who are manipulating the council to harass a resident, whilst the same council departments are unable to deal with an illegal operation.

Across the borough, Tower Hamlets Council spent, between January 2019 and August 2020, the sum of £2,660,000 on “liveable streets” projects. Of that sum, £978,000 was spent on preliminary design to “inform consultation workshops.” The result has been chaos in parts of the borough, with roads suddenly closed and concerns about access to emergency vehicles.

Yet on the Isle of Dogs, there is a road where residents lives are a misery due to anti-social behaviour which can be traced to parking bays, and avoided by residents because of drug dealers. Residents, supported by the police, have been asking the council to remove the parking bays and extend the pavement. Despite spending over £2.5 million on “liveable streets” the council response to these residents with genuine problems is – organise a petition…

Peter Golds: The skewed enforcement priorities of Tower Hamlets Council

21 Oct

Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.

Here are two matters of concern taking place on the same road. They give an indication as to why my local authority has problems with the public.

My first example concerns a single mother living in a house with her daughter. She is qualified in both banking and architecture and holds a responsible job with a major corporation. In order to work, she employs a properly registered child-minder and ensures that all tax and national insurance with regard to the child-minder is paid and correctly recorded. She is, by any standard, a model citizen and is both active and popular within her local community.

A while ago, and to her surprise, she suddenly received correspondence from the borough’s council tax that she was living with a person aged over 18. She was quickly able to prove that she lived with her daughter and a dog.

Next, and very disturbingly, she received an early morning visit from two officers from the council’s social services. They were checking allegations of “neglect of her child” and “illegal employment.” This was easily proven to be false, but the resident lost a day’s work. I was approached, as the local councillor, to see where the council stood in this. I got no further than the council has to investigate all allegations.

This was followed by a formal visit from Ofsted investigating a complaint that this resident was operating an “unlicensed child care facility,” where a child was being neglected. This was again quickly proven to be untrue, confirming the presence at the address of a registered carer looking after a single child, at home, whilst the parent was at work.

Then she began to receive, on a daily basis, addressed envelopes with nothing inside. The police were contacted but undertook no investigation despite being made aware that this appeared to be part of an ongoing campaign of harassment of a single woman living alone with a child.

The most recent problem she had was while replacing rear doors and windows. To ensure this was in order she obtained a “certificate of lawfulness” from the council’s planning department and went ahead. One morning recently, a man appeared at her front door, saying that he was from Tower Hamlets council’s building control department investigating a complaint and demanding entrance to view the work. He flashed an official council pass, but would not permit the resident to photograph the pass or take details. After a stand off, she secured the name of the officer. Despite producing the council’s certificate of lawfulness, an inspection took place. It is obvious that somebody, somewhere, aware that planning was completely lawful, complained to building control, who appeared not to work with planning within the same local authority.

This completely law-abiding and popular local citizen, facing continuous harassment and vexatious complaints, then sought information as to the source of these incidents via the Freedom of Information process. This has been refused by Tower Hamlets Council. The question I have asked is how much longer will this continue and how many other council departments will be involved? Equally, the police should be taking this seriously. We have a single, law-abiding woman, living with a child, facing an ongoing and organised campaign of harassment and threats. She deserves more than a CAD number.

Further up the same road is a small housing development called Thames Circle. It includes some flats and a row of town houses around a circle. Within the area is an uncompleted piece of land for which planning permission for a block of flats was given eighteen years ago – but the consent lapsed. For a period, portacabins were placed in this area and used by a local school on a temporary planning consent. The council declined to extend the temporary planning consent for the school and it moved elsewhere.

A few months ago portacabins arrived on the site and a takeaway kitchen commenced operation. This involved preparing food for adjoining residencies and a local Church, and the distribution of the food by car, scooter, and bicycle. The scooters are all badged with an L plate. Thames Circle is off a busy major A road, with bus routes, one of which operates 24/7 and on a curve. Scooters and cycles moving in and out of the development, dodging traffic and ignoring the local speed limit, on top of the emissions and smell from the kitchens do not add to the quality of life.

I met residents and made enquiries of the council who wrote to me to confirm that the site does not have planning consent for the operation of the kitchens. The council has “an ongoing inspection concerning smoke complaints” and no licence has been issued to the operator regarding licensable activities. In addition, I discovered that there is no traffic management scheme. The operator ultimately applied for a retrospective planning application in June but there was “missing information that would be required to be able to make it valid and add to the planning register.”

In short, this is a business operating without planning or licensing, while the council took no enforcement action whatsoever.

We have two important council concerns on the same road, just a short distance apart. There is a completely innocent woman facing a campaign of harassment by a person or persons who are manipulating the council to harass a resident, whilst the same council departments are unable to deal with an illegal operation.

Across the borough, Tower Hamlets Council spent, between January 2019 and August 2020, the sum of £2,660,000 on “liveable streets” projects. Of that sum, £978,000 was spent on preliminary design to “inform consultation workshops.” The result has been chaos in parts of the borough, with roads suddenly closed and concerns about access to emergency vehicles.

Yet on the Isle of Dogs, there is a road where residents lives are a misery due to anti-social behaviour which can be traced to parking bays, and avoided by residents because of drug dealers. Residents, supported by the police, have been asking the council to remove the parking bays and extend the pavement. Despite spending over £2.5 million on “liveable streets” the council response to these residents with genuine problems is – organise a petition…

Peter Golds: The skewed enforcement priorities of Tower Hamlets Council

21 Oct

Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.

Here are two matters of concern taking place on the same road. They give an indication as to why my local authority has problems with the public.

My first example concerns a single mother living in a house with her daughter. She is qualified in both banking and architecture and holds a responsible job with a major corporation. In order to work, she employs a properly registered child-minder and ensures that all tax and national insurance with regard to the child-minder is paid and correctly recorded. She is, by any standard, a model citizen and is both active and popular within her local community.

A while ago, and to her surprise, she suddenly received correspondence from the borough’s council tax that she was living with a person aged over 18. She was quickly able to prove that she lived with her daughter and a dog.

Next, and very disturbingly, she received an early morning visit from two officers from the council’s social services. They were checking allegations of “neglect of her child” and “illegal employment.” This was easily proven to be false, but the resident lost a day’s work. I was approached, as the local councillor, to see where the council stood in this. I got no further than the council has to investigate all allegations.

This was followed by a formal visit from Ofsted investigating a complaint that this resident was operating an “unlicensed child care facility,” where a child was being neglected. This was again quickly proven to be untrue, confirming the presence at the address of a registered carer looking after a single child, at home, whilst the parent was at work.

Then she began to receive, on a daily basis, addressed envelopes with nothing inside. The police were contacted but undertook no investigation despite being made aware that this appeared to be part of an ongoing campaign of harassment of a single woman living alone with a child.

The most recent problem she had was while replacing rear doors and windows. To ensure this was in order she obtained a “certificate of lawfulness” from the council’s planning department and went ahead. One morning recently, a man appeared at her front door, saying that he was from Tower Hamlets council’s building control department investigating a complaint and demanding entrance to view the work. He flashed an official council pass, but would not permit the resident to photograph the pass or take details. After a stand off, she secured the name of the officer. Despite producing the council’s certificate of lawfulness, an inspection took place. It is obvious that somebody, somewhere, aware that planning was completely lawful, complained to building control, who appeared not to work with planning within the same local authority.

This completely law-abiding and popular local citizen, facing continuous harassment and vexatious complaints, then sought information as to the source of these incidents via the Freedom of Information process. This has been refused by Tower Hamlets Council. The question I have asked is how much longer will this continue and how many other council departments will be involved? Equally, the police should be taking this seriously. We have a single, law-abiding woman, living with a child, facing an ongoing and organised campaign of harassment and threats. She deserves more than a CAD number.

Further up the same road is a small housing development called Thames Circle. It includes some flats and a row of town houses around a circle. Within the area is an uncompleted piece of land for which planning permission for a block of flats was given eighteen years ago – but the consent lapsed. For a period, portacabins were placed in this area and used by a local school on a temporary planning consent. The council declined to extend the temporary planning consent for the school and it moved elsewhere.

A few months ago portacabins arrived on the site and a takeaway kitchen commenced operation. This involved preparing food for adjoining residencies and a local Church, and the distribution of the food by car, scooter, and bicycle. The scooters are all badged with an L plate. Thames Circle is off a busy major A road, with bus routes, one of which operates 24/7 and on a curve. Scooters and cycles moving in and out of the development, dodging traffic and ignoring the local speed limit, on top of the emissions and smell from the kitchens do not add to the quality of life.

I met residents and made enquiries of the council who wrote to me to confirm that the site does not have planning consent for the operation of the kitchens. The council has “an ongoing inspection concerning smoke complaints” and no licence has been issued to the operator regarding licensable activities. In addition, I discovered that there is no traffic management scheme. The operator ultimately applied for a retrospective planning application in June but there was “missing information that would be required to be able to make it valid and add to the planning register.”

In short, this is a business operating without planning or licensing, while the council took no enforcement action whatsoever.

We have two important council concerns on the same road, just a short distance apart. There is a completely innocent woman facing a campaign of harassment by a person or persons who are manipulating the council to harass a resident, whilst the same council departments are unable to deal with an illegal operation.

Across the borough, Tower Hamlets Council spent, between January 2019 and August 2020, the sum of £2,660,000 on “liveable streets” projects. Of that sum, £978,000 was spent on preliminary design to “inform consultation workshops.” The result has been chaos in parts of the borough, with roads suddenly closed and concerns about access to emergency vehicles.

Yet on the Isle of Dogs, there is a road where residents lives are a misery due to anti-social behaviour which can be traced to parking bays, and avoided by residents because of drug dealers. Residents, supported by the police, have been asking the council to remove the parking bays and extend the pavement. Despite spending over £2.5 million on “liveable streets” the council response to these residents with genuine problems is – organise a petition…

Kevin Hollinrake: Replacing council tax and stamp duty should be part of the roadmap for a fairer Britain

24 Sep

Kevin Hollinrake is MP for Thirsk and Malton.

The battle against the Coronavirus is far from over, but as we begin to look at how to achieve what the Prime Minister called “building back better”, the time is right to think about what we as Conservatives believe “better” really means.

For me that must include creating a fairer society. By hitting the most vulnerable groups hardest, Covid-19 has sharply exposed the profound inequalities that exist in Britain. These are divides that a modern Conservative Party must be committed to eradicating. Now is the moment to do so, and as a fundamental part of that we have to look at how we tax people.

While it might not be the first thing that comes to mind, replacing council tax and stamp duty should be part of the roadmap for a fairer Britain. It’s a fundamental principle of taxation that taxes should be simple, transparent and fair, yet these taxes achieve none of those things.

Council tax is based on property values that are thirty years out of date, taxes low-value homes at a much higher rate than high-value properties and pushes millions of households into debt. It is emblematic of a broken system that is no longer fit for purpose.

Ultimately these taxes are unfair, complicated and block aspiration. Unfair because the poorest find themselves hit hardest. Complicated because they are difficult to understand and command an intricate web of bureaucracy to administer. And they hinder aspiration by taxing property transactions and discouraging people from moving home.

Since being elected to Thirsk and Malton in 2015, and as Chair of the APPG on poverty, I have seen first-hand how council tax inflicts immense suffering on some of our most vulnerable citizens while failing to fulfil the most basic tasks of a functioning property tax.

It has a devastating impact on low-income households, who if they are unable to pay are aggressively pursued by local authorities and debt collection authorities – and in some cases even imprisoned. According to Citizens Advice, 40 per cent of problem debt can be apportioned to council tax, up from 21 per cent in 2011. The Covid-19 crisis has only exacerbated the situation, with an extra £700 million in council tax debt accrued by 800,000 struggling UK households since March.

As an officer of the APPG on Land Value Capture and a former member of Parliament’s Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) Select Committee, I’ve become depressingly familiar with council tax’s many structural flaws. Chief among these is its failure to keep up with the substantial increases in property values that have taken place in recent decades, particularly in London and the South East.

This has deprived the Treasury of crucial tax revenues. While it is right that property owners are able to enjoy the fruits of their investment, it is only fair that in return they are taxed on the actual – rather than 1991 – valuations of their homes.

I have come to accept that council tax is in need of replacement – the problems will not be solved simply by adding one or two more property bands. I was therefore delighted to discover that a new grassroots campaign, Fairer Share, has put forward credible and costed proposals to do just that. It proposes replacing council tax and stamp duty with a proportional property tax (PPT) which would tax all homes at exactly the same rate based on up-to-date property values.

These proposals have two key merits in comparison to council tax: they are fairer and they are simpler. By taxing homeowners on current property values, they would ensure that wealthy homeowners pay an amount of tax that actually reflects the value of their homes while providing a much-needed tax cut to millions of low- and middle-income households.

This would give a real boost to the UK’s regions, the majority of which are hugely disadvantaged by the current system. This is in stark contrast to the status quo, under which a person living in a property worth £100,000 pays around five times more tax as a share of property value than someone living in a property worth £1 million – the equivalent of charging more VAT on a Ford than on a Ferrari.

In place of the administrative challenge of council tax, in which properties are taxed through a confusing and distorting system of bands and exemptions, the PPT would apply a single rate of tax – 0.48 per cent of property value – to all homes. Owners rather than tenants would be responsible for the tax, removing over 8.7 million households from property tax altogether and saving councils an annual £400 million in administrative costs.

To incentivise more efficient usage of existing property, a surcharge on second, empty and offshore-owned homes would be introduced, as well as on plots of land that received council planning permission yet have been left vacant by developers. The policy is revenue neutral – raising the same amount of money for the Treasury as the scrapped taxes currently do.

To maintain the important democratic link between local expenditure and local taxation, Fairer Share recommends that the 0.48 per cent rate should consist of two components. A fixed national rate (0.32 per cent) which would go to central government for redistribution and an initial floating local rate (0.16 per cent) which would go straight to the local authority and could subsequently be moved up or down by that authority. In this way local authorities retain flexibility over taxation and voters can still judge them on value for money.

And importantly, this approach includes the complete abolition of stamp duty land tax (SDLT) on owner-occupied residential property. By taxing properties when they change hands, stamp duty discourages homeowners from moving – such as a young household looking to buy a family home or an older couple looking to downsize – and prevents the efficient use of our existing supply of housing. This also has wider economic consequences when, for example, it leads to people turning down job opportunities outside of their area due to the cost of moving home.

The Government has already acknowledged the harm stamp duty causes by introducing numerous exemptions from the tax, including most recently a temporary holiday on all purchases up to £500,000 announced last month. With the UK likely facing an extended economic downturn, the Chancellor should now take further action to support the housing market by fully abolishing stamp duty on owner-occupied property.

While replacing taxes as fundamental as council tax and stamp duty – responsible for raising £50 billion annually ­- is no walk in the park, I firmly believe it is the right thing to do. The current system of council tax and stamp duty is simply unfair and inefficient.

Local authority finances have been hit hard recently. Replacing these taxes with a better system will put them on a stronger foundation for the future. The PPT is simpler and easier to operate, and revaluations can be carried out regularly, quickly and easily using the latest technology and on a desktop basis.

The Fairer Share campaign has provided us with an excellent blueprint for reform. I urge the Chancellor to take its proposals seriously, starting by announcing a fundamental review of council tax at this year’s Autumn Budget. This would mirror the Treasury’s ongoing review of business rates, the other half of our dysfunctional property tax system.

While it would take time to get the details right, introducing a proportional tax on property in the UK would be an excellent way for our party to demonstrate our commitment to “levelling up” and to do something meaningful for the many new constituencies we have won across the country.

I urge anyone interested in Fairer Share’s proposals to visit their website here or get in touch with me, and to share this article and the wider campaign with their networks. I will also be hosting a live webinar and Q&A with the Fairer Share team in the coming weeks – details will be posted on my website in due course.

Kevin Hollinrake: Replacing council tax and stamp duty should be part of the roadmap for a fairer Britain

24 Sep

Kevin Hollinrake is MP for Thirsk and Malton.

The battle against the Coronavirus is far from over, but as we begin to look at how to achieve what the Prime Minister called “building back better”, the time is right to think about what we as Conservatives believe “better” really means.

For me that must include creating a fairer society. By hitting the most vulnerable groups hardest, Covid-19 has sharply exposed the profound inequalities that exist in Britain. These are divides that a modern Conservative Party must be committed to eradicating. Now is the moment to do so, and as a fundamental part of that we have to look at how we tax people.

While it might not be the first thing that comes to mind, replacing council tax and stamp duty should be part of the roadmap for a fairer Britain. It’s a fundamental principle of taxation that taxes should be simple, transparent and fair, yet these taxes achieve none of those things.

Council tax is based on property values that are thirty years out of date, taxes low-value homes at a much higher rate than high-value properties and pushes millions of households into debt. It is emblematic of a broken system that is no longer fit for purpose.

Ultimately these taxes are unfair, complicated and block aspiration. Unfair because the poorest find themselves hit hardest. Complicated because they are difficult to understand and command an intricate web of bureaucracy to administer. And they hinder aspiration by taxing property transactions and discouraging people from moving home.

Since being elected to Thirsk and Malton in 2015, and as Chair of the APPG on poverty, I have seen first-hand how council tax inflicts immense suffering on some of our most vulnerable citizens while failing to fulfil the most basic tasks of a functioning property tax.

It has a devastating impact on low-income households, who if they are unable to pay are aggressively pursued by local authorities and debt collection authorities – and in some cases even imprisoned. According to Citizens Advice, 40 per cent of problem debt can be apportioned to council tax, up from 21 per cent in 2011. The Covid-19 crisis has only exacerbated the situation, with an extra £700 million in council tax debt accrued by 800,000 struggling UK households since March.

As an officer of the APPG on Land Value Capture and a former member of Parliament’s Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) Select Committee, I’ve become depressingly familiar with council tax’s many structural flaws. Chief among these is its failure to keep up with the substantial increases in property values that have taken place in recent decades, particularly in London and the South East.

This has deprived the Treasury of crucial tax revenues. While it is right that property owners are able to enjoy the fruits of their investment, it is only fair that in return they are taxed on the actual – rather than 1991 – valuations of their homes.

I have come to accept that council tax is in need of replacement – the problems will not be solved simply by adding one or two more property bands. I was therefore delighted to discover that a new grassroots campaign, Fairer Share, has put forward credible and costed proposals to do just that. It proposes replacing council tax and stamp duty with a proportional property tax (PPT) which would tax all homes at exactly the same rate based on up-to-date property values.

These proposals have two key merits in comparison to council tax: they are fairer and they are simpler. By taxing homeowners on current property values, they would ensure that wealthy homeowners pay an amount of tax that actually reflects the value of their homes while providing a much-needed tax cut to millions of low- and middle-income households.

This would give a real boost to the UK’s regions, the majority of which are hugely disadvantaged by the current system. This is in stark contrast to the status quo, under which a person living in a property worth £100,000 pays around five times more tax as a share of property value than someone living in a property worth £1 million – the equivalent of charging more VAT on a Ford than on a Ferrari.

In place of the administrative challenge of council tax, in which properties are taxed through a confusing and distorting system of bands and exemptions, the PPT would apply a single rate of tax – 0.48 per cent of property value – to all homes. Owners rather than tenants would be responsible for the tax, removing over 8.7 million households from property tax altogether and saving councils an annual £400 million in administrative costs.

To incentivise more efficient usage of existing property, a surcharge on second, empty and offshore-owned homes would be introduced, as well as on plots of land that received council planning permission yet have been left vacant by developers. The policy is revenue neutral – raising the same amount of money for the Treasury as the scrapped taxes currently do.

To maintain the important democratic link between local expenditure and local taxation, Fairer Share recommends that the 0.48 per cent rate should consist of two components. A fixed national rate (0.32 per cent) which would go to central government for redistribution and an initial floating local rate (0.16 per cent) which would go straight to the local authority and could subsequently be moved up or down by that authority. In this way local authorities retain flexibility over taxation and voters can still judge them on value for money.

And importantly, this approach includes the complete abolition of stamp duty land tax (SDLT) on owner-occupied residential property. By taxing properties when they change hands, stamp duty discourages homeowners from moving – such as a young household looking to buy a family home or an older couple looking to downsize – and prevents the efficient use of our existing supply of housing. This also has wider economic consequences when, for example, it leads to people turning down job opportunities outside of their area due to the cost of moving home.

The Government has already acknowledged the harm stamp duty causes by introducing numerous exemptions from the tax, including most recently a temporary holiday on all purchases up to £500,000 announced last month. With the UK likely facing an extended economic downturn, the Chancellor should now take further action to support the housing market by fully abolishing stamp duty on owner-occupied property.

While replacing taxes as fundamental as council tax and stamp duty – responsible for raising £50 billion annually ­- is no walk in the park, I firmly believe it is the right thing to do. The current system of council tax and stamp duty is simply unfair and inefficient.

Local authority finances have been hit hard recently. Replacing these taxes with a better system will put them on a stronger foundation for the future. The PPT is simpler and easier to operate, and revaluations can be carried out regularly, quickly and easily using the latest technology and on a desktop basis.

The Fairer Share campaign has provided us with an excellent blueprint for reform. I urge the Chancellor to take its proposals seriously, starting by announcing a fundamental review of council tax at this year’s Autumn Budget. This would mirror the Treasury’s ongoing review of business rates, the other half of our dysfunctional property tax system.

While it would take time to get the details right, introducing a proportional tax on property in the UK would be an excellent way for our party to demonstrate our commitment to “levelling up” and to do something meaningful for the many new constituencies we have won across the country.

I urge anyone interested in Fairer Share’s proposals to visit their website here or get in touch with me, and to share this article and the wider campaign with their networks. I will also be hosting a live webinar and Q&A with the Fairer Share team in the coming weeks – details will be posted on my website in due course.

Andrew Carter: Devolving responsibilities to our town halls must also mean devolving money

22 Sep

Andrew Carter is Chief Executive of Centre for Cities, who have published a new report Levelling Up Local Government in England

Last year, the Conservative election manifesto pledged to deliver a system of full English devolution and, as I understand it, the Government is now finalising these plans in a white paper due to be published this autumn.

Reform of England’s complicated local government structures is long overdue. There are currently 349 district, county, unitary, and combined authorities in England, as well as the Greater London Authority, many with overlapping responsibilities and competing interests.

Nottingham, for example, has nine separate councils, all with responsibilities for local planning and economic development in their part of the city. The seven district councils have responsibility for new housing, but then the two county councils are charged with delivering the transport infrastructure that new homes need. This bureaucratic arrangement makes joined-up long-term strategic decision making about Nottingham’s future much more difficult than it needs to be.

Additionally, many smaller district councils have neither the capacity nor the political will to deliver the large-scale housing and infrastructure projects needed to level up their areas, and the financial challenges of maintaining this patchwork system are increasing every year.

But the problems in English local government are about more than just function and finance. There is also a democratic deficit, with little public awareness or understanding of councils’ roles. Back in 2012, just eight per cent of people could name their local council leader, and I doubt this figure has improved much since then.

And a system in which a council leader is also a local ward councillor directly answerable to only to a tiny electorate makes it difficult for them to balance their voters’ priorities with their duty to the wider area. This means that hyper-local issues can crowd out the long-term planning and investment that an area needs.

The current system is the product of decades of political compromise and piecemeal reform, but it’s having a damaging effect on the places that the Prime Minister has promised to level up, many of which have been hit harder economically by the Covid-19 pandemic than more affluent areas. We can’t keep tinkering around the edges – only wholescale reform will work now.

First, England’s existing 349 councils should be reduced down to 69 new, larger unitary and combined authorities that mirror as much as possible the economic areas in which people live and work. This would make joined-up strategic decision-making far easier.

When I make this argument, people often stress the importance of ensuring that historic or cultural boundaries are reflected in local government. I have two points to make on this: First, civic identity is not determined by local authority boundaries; it is possible to celebrate civic identity while having council boundaries that reflect the area over which people live and work.  And second, as our proposals show, it is possible to create a new system that aligns political and economic geography whilst respecting existing historic county boundaries.

Second, the leader-and-cabinet model for local government should be scrapped and the 69 new authorities should be headed by a directly-elected political figure. In cities and large towns they should be called a mayor, in rural areas they could have a more appropriate name. But whatever they are called they should be given the mandate, powers, and resources to improve the lives of people living and in working in them.

Responsibility for key areas of the levelling up agenda such as housing delivery, infrastructure, management of public transport, and adult education provision should all be moved out of Whitehall and put in the hands of the new leaders and their authorities.  The relevant government departments – Business, Transport, Education – could then be shrunk to reflect their smaller roles and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government could be transformed into an England Office similar to the Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland Offices and, like in the devolved nations, be given responsibility for managing England’s devolution deals.

This simpler system, with a directly elected political leader, will begin to address the lack of public engagement in local politics. Though less than one in ten people nationally can name their council leader, in the Tees Valley, 40 per cent of people know the directly elected Conservative mayor, Ben Houchan, and they can name a policy achievement of his.

But it would be disingenuous to restructure local government and give it extra powers and responsibilities, without also providing it with the funding it needs to make good on these extra responsibilities. Devolving control over how local business rates, council tax, and charges are raised and spent, and giving greater discretion to councils on how they manage their budgets would give them the freedom and incentives they need to drive forward improvements in their areas – and would be a welcome relief after a decade of local government austerity.

Opponents of what I’m proposing will tell you that, despite its flaws, the current system works; and perhaps on a purely functional day-to-day level it does. But we should be asking ourselves what we want from local government in the future, particularly in light of the Covid-19 crisis.  Should it just be emptying bins and collecting library fines? Or should it be applying its deep understanding of England’s cities, towns, and counties to deliver the levelling up agenda? I would argue it’s the latter, and I hope that ministers writing the devolution white paper, agree with me.

Gareth Lyon: In defence of district councils

3 Sep

Gareth Lyon is a former councillor in Rushmoor and the Chairman of the Aldershot and North Hants Conservative Association.

We are now approaching the inevitable and tragic culmination of efforts to undermine District Councils.

At this stage, to have the opportunity to extol the good that borough and district councils do, feels more like being given the opportunity to bury, rather than to praise them.

It is increasingly regarded as an open secret that the Government sees the future of local government as lying in massive county-wide unitary councils, possibly supplemented by a patchwork of parish councils.

This outcome will come as no surprise to those of us who have followed closely the treatment of district and borough councils over recent decades.

Whist there surely has not been a deliberate strategy to systematically undermine district councils and prevent them from functioning as effectively as they can, it is sometimes hard to discern how such a strategy would manifest itself differently from the effects of the cruel and negligent treatment of this tier of councils by successive Governments.

By way of context, the UK is already something of an outlier in Europe in terms of the average size of the lowest tier of local government, its funding and its powers. France, Spain and Germany in particular, entrust far more responsibility to bodies equal to, or smaller, in size than English district and borough councils.

Yet district and borough councils are a very prominent feature of local political life in the UK, and almost always the arrangement of responsibilities means that they are on a hiding to nothing.

Taking Council Tax as an example. Being a tax which must specifically be paid as opposed to being deducted automatically like PAYE or NI it is consistently amongst the most noticed and most hated taxes in the country.

It is well known that your local council will arrange collection of this (and other understandably unpopular taxes like business rates); what is less well understood is how little of this tax is actually collected for the district/borough itself to use.

Indeed, many districts and boroughs I know are obliged to hand over more than 90 per cent of what they collect to other less local and less accessible authorities, such as the county council, fire service, or Police and Crime Commissioner.

This may seem like a small point but it should not be underestimated how much responsibility people will ascribe to the authority whose headed notepaper they receive their tax demand on.

In many cases, district and borough councils have managed to freeze or reduce their Council Tax charge without this even being noticed by their electorate as it is more than cancelled out by substantial increases from other authorities.

This leaves districts and boroughs as the unloved collectors of money due to others while having no say in its spend.

The situation is, if anything, even wore on Business Rates. This absurd tax is divided between the various tiers of Government, with councils facing tax revenues being “clawed back” by central Government if they succeed in fostering local businesses, boosting economic activity, and ultimately receipts by too much… yet facing the full force of economic headwinds if substantial local businesses get into trouble, relocate, or downsize.

This awkward position, of being consistently in the frame for decisions which are made elsewhere and imposed locally – with districts and borough as the most accessible and identifiable local representation taking the blame is now established in almost every area of council activity.

In key competencies such as planning and development and licensing, councils room for manoeuvre has been strictly limited for some time – with central Government and an army of unaccountable and remote inspectors being able to overrule decisions at the drop of a hat.

Over recent years though this has extended into many new areas by the back door – local councils are responsible for attracting and fostering local businesses, except that all the decisions about key infrastructure to support businesses are made at a regional or national level.

Local councils usually have responsibility for parking, except that county councils have the ability to use the trump card of responsibility for highways to effectively dictate policy – along of course with the Government’s green agenda balancing the scales further against car users.

Councils have responsibility for recycling and numerous environmental matters – but the heavy hand of central Government is starting to fall here too – often with no appreciation for local factors or demographics.

With these and dozens of other wounds being administered to the body of district and borough councils it could be argued that the Government may be considering the right thing in handing everything over to vast unitary authorities – even if they may have been a party to the assassination.

Yet this is to ignore the fact that it is much easier for most people to get to know their local councillor and to raise issues with them. It is to ignore the fact that there are massive differences between Aldershot at one end of Hampshire and the New Forest on the other – and that local identities matter in politics.

Ultimately there is a risk that the Government ignores the wishes of local people to have the power to make more of the political decisions which affect their lives.

One could even argue that it is time for those driving such thinking to get out London and meet some people who are not centralising special advisors…

 

Chris Criscione: Financially reckless councils are the exception, not the rule

2 Sep

Cllr Chris Criscione is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Uttlesford District Council and a member of the Council’s Investment Board.

Recent coverage on local authority finance, shrouded in controversy over prudence and proportionality, as Council’s look to cover their costs through continued investment in commercial property, has shed light on an increasingly complex and rather gloomy state of affairs. One that preceded the public health emergency, but certainly have been worsened by its arrival. Concerns around the attitude of some local authorities in pushing the boundaries of acceptability in terms of risk and exposure are yet to overcome the very fact that this behaviour is a necessity in the absence of government funding and any reasonable alternative.

The local authority, standing on the principles of an unerring social conscience and a commitment to delivering good public services for all within its boundaries, has to meet the challenge before it. It has to accept that top-down government funding and intervention is not sustainable and, bluntly, just not right for those who continue to argue for devolution across the country. You can’t have your cake and eat it. So, what then?

For many authorities, the choice is between cutting public services, raising council-tax to eye-watering levels with adverse impacts on the taxpayer – a process that would require direct consent through referenda – or seeking alternative funding through commercial investments. The latter is certainly the most credible first step that has been taken up as the total amount of investments by local authorities exceeds £6.6bn, and on the basis that cuts and tax-rises should be a last resort. But many are asking, has the system allowed for it to take place in a responsible fashion?

On the whole, most would agree that it has. Local authorities should understand that whilst they need to provide certainty around funding as they move into a self-sustaining future, they also need to act with prudence and proportionality in all their endeavours; or it could end up costing them beyond their wildest imagination. But – and in this instance it seems to be a huge “but” that has caught the eye of government and the independent regulators that concern themselves with public finance – some have thrown the rulebook out of the window in moves that are may ruin things for the many.

The government’s review into local authority borrowing (the PWLB consultation) seems to have been motivated by the recklessness of authorities who have borrowed well in excess of their annual budgets and spending power without any consideration of expected yield, year-on-year. It would be fair to say that the scale of investment on an authority-by-authority basis is concerning in some cases. However, the return on investment (ROI) presented by the secured investments is of the greatest significance because it seems to completely ignore the need to consider the principles of opportunity-cost, value for money, exposure, and, again to put it bluntly: the entire point of the whole exercise. For Spelthorne, their billion pound investment portfolio delivered near to 1% ROI in the last year; a stark figure when you consider that they are looking to meet the shortfall caused by decreases in government funding and other key revenue streams that total well in excess of this in coming years.

It is a shame that it seems as if the most reckless authorities who lack good governance, sound independent advice, and prudence in their interactions, have at first glance ruined the opportunity for others. In Uttlesford, the District where I sit as a councillor, and as a member of the Council’s Investment Board; borrowing arrangements, the perceived strength of investments vis-à-vis the loan period and market conditions, as well as a consideration of yield, dominate our conversations at every turn. There is much to consider, but at all times councillors put the need to meet the “gap” in funding at the forefront of our minds as we consider opportunities.

How can it be that authorities seemed to have abused lax-funding arrangements and the trust of their residents to secure investment portfolios in excess of £1bn without considering the whole motivation behind the operation? If we are to continue to build a self-sustaining future for local authorities, we must put the goal and objective front and centre, not the eagerness to trail-blaze or to do something just because one is able to do so. This is a means to an ever-ambiguous end, not a profit-making exercise to put authorities in history books (seemingly for the wrong reasons).

In my humble opinion, it’s not the Government’s rules and regulations that have caused this recklessness to take root, but the complete ignorance of the local authorities who have lost all comprehension of the goal and objective of the process. One can only hope that the Government comes down hard on them for their decisions, but without ruining it for the other authorities – totalling in the hundreds – who just want to build a better Council for their residents in the circumstances.

Many authorities will be looking to meet the challenge of balancing their budgets with a sense of optimism that they can write their own destiny through their own actions and without the help of central government. It’s not a process that delivers untold levels of satisfaction, or indeed one that presents a welcome challenge given the circumstances and timescales with which we are faced; but it is an opportunity nevertheless. That is provided that the government sees the good intentions of the bulk of authorities and treats the reckless ones as the exception to the rule.

Nicky Morgan: Ministers must act swiftly to avoid a disaster – bailiffs abusing vulnerable people over council tax arrears

21 Aug

Baroness Morgan is a former Secretary of State for Education, and for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Marie is 76, and usually pays her council tax via Paypoint at the Post Office. However, for the last five months she has been shielding due to a chronic lung condition. Recently, her council contacted her regarding council tax arrears of just £13, threatening court action.

The prospect of council tax arrears escalating to court action and enforcement is an imminent concern for people like Marie. From next Monday, bailiffs are set to restart in-person visits, and will be able to chase Coronavirus-related debts. Yet a knock at the door poses a threat to Marie’s long-term finances, and worse, poses a serious risk to her health.

Across the country, many thousands of people are in a similar situation. Debt advice agencies report that three million people face the threat of bailiff action on missed council tax, while according to StepChange, around a million people are in council tax difficulties directly attributable to Covid-19.

In this environment, pulling the trigger on a wave of high-risk bailiff visits is not a decision that should be taken lightly. While it’s right for councils to seek to recoup their losses to fund essential services, there remain huge questions over the efficacy of bailiffs and whether they are genuinely always used as a last resort.

When I was Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, we reported in 2018 on how local authorities have come to use bailiffs almost by default, with public sector debt collection regarded as ‘worst in class’. With this in mind, what lessons should the Government learn before it allows bailiff visits to resume?

Lesson one: Despite glimmers of progress, council tax debt collection is in need of major reform.

The law governing local authority debt collection means that small debts quickly escalate. Non-binding guidance has failed to stop councils from sending in the bailiffs, with referrals totalling more than 2.6 million last year. That’s despite only 27p of every £1 of debt referred being recovered. Meanwhile, councils can be penalised for trying to offer more sustainable payment plans.

By contrast, household debt problems are dealt with far more sustainably in other sectors. Among mortgage lenders and consumer credit providers, forbearance and debt advice referrals are more widely used. Regulated sectors have seen the benefit of more holistic measures which have resulted in better collection rates and fewer defaults, whilst also crucially giving people mired in debt a sustainable way out.

Support for household finances during the crisis should now be twinned with reform of council tax collection and additional hardship funds. The Government’s initial £500 milion Hardship Fund has offered welcome respite for many, but with increased funding and wider eligibility criteria it could achieve even more. Ministers should also look to introduce a statutory pre-action protocol for debts owed to government. This would help reduce court-based enforcement and enable those most at risk from bailiff visits to set up an affordable repayment plan.

Lesson two: Independent regulation is needed to control the behaviour of bailiffs and bailiff companies.

Aggressive and intimidating bailiff enforcement plagued our system long before Coronavirus: now is not the time to cross our fingers and hope that this might change.

For too long, bailiff self-regulation has failed to protect people in financial hardship from widespread poor practice. Independent polling by YouGov conducted before lockdown for StepChange and Citizens Advice showed one person every minute experiencing a rule-breaking bailiff.

The Government has recognised the case for strengthening regulation,and started a review on this matter back in 2018. However, despite repeated calls from the Justice Select Committee, which ran a parallel inquiry to encourage Government action, the Ministry of Justice has so far failed to report back.

The case for independent regulation has never been stronger. The Government should now commit to plans for bailiffs to follow the rules and ensure the industry is held to account.

Lesson three: The basis for the temporary ban on bailiff visits has not gone away.

The Government’s decision to outlaw bailiff visits in April was welcome. In explaining the ban, the Ministry of Justice correctly identified that incentives in the industry and “financial pressures [from firms and creditors]” would create the risk of poor practice and unnecessary visits “which could endanger the health of both enforcement agents and debtors”.

In the context of an ongoing global pandemic, the nature of bailiff visits – going between people’s homes without knowledge of underlying health conditions – still presents a high risk to public health.

The use of virtual compliance methods is growing and from next week it has been agreed that any enforcement visits will not seek access to premises and will be contactless. But the visits will still happen.

Ministers could give further direction on how bailiffs can operate in a Covid-secure way. That means at the very least, guidance and oversight on test-and-trace, treatment of people in Covid-related difficulties, and suspension of visits during local lockdown.

Without the introduction of new safeguards, strong Government initiatives to help people recover from financial difficulty, such as next year’s Breathing Space scheme, are in danger of being undermined. Far better to change course now than risk a public health disaster and financial catastrophe for millions of people in financial difficulty, people like Marie.

While the original factors that prompted the ban are still in play, the solution is within our grasp. This is an area for Government rather than individual local authorities to take the lead,.  National Government must learn from these three lessons in order to reverse the tide of harmful and unnecessary bailiff visits, and ensure people are protected, as far as possible, when bailiffs return. If the ban on bailiff visits is not to be extended then these changes must be made urgently. In the absence of these modest safeguards, the return of bailiffs is something we can ill afford.

Martin Thacker: How we froze the Council Tax in North East Derbyshire

29 Jun

Cllr Martin Thacker is the Leader of North East Derbyshire Council.

In line with our Conservative Manifesto commitment during the 2019 election, North East Derbyshire District Council announced a Council Tax freeze for 2020/21. The intention is to give real help to households in difficult times.

The Council could have opted to increase Council Tax up to a maximum of 1.99 per cent. However, putting financial wellbeing of North East Derbyshire residents at the forefront of decision making, the Council chose to forgo the additional £118,000 that the 1.99 per cent rise would have generated. Instead, the Conservative administration undertook a line by line budget review to identify ongoing savings so a freeze could be managed, without detriment to the quality of frontline services.

We did not foresee the coronavirus pandemic. As with many Councils, COVID-19 is having a detrimental impact on the Council’s 2020/21 budget and cash flow due to lost income from fees and charges. The grants received from Government are hugely welcome and being used to meet budget shortfalls. Unfortunately, funding only goes some way in meeting income losses and those forecast as the pandemic continues.

A further review of approved expenditure budgets for 2020/21 has taken place to help minimise the negative impact. Steps taken to minimise a downturn in income include:

  • Review of approved budgets to identify areas where expenditure can be reduced.
  • Planned restraints on expenditure for the duration of the pandemic and recovery phase to protect the Council’s cash.
  • Moratorium on the Capital Programme in the short term for all but essential works.
  • Moratorium on recruitment for three months, including renewal of temporary contracts and use of agency, unless essential.

Income and expenditure remains under regular review as the situation continues to evolve.

Cash flow remains a concern but is being managed closely to ensure measures put in place are sufficient to protect us through the recovery phase.

The impact of COVID-19 has been wide and far reaching within the Council. It has required a strong leadership response to ensure continued provision of essential services for residents and businesses. It has necessitated management of extensive home working, shielding, and isolation arrangements for staff.

At North East Derbyshire, we immediately set up a Community Support Team. We implemented business continuity arrangements to protect people who need our help and ensure vital services for all local residents. With some staff being redeployed into different jobs overnight, we created a team that has, to date:

  • Telephoned over 7,000 people to offer assistance
  • Delivered over 4,000 medical supplies
  • Provided and delivered food boxes
  • Delivered 700 local newspapers and magazines to those most isolated
  • Contacted over 1,800 businesses to help them access financial support
  • Provided 1,584 grants to businesses totalling almost £18 million
  • Awarded 350 businesses 100 per cent business rates relief
  • Received 20,188 calls and emails from residents and businesses requesting support and advice with Council Tax and Business Rates
  • Had over 32,000 views of the Covid-19 information section on the Council’s website
  • Received £8,265 in donations to support the District’s work for others
  • Launched the #Newskillschallenge to promote and teach British Sign Language
  • Sent regular social media posts reaching an audience of 360,000 views.

As a Council, we led a county-wide project to get homeless people off the streets. We are providing urgent accommodation for some of the most vulnerable (including victims of domestic abuse, those with specific needs, and people who have found themselves without a home for various reasons). We are now endeavouring to ensure this work has a positive and sustainable legacy with the objective that these people do not end up homeless again. We will ensure support and practical advice for them to move on positively with their lives.

Our Environmental Health Team has been central to implementing many of the Government’s social distancing and business requirements. They have been providing support to the local business community by sharing advice and guidance on risk assessments and controls necessary to become ‘COVID secure’, as businesses strive to reopen when permitted. So far, the team has contacted 500 premises and engaged positively with them. We are implementing plans to assist high street businesses in the four towns covered by our District. The Council has launched a shop local campaign too.

We are now moving from the response phase to recovery. The Council has developed plans to bring services back safely and kick start the local economy. We are working to breathe life back into North East Derbyshire once more.

All of this comes at a cost. However, by remaining on top of our current budget position, developing short, medium, and long-term forecasts, and discussing priorities and options regularly, we have been able to make informed decisions which support residents, staff, and businesses through this unprecedented national crisis.

The path of COVID-19 in front of us may be long but as a Council we remain steadfast in our resolve to put the welfare of every resident first and foremost.