Why you should vote Conservative in the local elections on Thursday

4 May

Most of the election campaign messages from political parties are about why you should vote for one party rather than another. But the greater challenge, in local elections, is for each party to persuade its supporters to vote at all. If over a third of the electorate can be persuaded to take part; that is considered a pretty creditable outcome. If voters suspect they will notice little difference between a Labour or a Conservative Council they may decide not to bother. Fear of coronavirus is likely to further dampen turnout this time – although postal voting was being encouraged.

It should be conceded that the issues being fought over vary from one area to another and that the philosophical divide between the parties may not always manifest itself in the most tangible of ways. There is a familiar state during an argument with socialists where the retort is made: “Ah, but that is not true socialism.” This can be the response to the failings of any socialist country (Marxist or social democrat) or a past Labour Government. Or indeed a Labour Council. By contrast, some of us have had cause to lament that certain councils – where a majority of the councillors are Conservative Party members –  are merely nominally Conservative. That they do not apply Conservative principles to the way they operate. Perhaps because the bureuacrats – or “officers” as they are more politely called – are left to make decisions.

George Orwell describes in some detail a pub called The Moon Under Water. It did not exist but was his “ideal” of what a pub would be. I could describe an ideal Conservative Council. Council Tax and Business Rates are low. Debt has been eliminated by the sale of surplus municipal property – which has been used for new homes. Services are provided efficiently, making use of private contractors – but with procurement policies that give smaller firms the chance to compete. Rules and regulations on the local populace are kept to a minumum – but those that are in place are enforced. Dustbins are emptied weekly and the streets kept clean. Potholes are filled and humps flattened. Social workers lift barriers to adoption for children in care. Planning officials have a particular penchant for neo-classical architecture as part of their vision to enhance beauty. Civic pride, patriotism, and volunteering are celebrated while political correctness and jargon have disappeared. Environmental improvements are about planting trees and prosecuting flytippers rather than passing declarations of a climate change emergency. We could all think of items to add to the list.

In reality, no such ideal council exists. Central Government restrictions, financial constraints, and human fallibility act as constraints on the impact of our locally elected representatives – even if they happen to be Conservative. Electing such figures is not a guarantee that Conservative values will prevail. Bureaucratic remoteness and and public sector inefficiency do not disappear. Yet it is also unreasonable to claim that voting is irrelevant to the outcome.

Here are some facts:

  • Conservative councils charge lower levels of Council Tax. Averaged across council tiers, Conservative-run councils in 2020-21 in England charged £83 a year less than Labour-controlled councils on Band D and £130 a year less than Liberal Democrat-controlled councils.
  • Conservative councils fix potholes more quickly than Labour councils. On average, Labour councils that responded to a recent survey revealed they took an average of 28 days to repair potholes reported to them. In Conservative council areas, it took six days less on average.
  • Over half of the English Councils with the best recycling rates are Conservative-run. In 2019-20, of the 20 councils with the best recycling rates, 11 were Conservative and a further six are either run by independents or have no overall control. None were run by the Labour Party.

So often it is the poorest who suffer the most from Labour councils. Councul Tax rises hurts the low paid the most. It is the poor who are most likely to be victims of crime – often in soulless council estates which are badly designed, badly maintained, and where little is done about “problem” households. Huge sums are spent by municipal housing departments on repairs and supposed improvements yet often the results are dire. In London we can see Croydon and Lambeth as particular offenders – but the pattern applies in the rest of the country. In towns and cities where Labour have been in power for decades, the hostility to enterprise has a cumulative impact on deprivation. Wealth creators get the message that they are unwelcome and find more hospitable locations elsewhere.

Conservative councillors often make mistakes. The failure to assert themselves against the pressures of officialdom can be frustating. But they tend to carry out their duties in a spirit of goodwill rather of fostering division. A healthy scepticism about what the state can achieve sometimes means that more is accomplished. Above all they are an army of practical men and women – whose ranks I hope will be swelled this week. As Iain Macleod said:

“The socialists can scheme their schemes, and the Liberals can dream their dreams. But we have work to do.”

Amanda Milling: Let’s keep our campaigning going during these last few days

3 May

Amanda Milling is co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and is MP for Cannock Chase.

“You know what needs fixing – the potholes on the road out here”, a woman said on the door in Wolverhampton, “we need someone to sort the park out to keep the kids safe” two women said in Hartlepool, and “I’ve asked the council to sort the trees on the street here and they’ve done nothing” a gentleman said on the doorstep in Sandwell.

From Northumberland to Gloucestershire, as I’ve travelled the country over the past few weeks on the campaign trail this is what people have been bringing up on the doorstep.

This is what the elections this Thursday are all about – who you want in charge of your local services, who you want to empty your bins, who you want to fix your roads, who will be in charge of keeping your streets safe and who will bring jobs and investment to the area.

Up and down the country it is Conservative councils who have a proven track record of delivering good local services, investing in your communities and keeping bills low.

It’s Conservative councils that charge lower levels of council tax, fix potholes more quickly on average than Labour councils and recycle twice as much as Labour councils.

From my conversations with voters on the campaign trail, where we have strong Conservative councillors, they tell me of the positive impact the hard work their local Conservatives have in their communities.

And where we don’t have control of the council, or where we have no Conservative representation at all, voters feel left behind and forgotten by their councils.

When I’ve been campaigning for our Police and Crime Commissioners, voters have praised the efforts of our sitting PCCs. In Bedfordshire, with our new candidate, Festus Akinbusoye, the locals are keen to keep that strong track record going with Festus.

This Conservative Government is determined to cut crime and make our streets safer. It’s one of the Prime Minister’s key priorities and with Priti Patel we now have nearly 9,000 out of the 20,000 additional police officers across England and Wales we promised to put on our streets.

Across the country people know that it is the Conservatives who will work hard to cut down on crime and keep people safe. Labour have made it clear it’s not a priority for them – only weeks before the election campaign kicked off Labour voted against measures to keep this country safe in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. You only have to look to the record of Sadiq Khan in London and Andy Burnham in Manchester to see what happens when Labour are in charge of keeping people safe.

In the West Midlands, Tees Valley, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and the West of England we have seen exactly what a Conservative Mayor can deliver.

In Birmingham, I’ve seen firsthand the work Andy has been doing to level up the West Midlands. There’s so much building work going on in the city I was unable to film a video without a drill being used or a digger driving by.

Ben Houchen, in the Tees Valley, has helped secure tons of investment to the region bringing new jobs to the region and has been a standup example of what can be done to those towns that were left behind by Labour for far too long.

We never expected these wins in 2017, but our Conservative Metro Mayors have shown us what local Conservatives can deliver. We need people to get out and vote for them this week so they can continue to work with this Conservative government to continue to level up with investment in good quality local jobs and services.

I hope that Ben will be joined by Jill Mortimer in that great work. After 57 years of being let down by Labour, Hartlepool deserves better and Jill offers that change with a plan for jobs, investment and apprenticeships. But we’re under no illusion of how hard it will be. Labour have never not won the seat since it was first drawn up – with even Corbyn holding it easily.

On Thursday May 6, the country heads to the polls to vote in this bumper crop of elections. Now there’s no denying this will be a tough fight, we are defending over 2,000 council seats, the largest of any Party, and after 11 years in government it is common for the governing Party to suffer losses.

Labour and the Lib Dems are starting from an historic low so we can expect to see a post-Corbyn bounce and a Lib Dem revival.

This has been a campaign like no other but even with the challenges we’ve had to overcome our fantastic Conservative campaigners have spent hours ringing voters, knocking on doors and delivering leaflets come rain or shine. I’d like to pay tribute for all that you have done so far and urge you to join me in the final push ahead of Thursday.

It’s your efforts on the doorstep and on the phone that will help us to deliver more local Conservatives with a proven track record of delivering good local services.

While your shoes are worn and your knuckles are bruised your campaign spirit is alive and kicking. So as we head towards the final hurdle let’s get out and get campaigning to get people out voting Conservative on Thursday May 6.

Harry Fone: Profligacy is to blame for the Council Tax rise in Wolverhampton

20 Apr

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

Following the release of the Town Hall Rich List, my inbox has been flooded with examples of local authority profligacy. Of particular interest was a tip-off from Wolverhampton which revealed the massive increase in the Council’s expenditure on its communication team.

Figures show that since 2014-15 spending has more than doubled from £412,681 to £922,978 in 2020-21 – an increase of 123 per cent. In 2019-20 spending peaked at over £1 million. Alongside this, Council Tax has increased from £1,522 (2014-15) to £1,989 (2021-22). You have to wonder if council bosses have their priorities in the right place.

The council argues “the team has remained relatively stable and costs have reduced year-on-year”. I’m not sure I would describe an increase of 123 per cent as stable. Furthermore, cost reduction only came in the last year after five consecutive increases.

It’s worth adding that the director of communications hasn’t seen any reduction in their salary. Quite the opposite in fact. In 2019-20 they were paid £95,800 but by 2021-22 this had risen to £105,113. Let’s not forget a healthy pension contribution of over £27,000 as well. That means that 14 per cent of the communication team’s budget was spent on just one member of staff.

Residents in Wolverhampton suffered a 5.3 per cent increase in their council tax this year. I’m not saying councils shouldn’t have the means to communicate information about local services. Rather, maybe this money would be better spent on key services, such as collecting bins and fixing potholes.

Vanity and virtue-signalling

Similar questions need to be asked of Leicester City Council. Its use of taxpayers’ cash isn’t exactly exemplary. Band D Council Tax bills increased by almost £100 this year to £2,012. What are residents getting for their money? A litany of highly questionable spending decisions, it seems to me.

For starters, the authority wrote off a loan worth £600,000 to a local theatre, after it went into liquidation. This came after spending £3.6 million renovating the building which reopened in 2018, only to close three years later. Once again it begs the question, why does the public sector think it can succeed where the typically highly efficient private sector has failed?

Not put off by the failure, plans are now afoot to convert a museum into a tourist attraction at a cost of £11.6 million. But it’s not just vanity projects the council is fond of, it’s now planning to virtue-signal with taxpayers’ cash. On the council’s website and in its Capital Programme for 2021-22, £500,000 of funds have been set aside for the political movement Black Lives Matter. As my colleague, John O’Connell laid out on this website last week, taxpayer-funded lobbying creates something of a merry-go-round and cash is diverted away from frontline services.

Over the last five financial years, the average tax rise by Leicester City Council has been 4.5 per cent. Only on one occasion was the increase less than 4 per cent. Arguments that there is no fat left to trim from council budgets simply don’t hold water. If the trend continues, bills will be over £2,100 by next year. Residents deserve better. The authority must put an end to its specious spending.

Waffle from Waltham

The TaxPayers’ Alliance warmly welcomes transparency at all levels of government, especially when it comes to public sector procurement. As such the Contracts Finder website is an excellent resource for everyone from armchair ‘waste watchers’ to broadsheet journalists, wanting to keep an eye on public tenders. However, this is only any good if what is written in the contract makes sense.

Take this example from Waltham Forest Borough Council. It’s looking for “consultancy support for a strategic reset”. This sounds like something that would emanate from David Brent’s mouth. But it gets worse. The details of the proposal can only be described as a word salad:

“The Council is seeking to commission a Bidder to help us shape our strategic activity over the next year, creating a compelling narrative, working with management team to define and agree priorities and establishing the strategic programme that will enable us to deliver our priorities effectively.”

You’d have to go a long way to find a worse example of rambling middle management speak than this. I might be wrong of course and it might make perfect sense to you. If so, I recommend you apply as this ‘non-job’ pays up to £75,000. Maybe this role will bring long term benefits to the taxpayer but I wouldn’t bank on it.

James Frayne: The scale of the unpopularity of Council Tax is staggering

19 Apr

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Several years ago, before the surge of political and public interest in the environment, I struggled to explain to a visiting American political consultant why the Conservatives didn’t ‘go for’ the then-Labour Government on motoring taxes and charges. He couldn’t understand why, when so many people were being whacked by high fuel tax, car tax, parking charges, and all the rest, the Conservatives barely campaigned on it. Such is the clarity that outsiders sometimes bring. I couldn’t do any better than say, “they just don’t”.

I would similarly struggle to explain why the Conservatives don’t do more on Council Tax. My agency recently ran a comprehensive poll for the TaxPayers’ Alliance on Council tax – the most detailed recent poll on this subject I’m aware of. The scale of the unpopularity of the tax is staggering. In my mind, I can see some of you rolling your eyes: “of course it’s unpopular, who knew?!” What was interesting about this poll was that we looked not just at the top lines on Council Tax, but we also looked at Council Tax in relation to other taxes and also in the context of people’s views on local government more generally. From the standpoint of this poll, if anything, opposition to Council Tax looks more serious and more embedded.

In our poll, we found the following:

  • By 61 per cent to 15 per cent, people said they would oppose an above-inflation Council Tax increase this year; by 74 per cent to 16 per cent, people think Council Tax should be frozen or cut;
  • The Conservatives’ new base – the working class – are particularly hostile: by 64 per cent to 16 per cent, C2 voters said they opposed an above-inflation Council Tax increase, with DEs opposing it by 65 per cent to eight per cent; ABs opposed it by a much narrower margin of 51 per cent to 25 per cent; by 81-12, C2s favour a freeze or cut, compared to 74-11 for DEs and 68-23 for AB;
  • Thinking about the issues people will vote on in the council elections, Council Tax levels are third overall, sitting just below people’s perceptions of their local council’s general competence (36 per cent) and how much money they waste (32 per cent), which, of course, are related.

More interesting are the figures on Council Tax compared to other taxes:

  • Given a list of taxes that could go up in this Parliament – if the public had no choice but to accept such rises – just ten per cent of people said they thought Council Tax should rise. This compares to 29 per cent for Inheritance Tax, 27 per cent for Stamp Duty, 23 per cent for Income Tax, and 22 per cent for National Insurance Contributions and Vehicle Excise Duty;
  • In a series of questions about the relative fairness of a series of taxes, only the TV licence fee was viewed as less fair. 40 per cent of people said Council Tax was unfair, compared to 54 per cent saying that of the TV licence fee, 38 per cent Inheritance Tax, 34 per cent fuel tax, 25 per cent VAT, 24 per cent Income Tax, 21 per cent Vehicle Excise Duty, 18 per cent Capital Gains Tax, 17 per cent VAT, and 15 per cent Corporation Tax.

Council Tax is hugely visible given the way it’s levied and communicated. It constantly rises without apparently sufficient justification – people don’t think they see enough for it.

So, why don’t the Conservatives do more on Council Tax? To be fair, as the flare up over the prospect of replacing Council Tax with a property tax showed recently, many of the alternatives look worse. And there’s clearly no public agreement on what alternatives might work better. The TPA poll showed:

  • Given a list of options that might be introduced to replace Council Tax, the top pick was an increase in Income Tax (backed by 26 per cent), followed by “none of the above” (24 per cent) and then charging for the use of leisure facilities (15 per cent). There were relatively few differences between social groups or political affiliation. In other words, the public are split on alternatives;
  • Asked whether people support a new property tax being brought in to replace Council Tax, around 30 per cent each supported and opposed it;
  • Thinking more narrowly about alternatives to raising Council Tax, unsurprisingly people overwhelmingly prefer alternatives to new taxes or charges. The most popular options councils should take to keep Council Tax down were: limiting senior staff salaries (59 per cent); more actively pursuing debt collection (51 per cent); and merging teams between councils to improve efficiencies (39 per cent). While the figures were a little lower in terms of people’s views on the actual impact of these measures on keeping Council Tax down (a question we asked separately), they still chose them in this order;
  • Incidentally, asked about the number of exemptions, a third of people (32 per cent) said there should be no Council Tax exemptions and that everyone should pay something; 24 per cent said they should be kept the same and 12 per cent said they should be increased;

While it’s unquestionably complex, the Conservatives should think about the implications of what would happen if Labour got serious on this issue. Yes, they’re a bit late to all this, but Labour finally seem to have realised the power of Council Tax as a political weapon; they’ve begun attacking the Conservatives on the issue. Conservative activists might think this is a bit rich, but the public generally don’t mind political opportunism of this sort; generally, they will take what they can get from whatever political parties are standing at a given moment. The Conservatives should look to head off this potential problem and find a way to replace Council Tax, or at least find a structural, long-term alternative to endless rises.

Matthew Robinson: The battle for West Yorkshire

19 Apr

Cllr Matthew Robinson is the Conservative candidate for Mayor of West Yorkshire and a councillor in Leeds.

The local elections are well underway. We’d been waiting for the go ahead to allow us to campaign safely – and the Cabinet Office advice that came through last month was greeted with relief as it meant that people could campaign again. It’s not quite the time to leave the face masks and sanitiser at home but there is a way to safely campaign and engage with voters.

Here in West Yorkshire, after much debate and discussion about powers, and the geographic areas to be included, on May 6th 2021 the good people of the region will elect our first ever Mayor.

Now we have a number of Yorkshire folk who might not currently live in God’s Own County (sorry Jacob but it’s Yorkshire like Imran Khan our Wakefield MP said, not Somerset that is God’s Own County) so they might not be aware this Mayoral election is taking place. Yet everyone can play their part in stopping the drama and political back-biting of another Labour Mayor who wants to pick a fight with Westminster rather than taking the action required to improve the lives of our residents and improve the North.

People ask me how West Yorkshire – particularly Leeds, the biggest financial centre outside the city of London and the second biggest local authority in the country – has found itself in 2021 without a mass transit system. Don’t get me wrong, there have been attempts; the trolley bus springs to mind. However, we’ve had five Labour Councils running West Yorkshire for most of the last 40 years who’ve scrapped like cats in sacks and we’ve had Labour MPs who failed to be taken seriously by their own Party, never mind Conservative Governments, when seeking funding for a transport solution.

They have let the bill for their plans spiral out of control too, to the point where major overspends become something the public have sadly grown to expect. I’ve asked Labour’s candidate to join my no new local taxes pledge – the response wasn’t exactly full blooded agreement (“I have no intention of introducing an additional precept”). I understand the challenges of recovery will require households budgets and businesses to bounce back and big new taxes and charges would kill the recovery in West Yorkshire before it begins, stamping on the green shoots of this spring. Labour seems to prefer to blame the Government rather than doing the ground work to move our economy forward.

If we are serious about our economic recovery in West Yorkshire, tackling crime, improving the skills to create a resilient workforce, closing the productivity gap, getting the region moving, and levelling up within the region – because if you believe in levelling up as I do then it can’t all be about Leeds and our cities but has to be about our towns too – then it’s crucial West Yorkshire has a Conservative Mayor with a strong voice – and who wants to work with Government and others to invest in our future rather than searching out the nearest camera for their latest round of political axe-grinding.

So how can you help, well it’s easy:

  • Connect Calling – every little helps (to quote a well known supermarket). Energising our voters and reminding those who voted Conservative for the first time in December 2019 that the job isn’t done just yet. We need a little less conversation and a little more action. People want to get things done and to see our region crack on. A vote for me and our Conservative Council candidates means we will focus on economic recovery, boosting our economy and our communities every day and every step of the way.
  • Donate – Labour are pumping their union cash into their former Red Wall seats. If you thought they were going to allow the people of Dewsbury, Wakefield, Keighley and others to stay blue for long then you’re much mistaken. The fight for the next General Election has started and every £1 you donate will help us keep our target seats and win more. You can still donate to my campaign so please get in touch.
  • Spread the word. I’ve set out my priorities for West Yorkshire on economic recovery, jobs and apprenticeships, helping our businesses, new local opportunity areas, greater transparency, more police on the streets with the better equipment such as tasers for frontline officers, a connected clean green and on time transport system, improving life chances, and helping our environment – including delivering the new Northern Forest. It’s the only plan that will keep taxes low, stop a congestion charge, support business and the police, ensure projects are on time and on budget – and I’m the only Mayoral candidate who’ll be able to argue for, and get the best deal from, the Government. You can follow me on Twitter and on Facebook to support #Matt4Mayor

West Yorkshire has huge potential and has the opportunity to seize the day. This May we can either vote for a plan and deliver for our future as a region. Or we can vote for Andy Burnham 2.0 (new packaging but nothing really different) and more playing politics that has let West Yorkshire down in the past. We would continue being the neighbour to Manchester that everyone mentions second, rather than the envy of the North and the pacesetters of the 21st Century.

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.

Andy Street: My plan to get the West Midlands back on track and unleash our potential

6 Apr

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

In just over a month’s time, the people of the West Midlands go to the polls facing a critical choice.

Over the last four years, the West Midlands began to reclaim its rightful place as an economically successful region, after decades of stagnation and relative decline. Then Covid struck. Now there is much to do to ensure we don’t throw away those years of progress.

The choice facing voters on May 6 is simple: do we accelerate the progress of the last four years, or do we go back to the old failing approach which let down our region for decades?

Today I launch my plan setting out how I intend to get the West Midlands back on track and unleash our potential. I want to use this column to outline its key aims, which are both ambitious and practical.

The strides made by this region since I was elected Mayor on May 4 2017 are borne out by the facts. More than 97,000 new jobs were created in the region overall in the three years before the pandemic, the most of any region outside London. The level of transport investment this year was seven times higher than the year before I became Mayor.

A record-breaking 48,098 homes were built here from 2017-2020, nearly double the 25,000 target set in 2017. Rough sleeping is down 65 per cent since 2017, with 377 homeless people helped through our Housing First scheme. Over £3 billion of new funding was brought in from Government, with no Mayoral precept added to council tax bills.

On top of that, we won backing for Coventry City of Culture, Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022, the West Midlands 5G testbed, and High Speed 2 to bring investment and jobs.

However, the West Midlands has been hit hard by Coronavirus – and we must act quickly to get back on track. Sectors like retail, hospitality and manufacturing have seen thousands of workers laid off or furloughed.

That’s why my first priority will be to create more than 100,000 new good quality local jobs and training opportunities for local people.

That means securing an electric battery Gigafactory for our region, bringing 4,000 new jobs and protecting thousands more in the automotive industry and supply chain. It means winning every possible contract for local businesses from major regional projects like HS2, the Commonwealth Games and Coventry City of Culture.

I want our region to become the national leader in construction, engineering, life sciences, technology, 5G and other growing industries. And we have already seen announcements to move hundreds of well-paid civil service jobs out of London and into the West Midlands, starting in Wolverhampton and Birmingham – creating local jobs opportunities and boosting the economy.

I have plans to double transport spending. My vision is to build new metro stops across the region, as well as reopening five rail stations in the next three years, while making progress on eighteen other new stations.

Transport will play a key part in my green ambitions too: with plans for a major programme of cycle routes, while the full roll-out of our version of Boris Bikes has already begun.

On the buses, we’ll build on the success of the four-year bus fare freeze, and roll out more hydrogen and electric buses including making Coventry’s fleet all-electric.

On housing, I will build thousands of new homes where they are wanted. That means continuing to drive our successful “brownfield first” approach, with over £400 million of funding to reclaim derelict sites, protecting our Green Belt and green spaces.

Affordable homes are a key component of the plan: I will seek an ambitious Affordable Housing Deal to bring new cash to the region and pioneer our own “Help to Own” scheme to make home owning possible for more people. We will also continue our progress on reducing the numbers of rough sleepers.

On the environment, I will launch a huge programme to retrofit people’s homes with energy efficiency measures to reduce fuel bills and carbon emissions, while investing in nature, from replanting trees to creating a new National Trail for walkers around the Green Belt of the West Midlands. I will work with Government to fund for more initiatives like the Black Country zero carbon hub, to help industry move to green technology.

I will use a business-like approach to tackle the challenges facing the high street. Our town centres have already won over £100 million of Government funding, benefitting places like Brierley Hill, Rowley Regis, Smethwick, West Bromwich, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

City centres like Coventry, town centres like Dudley and village centres like Kingshurst will all benefit from our own major regional investment plan.

I’m backing bids to regenerate iconic local sites like the historic swimming baths in Erdington, the Royalty Cinema in Harborne and Saddlers Quay in Walsall to become community and enterprise hubs, and where distinct areas such as Solihull and Sutton Coldfield have developed their own town centre masterplans, I will use the power of the Mayor’s office to help make their visions become reality.

The heart of my approach as Mayor has been to ensure that every community benefits from the region’s success – localised “levelling up”. That means maximising the benefits of Coventry City of Culture in 2021, the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in 2022 and High Speed 2, with jobs for local people and investment across the region.

It means supporting those who need extra help, for example “designing out” homelessness by addressing its causes. A new Equalities Taskforce will ensure the West Midlands is a great place to live, work and grow up for all our communities. I will work with the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner to make our communities safer and get crime down, particularly on the transport network, while providing opportunities for young people so they don’t get drawn into crime.

These are just some of the ambitious plans I am putting to the people of the West Midlands today, as we face a turning point in our region’s story. On May 6, voters in the West Midlands face a choice that will define the future direction of our region.

My message is simple: I have a credible delivery plan to make all of this happen, and a proven track record over the last four years, beating our targets and other city-regions on investment, skills and housing.

My commitment is to secure £10 billion of new investment into the region, from both the Government and private investors, with a clear approach to the Mayor’s role as a regional champion. That means working with Government to make things happen, rather than criticising and grabbing headlines, and then being ignored.

When I was elected the West Midlands’ first mayor, nobody knew what could be achieved by devolution. I am proud of the progress we made in the first four years, but I’m also acutely aware that, as we rebuild after Covid, there is so much more to be done.

This is the region where I grew up. Its values shaped me as a person – that’s why four years ago I decided to stand to be Mayor. Before the pandemic hit, the renewal of the West Midlands was tangible. Today I unveil my plan for the next three years, and I urge the people of the West Midlands to choose me – to get on with the job, get this region back on track and unleash our potential.

Susan Hall: The 9.5 per cent rise in the Mayor of London’s Council Tax precept is unjustified

16 Mar

Susan Hall is the Leader of the Conservative Group on the London Assembly.

Sadiq Khan’s tax-hike budget is a slap in the face of every struggling Londoner. The capital’s streets are empty, businesses are closed, and people are desperately worried about their livelihoods. It’s the worst possible time for the Mayor to increase his council tax share by 9.5 per cent. To add insult to injury, he’s misleading Londoners by claiming he has no choice. He does. We gave him the choice and he didn’t take it.

The Conservative Group on the London Assembly presented the Mayor with a gift – a fully costed alternative budget that would freeze council tax and deliver on Londoners’ priorities. Instead of a tax-hike, our plan would make nearly £100 million in savings across the Greater London Authority by cutting waste.

We would make the savings by scrapping the Mayor’s statue-toppling commission, cutting his PR budgets, and reducing the GLA’s promotional spending. In total, this would save a whopping £8 million. We would save nearly £90 million more by reforming Transport for London’s bonuses, perks, and pensions, which have spiralled out of control under Khan.

We proposed using this money to fully fund London’s concessionary travel, including free travel for under 18s and discounted fares for over-60s, invest £45 million in policing, and freeze the Mayor’s share of council tax.

Our plan would also create a new £50 million London Recovery Fund to help businesses bounce back from the pandemic. This would be fifty times the size of the Mayor’s pathetically small ‘Back to Business’ fund and paid for using the GLA’s sizeable Business Rate Reserves.

This Conservative plan is the budget Londoners deserve. It delivers on their priorities, by keeping London safe and moving, as well as investing in our city’s recovery. Shamefully, but unsurprisingly, the Mayor rejected it. Why? It would defund his self-promotional budgets and force him to take on his trade union allies.

Without a doubt, Khan’s number one priority as Mayor is self-promotion. Instead of focusing on delivering as Mayor, Khan thinks he’s auditioning for higher office. That’s why he’s increased his press office spending by 33 per cent and jumped on every passing bandwagon.

Khan’s latest virtue-signalling project is his expensive statue-toppling commission. Packed with unelected activists, Khan thought the cash was worth it to make Toyin Agbetu – who’s now resigned due to past anti-Semitic comments – and other individuals, judge and jury of British history. It’s an outrageous waste of taxpayers’ cash, particularly at a time of economic crisis, but Khan thinks it’s good press.

Coronavirus has unveiled the deep-rooted problems in Transport for London, which Khan has repeatedly ignored. TfL’s own Independent Review said the body’s gold-plated pension scheme was “out-dated and must be reformed”. The review told the Mayor that modernisation would save up to £100 million. But he ignored the recommendation and instead chose to increase council tax.

He then preceded to ignore TfL’s Financial Sustainability Plan’s advice, which recommended that any review of its reward scheme should include pensions as well as its bonuses and perks. TfL’s bonus scheme awarded more than £15 million in 2019, and its nominee passes, which offer free travel to staff’s flatmates and even lodgers, cost TfL more than £40 million in a normal year in lost revenue.

The Mayor’s failure to reform TfL is deliberate. Sadiq Khan is worried about taking on the trade unions. He promised Londoners there would be “zero days of strikes” if he was elected, and there have already been more than thirty separate strikes. That’s why Khan is prepared to turn a blind eye to TfL’s woes and ask taxpayers to fork out more cash – it keeps the unions on his side.

In the Mayor’s budget, Londoners can see the cost of Khan. Far from having no choice but to increase council tax, he has an array of options to save money at City Hall and Transport for London. Unfortunately for Londoners, Khan hasn’t got their priorities at heart. Londoners deserve a Mayor who will put them first.

Looking back at the Budget a week on, its plan for growth is not convincing

12 Mar

The only worse judgement about a Budget than a snap article is an opinion poll – and we write that regardless of the reception that polls gave last week’s.

For just as a snap view can be based on less than the full picture (a particular feature of Gordon Brown’s), so a polling one tells one nothing about whether a Budget will work, or indeed will be as popular a month after its release rather than a day after.

Our own snap take was largely restricted to asking whether the tax rises announced for future years will really happen at all – or whether Boris Johnson will be able to take advantages of higher revenues to cancel them, and then seek a quick general election.

The end of the week after the Budget may be a better time to take a fuller view.  It would start by trying to understand the position that Rishi Sunak is in.

The post-Budget piece on this site by his Treasury colleague, John Glen, set out the scene as the Chancellor sees it in the latter’s first presentation since Brexit was done in full, and vaccines gave us hope that the pandemic will end.

The economy has shrunk by 10 per cent, the largest fall in over 300 years.  And our borrowing is the highest it has been outside of wartime.

That suggests going for growth in the short-term, as this site has recommended, with fiscal consolidation taking place later, as it will have to do in spades if the growth doesn’t come.  The timing of Rishi Sunak’s measures suggest that he agrees.

We believe that tax rises inevitably have to play some part in that consolidation along with spending cuts, and recognise that the run-up to an election is a difficult time to do either: the Chancellor is cursed by the economic and electoral cycles being out of kilter.

Certainly, government will always have to tax something to pay for public services, and the sensible view is that that something should be spending rather than income (or business).

Which explains why early Thatcher and Osborne budgets alike put up VAT, and why the latter wanted two new council tax bands on more expensive properties – as he confirmed to ConHome last year.

However, Sunak is boxed in on VAT.  The final headline pledge of the last Conservative Manifesto was “we will not raise the rate of income tax, VAT or National Insurance”.

We may know more about his plans for property taxes if any on tax day, March 23rd.  There is a plan on the table to replace council tax (and stamp duty) with a new property tax, but it is revenue neutral.

Since it would already create losers in more expensive properties in London, Sunak is unlikely to adapt it to create even more of them there and elsewhere.

Business rates were a dog that didn’t bark during the Budget, and any eventual reduction to them looks to come largely from a digital sales tax, not a residential property tax.  Some who would pay it belong to an interest group with little direct leverage: foreign companies.

But unable to turn to VAT and unwilling to turn to property – or so it appears – Sunak targeted income tax allowances and business in his Budget, via corporation tax (assuming, as we say, that these hikes ever happen at all).

On the first, the Office for Budget Responsibility says that the allowances freeze will haul a million more people into the higher rate band.  Fiscal drag is scarcely new – as the Institute for Fiscal Studies noted two years ago – but the move will do nothing to improve incentives.

On the second, there are some detailed arguments for the increase, as set out by Anthony Browne on ConservativeHome recently, but a general one against, which is based on certainty.

In essence, lower rates of corporation tax have been a feature of Conservative policy from Thatcher through to Osborne and beyond – together with an emphasis on lower income tax rates, supply side reform and a smaller state.

If these higher ones ever come in, the Chancellor will essentially be trading off higher corporation tax from some companies for the new super deduction for some companies.

That would mean a shift from a relatively simple and neutral system to a more complex and partial one, which would be more likely to help firms in the Midlands and North, according to sources that this site has spoken to.

We are not convinced that such a switch, if it ever happens, is a net plus for Britain.  But now that Sunak has turned on the super deduction it would be best for him, in order to help provide that certainty, not to turn it off in two years.

Elsewhere, those Thatcher-to-Osborne orthodoxies are also in flux.  They were first challenged in recent times not by Johnson, but by Theresa May, with her mantra of “the good that government can do”.

The Industrial Strategy was a product of her approach.  We are all for one in principle if it has a clear aim, namely turning pure research into translational research.

As Greg Clark, who had charge of it under May, conceded yesterday on this site: “it may have tried to do too much in one White Paper”.  His successor, in his swashbuckling way, dismissed in the Commons this week as “a pudding with no theme”.

That directness is a part of what makes Kwasi Kwarteng such an engaging politician, and it may be that he plans a slimming down of the strategy that will deliver results.

But one source close to the process worries that “individual policies will continue anyway but without consistency, ownership or scrutiny”.  And Clark has a point when he says that any strategy must be linked to place as well as sector – in other words, to levelling up.

We’re concerned that the Government has come to see such levelling up as incompatible with supply side reform and institutional change.  We can’t see much of the former in Build Back Better – the Government’s “plan for growth”.

It’s big on intrastructure and net zero; smaller on skills and innovation: as May said in the Commons this week, there’s a limit to how many times Ministers can review research and development tax credits.

If it really wants to go for sustainable and more even growth, the Government will need to devolve more power.  As a former senior Minister put it to ConHome recently: “we can’t deliver levelling up, a skills revolution, an industrial strategy and zero carbon from the centre”

“The new mayors have a convening power: they can get local businesses, the Chief Constable, the NHS bigwigs, the university vice-chancellors, the local enteprise partnerships round the table, and come up with a plan.”

On supply side reform, we understand why Kwarteng killed a planned review of workers’ rights.  But what is the plan to ease supply elsewhere – especially on housing?

On institutional change, there are commitments to reform the civil service and the courts, but almost none that apply to the major public services, especially health.

To date, tax rises are taking the strain of future consolidation, and the danger for the Chancellor is that he finds himself boxed into that position permanently – with Downing Street spooked by the consequences of a proper spending review for Tory red wall seats.

The Budget promises infrastructure spending, possible tax rises, pots of money from the centre for those provincial seats, limited localism, plus some levelling-up but little reform.  That’s a mix of pluses and minuses, but not a plan for growth.

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.