Susan Hall: Labour councils are badly run and that’s why we won in Harrow

20 May

Susan Hall is the Leader of the Conservative Group on the London Assembly and a councillor for Hatch End Ward in Harrow.

On learning of our victory in Harrow my (non-political) friend called exclaiming ‘What luck!’

My response?

It’s anything but luck.

Instead, a prime example of a community actually taking local politics seriously.

Harrow, previously branded the ‘officer led’ council, has been plagued with Labour in-fighting and rampant money wasting, squandering the opportunity their party had a few years ago. It should not take an administration in shambles and an angry electorate voting to change what has failed them, for local voters to vote for local issues.

This is not to lay the blame at the door of the millions of voters up and down this nation voting for the reasons they decide to. It is to challenge the long history of media discourse around local elections and how they present the locals as primarily a mirror, reflecting and providing insight into national politics.

So much talk around local politics is in relation to whichever dominant political party finds themselves with the top job and most MPs, which does a disservice to the thousands of hard-working councillors tirelessly serving their respective communities. Branding local politics as ‘lesser’ and only in relation to the ‘major league’ of MP Politics creates a top-heavy system, where ‘moving up’ in politics can become a powerful driving ambition. Colouring decision making, rather than working to tackle the job at hand and serve the communities that put them there. Again, a Conservative chosen as the first directly elected Mayor of Croydon is a cause for celebration, but we must find a way to get here without the upheaval and anguish that came before that electoral decision.

So let’s look at Harrow and why we did win; under Labour, services have been dreadful and Harrow taxpayers pay the third highest council tax in London. The unpopular ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhood’ and costly cycle schemes that had to be reversed at further expense are but one example of Labour’s woeful mismanagement.

These have however brought us fabulous new activists who have been crucial to our campaign and hopefully next time round will be standing for us in the Council. New high rises have wrecked the look and feel of our borough and getting any response from council officers is harder than getting Keir Starmer to realise that he is a total hypocrite, thus a change was both required and inevitable.

My friend, not understanding my Starmer gripe, other than what has already made headlines, emphasises the problem. In a saturated world, we need to cut through in new and innovative ways to get our message across to those outside of the political bubble. All too few take any interest in politics and don’t fully understand that national and local politics are very different.

MPs and councillors are responsible for completely different things. Residents in Wandsworth and Westminster pay low Council tax and have great services, they have not lived under a Labour controlled council in years and thus are unaware of the harm done by hideously run councils, I hope for their sake they aren’t about to find out, but I won’t be betting on it.

However, in areas where people see their hard-earned money being wasted by badly run Labour Councils, they understand that things must change. Harrow and Croydon are testament to that. With the scandals over Croydon’s mismanagement of finances and the latest news of two million fraud being investigated by Police in Harrow it’s not a surprise that residents want a change.

Sadiq Khan is another Labour Politician who doesn’t seem to understand that money does not come from the Labour money tree, it’s hard earnt taxpayers’ money. Wasting so much of his £19bn budget and then pleading poverty to the Government he so frequently scorns. Like a child talking back to a parent, then demanding their pocket money, Khan so often bites the hand that feeds him.

One of Khan’s ridiculous ideas of charging motorists for driving in and out of London has worried many in outer London. This would damage businesses and be a massive burden to everyone but particularly those of us in the outer Boroughs so frequently disregarded by this Mayor. The silver lining of current cause and effect electoral results potentially predicts that Khan’s mismanagement of London will be his loss in a few years’ time. Despite the loss of fantastic councillors and flagship Councils I really do not believe that we Conservatives have lost London as some, especially in the media, are happy to say. We have got so many strong activists and dedicated councillors ready to take London politics forward in the years to come.

In Harrow we must thank our wonderful diverse communities, Bob Blackman is a fantastic constituency MP and people trust him, over time this has made a real difference to us electorally. We have new Tamil Councillors who will ingratiate us into their culture and provide essential diversity of thought and perspective in Harrow and indeed further across London. We are the party for the workers and entrepreneurs who do not want their hard-earned money wasted. These days, especially in London, one must be wealthy to afford Labour’s expensive mistakes and woke virtue signalling. I have every confidence that Westminster, Wandsworth, and Barnet will be returned to Conservative control, I just hope we won’t have to spend years repairing the devastation I fear will be wrought by Labour’s poor leadership and unwise spendthrifts.

We must celebrate our wins, but we must also reflect on how we can better serve and persuade voters to make informed decisions. Perhaps through our own dedicated storytelling we can fly the flag for why local politics is not simply a stop along the way, nor a way to protest the direction of the MPs and National Governance, but instead a chance to pick the leaders of each community who make a real and tangible impact on each and every life.

Gerard Lyons: Ministers have an opportunity to cut taxes, drive supply side reform – and help reduce the cost of living

17 May

Dr Gerard Lyons is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. He was Chief Economic Adviser to Boris Johnson during his second term as Mayor of London.

“My Government’s priority is to grow and strengthen the economy and help ease the cost of living for families.” These opening two lines of the Queen’s Speech provided a powerful message.

Further action is needed to address the cost of living crisis. Also, those affected are not just families, but the vast bulk of households that are being squeezed. If the Government doesn’t appreciate this, then it may have its work cut out.

To its credit, the Government has already announced a host of targeted measures. These include a £150 refund on council tax for those in bands A to D. While welcome, the gains are partially offset by a rise in the average Council Tax in band D of £67.

The main help by far, though, was announced by the Chancellor in the Spring Statement – an increase in the threshold at which the higher rate of national insurance is to be paid. This has now been aligned with the starting threshold for income tax, around £242 per week. There is also the expectation that the Government will act again, as energy bills are expected to rise again this autumn, when the new price cap kicks-in.

Indeed, the cost of living crisis looks set to get worse, before it gets better. UK inflation is set to peak soon, probably above 10 per cent, and will then stay elevated for some time. While inflation is set to decelerate next year, it seems unlikely to return to its two per cent target anytime soon.

It also vital to appreciate that we are very quickly moving away from the main problem being inflation to it being a lack of economic growth. There thus needs to be a reiteration of a clear, executable vision and strategy to grow and strengthen the economy. But first, the cost of living crisis merits further attention.

High fuel and food prices are already exacerbating problems for lower income households, who spend a higher proportion of their income on these areas. At the same time, a large part of peoples’ disposable incomes fund their housing costs. Furthermore, as the retail price index heads higher, rail fares will rise, and changes earlier this year added to the cost of repaying student loans.

While some have savings they can dip into, many don’t. Thus, overall, discretionary spending will be squeezed with widespread negative consequences for retailers and many firms. In turn, there will be upward pressure on costs, prices and wages.

Even the labour market, where unemployment is low, could see change since a sharp economic slowdown is likely, including the possibility of a technical recession with two successive negative quarters of economic growth.

The challenge is that, surely, the Government can’t go on spending taxpayers’ money at every sign of trouble? That is right – but downside economic risks mean intervention is needed, not only to ease the burden but also through low taxes to revitalise growth. The situation also highlights the need to restore both fiscal and monetary stability, once the economy allows, allowing scope to cope with future shocks.

The economic and political shock-absorber is a looser fiscal policy over the next year. Although the budget deficit is higher than one would like, the good news is that it is falling sharply: from £317.8 billion in 2020/21 to £151.8 billion in 2021/22, and is expected by the Office for Budget Responsibility to decline further to £127.8 billion in 2022/23. Moreover, higher inflation is already bolstering tax receipts.

So what should be done? Relaxing fiscal policy and targeted support should not add to inflation since demand is already slowing. Targeted help is needed for those on low incomes, but also there is a need to help the squeezed middle.

Other countries have enacted policies to shield people from rising energy prices, including reduced taxes on energy or VAT; retail price regulation; wholesale price regulation; transfers to vulnerable groups; mandating firms’ behaviour; windfall profits tax; business support; or other measures (such as cutting the green levy in Germany).

While other countries, too, are tightening monetary policy, the UK is unusual in that it is squeezing fiscal policy. Benefits, for instance, were not raised in line with higher inflation in the Spring Statement, when perhaps they should have been. Crucially, the tax take is at an all-time high. The latter needs to be reversed. It includes too many people being dragged into higher tax brackets, and this can only be addressed by raising tax allowances and the levels at which people enter higher tax bands.

Quickly executable targeted measures could include a further increase in the Council Tax rebate. Another would be to use Universal Credit to direct more money to those in most need, while preserving work incentives. A mid-year rerating of benefits to raise them in line with higher inflation may take longer to implement but is another option

Temporary removal of some of the permanent components of fuel duties should be considered although, like many of these measures, further cuts in taxes on energy are not cheap. The temporary five pence cut in fuel duty is set to cost £2.4 billion this fiscal year. Suspending VAT on domestic energy while gas prices remain high has been suggested by some MPs.

Another possible but unlikely option is a temporary suspension of the environmental levy paid on energy bills. It would not, in my view, compromise the Government’s commitment to the green agenda, and could free up about £340 per household per year. The importance of addressing climate change is critical; it is peoples’ ability to pay that is the issue.

There is a clear case for bringing forward the one pence cut in income tax that has been pencilled in for before the next election. The Treasury calculates that this will costs £5.4 billion in its first year, but it would address an important issue in that income tax collection is now heavily concentrated, with roughly four in ten adults only paying it. A broader tax base with low tax rates makes more sense, but that may be a future aim.

There is also a search for non-fiscal measures that can help businesses and households. Measures that both ease the burden on firms and employers, while bolstering their confidence about the future, should figure prominently.

The most obvious is to implement supply-side measures from the Taskforce on Innovation and Growth Report. Although some may take time to feed through, they should bolster business confidence and encourage investment.

Also, measures to turbo-charge the housing market are welcome. Planning reform, while necessary, appears to have taken a back burner. A year ago, in a research paper for Policy Exchange, I outlined measures on the demand side that could help Generation Rent become Generation Buy, including allowing those who cannot afford deposits to use their history of regular rent payment to enter the housing market.

If the economic climate deteriorates, banks should be encouraged to exercise forbearance on loans if firms encounter difficulty. The Bank of England should also re-examine prudential requirements to ensure that these are not having a negative impact on growth.

This proactive policy response to address immediate challenges is complimentary to other areas of policy. It should not threaten the inflation outlook. Crucially, it is consistent with the existing fiscal strategy of reducing the ratio of debt to GDP from its present level of 96.2 per cent and the aim to achieve a significant improvement in the public finances. Strengthening the economy is the aim, easing the cost of living crisis is the immediate focus.

Peter Graham: Labour’s evasive promises to Wandsworth

17 May

Cllr Peter Graham is a councillor for Wandsworth Common Ward on Wandsworth Council.

Wandsworth has a Labour council for the first time in 44 years. After a near miss four years ago, Labour’s victory became odds-on following their recent parliamentary and GLA results. Partygate was merely a late boon to their campaign.

This makes it all the more remarkable that Wandsworth Labour’s manifesto received so little scrutiny. Their promises weren’t just uncosted, but wilfully ambiguous.

I’m not saying this with any bitterness. Labour won by a clear margin. In fact, much of their pitch was about being “the same” and agreeing with us on tax, waste, and the environment.

What matters to residents is what they do next.

Council Tax

Wandsworth Labour’s manifesto states that they “will cut Council Tax”, which seems clear, until one reads, “we’re backing a one per cent cut this year”. That can only refer to the Conservative cut which has already taken place. It would be unlawful for them to back anything else.

Explanations have been limited. When Simon Hogg was asked about his policy, live on air, the new Council Leader got silenced by the Mayor of London. Asked by a resident, their new Group Chair tweeted that the policy was “ minus one per cent which was the same as the Conservative pledge”. Again, Wandsworth Conservatives didn’t pledge to cut tax – we had already done it.

Labour’s equivocation began in February, when they U-turned to support our tax cut for 2022/23. A pinned (and recently deleted) tweet announced that Wandsworth Labour was backing a cut “next year”, which meant the financial year from April 2022. Although their website edited away Labour’s previous call for a tax freeze, it kept its reference to “this year”, meaning the calendar year.

No wonder Sadiq Khan got confused in April, tweeting that Wandsworth Labour would “freeze Council Tax this year & next”. Cllr Hogg retweeted Khan’s claim, before reposting his own tax cut graphic on May 1st, a month after our cut had been implemented:

I think the basic point is this: whether online or in their manifesto, the phrase “will cut” must relate to a future action by Labour in order to be honest. And any voter last week who read about a cut “next year” would rightly take that to mean the Council’s decision in 2023 relating to 2023/24.

So will Wandsworth’s residents get another one per cent net tax reduction? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Rents and energy bills

As Wandsworth Conservatives, we froze council tenants’ rents this April, while freezing their energy bills for a second time. Not many boroughs were able to achieve that.

Labour’s manifesto states: “A rent freeze next year will help tackle the cost of living crisis – and Labour councillors have voted for energy bills to be frozen for tenants too.” Their West Putney candidates (two of whom won), promised an “Energy Bills freeze next year” to boot.

Is this more weasel wording? Labour might be a bit keener on Housing Revenue Account commitments because they don’t compete with their general fund pledges. However, a rent freeze alone costs considerably more than a council tax cut.

They also have another large, uncosted HRA pledge to cover…

A thousand council homes

Labour’s manifesto promises to “build 1,000 new council homes – guaranteed for local people”. This sounds familiar to me because we were already building a thousand homes on council land, with exactly the same guarantee. Labour aren’t planning to lay a single extra brick.

However, under Labour’s online Housing Plan, they will all be “Council rent homes” – not just 442 of the units, as planned. Flipping the remaining shared ownership and private homes won’t come cheap. So how will it be paid for?

I fear they might cancel the much-needed regeneration of the Alton Estate, betraying hundreds of tenants in desperate need of new accommodation. Labour have already talked about a retrospective ballot in their Housing Plan, having flip-flopped throughout the planning phase.

Unless they commit now, which contractor will bother with the expense and hassle of a procurement bid? What starts as a delay could end with nothing.

Magical property levies

On the theme of development, here are some more of Labour’s manifesto pledges:

  • “We will raise £1 million a year in levies on developers to fund Wandsworth housing hardship payments for local families.”
  • “We’ll put more law enforcement officers on the streets, double domestic violence support, install more CCTV and fund more youth workers – paid for by levies on property developers.”

The Council has no power to impose new property levies, so this must relate to CIL or Section 106 payments. That’s achievable, if Labour want less infrastructure and less affordable housing.

Instead, they promise to “set an ambitious housing target that 50 per cent of residential units should be delivered as affordable housing” with “no more backsliding”. They likewise promise to “Prioritise the delivery of social rent homes in all Section 106 agreements”, which are the most expensive type to deliver.

If none of this seems to add up, that’s because it doesn’t.

Spend, spend, spend

The rest of Labour’s shopping list runs for pages. As a flavour of what’s involved, all contractors are to pay the London Living Wage, even if their staff aren’t based in London. Ward pledges included, “Bring mobile & internet access to all across West Putney.”

Most unguardedly, Labour’s manifesto and final doorstep literature promised “mental health services for all who need it”. Not help to access those services, but direct provision.

Reserves and debt

One of my frustrations is that we didn’t do more to secure Wandsworth Council’s reserves. Labour has been left with well over £100 million to splash on projects or plug annual spending deficits, while punting any consequences beyond the next election in 2026.

This wouldn’t be consistent with their pledge to “make the Council’s assets work harder” and “improve” returns, but – along with borrowing – it’s one route to achieving some of their wish list. It would also end decades of careful financial management.

We know from Croydon what can happen next.

It’s only fair to congratulate Wandsworth Labour on their win. They have been gracious on a personal level, for which they deserve credit. As the new Opposition, it’s our job to hold them politely — and relentlessly — to account for their promises to Wandsworth’s residents.

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

10 May

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

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

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

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

Welsh council reserves increase during the pandemic

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

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

The Council Tax rebate is an utter shambles

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

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

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

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

Daniel Thomas: On the doorsteps of Barnet, I’m hearing more complaints about the Mayor of London than about the PM

28 Apr

Cllr Daniel Thomas is the Leader of Barnet Council.

Journalists like to ask how the Prime Minister is affecting conversations on the doorstep. The truth is, I’m hearing more complaints about Sadiq Khan than Boris Johnson. Khan has racked up City Hall council tax by almost nine per cent. The Mayor has made parts of Barnet feel unsafe due to under-policing. Now he wants to clobber outer-London motorists with ULEZ and pay-per-mile. Whether we like it or not, the Mayor is an integral part of local government in London which means his policies and their consequences are fair game in this election.

Sir Keir Starmer launched Labour’s local election campaign in Barnet, but all he could talk about was ‘partygate’, anything but his own party’s atrocious track record in town halls across London. In Barnet, we are surrounded by Labour-run councils, all of which have higher council tax, fewer bin collections, lower educational attainment, and are hell-bent on penalising motorists. The car is essential for outer-London radial travel, yet Labour boroughs are imposing LTNs and raking in fines from confused drivers. Enfield has already raised £4 million which will no doubt be spent on more unused segregated cycle lanes.

Labour-run Harrow reached the shameful milestone of exceeding £2,000 for Band D council tax. Barnet charges almost £300 less. How can Labour councillors and Mayors say they’re concerned about the cost of living whilst taking more money from local taxpayers? I welcomed Government funding for the £150 council tax rebate (on behalf of 80,000 Barnet households); Labour and Lib Dem councillors did so through gritted teeth.

As for levelling up, decades ago we took the brave decision to knock down our worst council estates and start again. New social housing was paid for from the proceeds of new private housing. We even managed to fund new schools and community centres. I knew it was a success when I heard a Labour councillor complain that a regeneration area “would not be deprived for much longer” when we agreed to build new council offices there. The new developments are no longer concentrations of poverty; they are mixed vibrant communities that residents, private and social, are proud of. The difference between our aspiration and Labour’s desire to keep everyone as a client of the state could not be more stark than it is in Barnet.

The most uncertain aspect of this election is the new ward boundaries. My view is that we still have more routes to retain control than Labour, which explains why they’re targeting Conservative strongholds. There are enough seats within the obvious marginal wards for Labour to win control, but they need to win all of them at the same time, something they’ve never achieved. The fact they’re targeting longshots reveals that they’re not confident of their chances in all the marginal wards. This is understandable given that we won a seat from Labour in a by-election last year and one of their wards turned blue at the London Assembly elections.

Harry Fone: Nearly 3,000 council officials are on six figure pay packages – including rewards for failure

26 Apr

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

The latest edition of the TPA’s Town Hall Rich List 2022 gave a fascinating insight into senior staff remuneration at local authorities during the pandemic. At least 2,921 town hall bosses received in excess of £100,000 in 2020-21, an increase of 119 on the previous year. Jo Negrini, former chief executive of Croydon council, topped the remuneration charts with a jaw-dropping £613,895 – a stunning reward for failure if ever there was one.

Leaving the headline-grabbing stats to one side for a moment though, there are other areas of the research that deserve more attention. At the time of publication, 25 local authorities failed to produce draft or audited accounts. (As an aside, you probably won’t be surprised to know that Slough is still yet to file accounts for the last two financial years.) This is three times higher than our 2021 edition of the Rich List. Covid will likely have a role to play but given this is a statutory responsibility I urge these councils to get their act together. Transparency and accountability matter to taxpayers.

On a more positive note, it’s great to see that authorities are sharing chief executives and senior staff. At least 20 did so in 2020-21 and I hope the number will be even higher next year. The savings to the taxpayer are obvious. Far better to pay one executive £150,000 to take on two roles, than two executives paid £100,000 each for example.

There’s always money for pet projects

A common soundbite from councils is that there is “no more fat left to trim” or their budgets have been “cut to the bone” and council tax has to increase to make up the shortfall. Of course, there have been cuts in central government funding which have increased the pressures on councils. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that as TPA research shows local authorities were still increasing council tax before the age of so-called ‘austerity’.

Similarly, I find it hard to believe some councils’ claims, especially when they manage to find tens of millions of pounds for shiny vanity projects. In 2019, the then leader of Durham County Council, Simon Henig, said:

“It is becoming more and more difficult to deliver the savings we need to make as Government funding cuts continue to bite.” 

Yet in that same year, construction started on a new £50 million council HQ. Latest reports suggest that the newly elected leadership will sell the building to the local university (hopefully for a profit). Leaving the future of the building aside, how can it be that, on the one hand, as stated by Henig, the council was facing “further unprecedented reductions in funding”, yet gave the go-ahead to a costly new office block?

Councils increasingly out of touch with the electorate

With the huge financial challenges facing millions of households at the moment, you would think that councillors would do whatever they can to ease the burden. I was shocked to read that some authorities are still awarding themselves an increase in allowances and refusing to rein in senior staff pay.

In Wolverhampton, members will receive an increase to their basic allowances of 17 per cent. Combined with a jump in special responsibility allowances, the council leader will see his pay packet shoot up by £3,700. Meanwhile, residents have endured a 3.4 per cent increase in council tax, taking a band D bill to £2,074.

So too at Norfork County Council where an increase of 1.75 per cent in allowances looks set to get the go-ahead despite a 3 per cent rise in rates. In Cherwell, Oxfordshire, a remuneration report has suggested aligning an increase in allowances with the cost of living. I wonder how locals feel about that, given they were stung by a 4.7 per cent increase in council tax this year and stagnating wage growth.

In Gateshead, an opposition amendment to freeze senior staff pay was rejected with one councillor claiming it sent the “wrong message at the wrong time”.

With local elections fast approaching, I’d urge candidates to take a stand on this issue. While I’m sure some councillors work very hard for their constituents, it’s disgraceful that allowances are being hiked off the back of tax increases. I suspect attempts to curb remuneration and allowances will prove very popular with the electorate.

Meirion Jenkins: Birmingham Conservatives pledge to scrap the travel tax which charges motorists to drive into the city

25 Apr

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

The battle is well and truly joined for the UK’s second city and largest metropolitan authority in Europe. Birmingham starts with much stronger Conservative representation than any other core city and therefore the best possibility of the Conservatives taking control. We last ran Birmingham up to 2012 in conjunction with the Lib Dems. We need all the help we can get though; anyone willing to help can contact me directly on 07792 731556 or via Twitter and I’ll connect you with one of our many campaigning sessions.

Our campaign and manifesto, which launched this week, has three central themes: clean up the city; fix the roads; and protect green spaces. We will do this whilst keeping council tax low, because the point of being a Conservative is to reduce tax and let people keep and spend their own money, which they will always do far more efficiently than the state.

When campaigning in 2012, Labour promised not to increase council tax. After 10 years of a disastrous Labour administration, we have seen council tax increase by 39 per cent with another maximum increase (without a referendum) this year. I have been an opposition councillor throughout this time and observed a litany of financial and project management failures, many laughable were it not for the abject waste of public money they involve.

Our alternative budget this year would have frozen council tax as opposed to Labour’s maximum increase of 2.99 per cent. Even with this increase, Labour is still not able to present a balanced budget at the time of the election and we believe that, without a change in policy, they will need a further 31 per cent increase to balance the books. We will pledge to increase the number of higher band properties, thereby increasing the council tax collection without the need to increase rates associated with each band. We will bring top quality properties to the city centre, the type of private properties that residents will clamour to purchase. The quality of these properties would not be out of place in Belgravia or 5th Avenue.

Then there are the officer payoffs, with one secret compromise agreement after another and the revolving door of senior officer appointments. With secrecy built into Labour’s DNA, even committees charged with risk scrutiny, such as audit, are denied access to relevant information, notwithstanding that full council even passed a motion saying that there should be no areas off limits to audit committee, which the Labour administration has simply ignored. We even have, and I assure this is true, the Labour chief whip as the chair of audit committee; a hopelessly conflicted position. If elected, we will follow government guidance and bring all payoffs in excess of £100,000 to full council. This way, councillors will take responsibility and be accountable to their electorate.

The Conservative Group on Birmingham City Council is offering a manifesto with a broad range of measures that we know have widespread support amongst the citizenry of Birmingham. First and foremost, we will reverse the disastrous travel tax which charges motorists to drive into the city. This tax has even been opposed by a local Labour MP and of course many local businesses and workers who have no choice but to drive into the city for work. It is especially unpopular with night time workers, who can find themselves having to pay twice if their shift crosses over midnight! In the ultimate example of ‘wooden dollars’, even the Labour administration must charge itself when its non-compliant waste vehicles cross into the zone. The Conservatives have presented proposals to achieve the city’s clean air targets without this damaging tax on hardworking motorists. Our innovative ideas include the introduction of clean air filters at bus stops. Low traffic neighbourhoods and Labour’s crazy plan to close the A38 tunnels will also be scrapped. In order to boost local centres, we will provide free car parking in council owned car parks. We will build new car parks at hospitals so that people can visit their loved ones without having to worry about parking charges – besides, it’s not like they don’t pay enough already for the NHS. We will reverse Labour’s policy of restricting or entirely blocking parking provision with new developments.

Labour fails Birmingham on the basic functions people expect of a council. Waste collection is highly variable, often with whole streets missed for several weeks. There have been more than 500,000 missed bin collections since 2017, although the farcical way Labour measures this means that this figure does not include cases where whole roads, or even whole routes, have been missed but only where an individual resident has reported a missed collection for their one household. It’s no wonder my inbox is populated with complaints every week. If elected, we will seek to redesign the whole service. However, to provide a quick fix for the worst problems, we will instigate automatic reporting where whole roads have been missed and local neighbourhood clean-up crews as a flying squad to deal with waste collection failures.

Our second main theme, and another basic function of the council is fixing potholes. Birmingham gets paid a £1m a week by the government to maintain our roads but the roads of Birmingham are in a dreadful state. The Birmingham roads contract was working fairly well for its first two years when the Tories ran the council. But for the last ten years Labour has made a right mess of the contract, with endless disputes and a court case against the original contractor Amey. If elected, we will return sound management to this contract.

We will establish a business support desk. This will be a dedicated ‘hot line’ to the Leader’s office, co-ordinating assistance for businesses expanding or investing for the first time in Birmingham. In the past, investment has gone elsewhere when the city failed to properly support and respond to requests for assistance from potential investors.

Schools across Birmingham are mixed. There are some very good schools but the best have a distorting effect on property prices and other things as parents desperately try to acquire property within certain catchment areas. We will address this by encouraging applications to set up new free schools, particularly in areas that are currently poorly served. In order to receive a council house in Birmingham, residents will need to satisfy our 5-year residency rule, thereby mandating a local connection.

We will support the government’s initiative to provide face to face GP visits for those that need them. GP by Zoom undoubtedly works for many, and that’s fine, but nothing is ever going to be a substitute for a face-to-face consultation when needed.

Protection of green space is the third main theme of our manifesto. Labour has shown a disregard for green space; under their leadership 50 hectares of green infrastructure have been lost, the equivalent of 93 football pitches. We will adopt a brownfield-first building policy and stop their plans for destroying the city’s valuable park land. One of the most egregious examples and a narrow escape, was that of Dugdale Crescent in my own ward. Labour sought to build houses on a village green. Named after Sir William Dugdale, who fought at Edge Hill in 1642, it really is hard to think of a less appropriate place to build. A magnificent effort by the residents over three plus years saw the land designated as a village green in March this year when I supported the residents at a meeting of the Licensing Committee which unanimously granted the application. This protects against future development.

Once again, we need all the help we can get. Anyone willing to help can contact me directly on 07792 731556 and I’ll connect you with one of our many campaigning sessions.

 

Sam Rowlands: Welsh local councils need change, and only the Conservatives can deliver it

20 Apr

Saw Rowlands is the Welsh Conservative Member of the Senedd for North Wales and Shadow Minister for Local Government

Voters in Wales are facing a simple choice when they head to the polling stations to decide who they want to run their local authority on May 5th. They can choose to extend the ongoing record of failure from Labour and Plaid Cymru. Or they can vote  for meaningful change to build stronger and safer communities with the Welsh Conservatives.

When we launched our campaign in North Wales, we were proud to announce that we are fielding the largest ever number of candidates in the upcoming local election. With nearly 670 local Welsh Conservative champions campaigning to win seats up and down the country, more people than ever before will be able to vote Welsh Conservative – building on our record number of MPs and MSs.

For far too long, our hardworking councils have been neglected and starved of much-needed financial help by Labour – something I’ve seen first-hand as a former council leader. The Welsh Conservatives have a clear plan to empower local people, enable businesses to thrive, create a healthier Wales and deliver fair funding for local authorities.

We want to see local people take control of the future of their communities. We understand that they are the best placed to decide what their area needs – not the government. After more than two decades of devolution, many people – the Welsh Conservatives included – fear that power is being trapped in Cardiff Bay or undemocratic regional bodies, rather than being relinquished to councils.

That needs to change. We want to see communities come together and create Local Neighbourhood Plans so that local people can take the lead on where new housing and services should be built. A council controlled by the Welsh Conservatives would work hand-in-hand with communities to protect local services and give residents a chance to save their local pub, library, and shop from unwanted development through the Community Ownership Fund.

Many people explored areas of their towns and villages that they never knew existed throughout the pandemic. Previously neglected parks and beauty spots were bustling with people. People should be proud to live and work in their communities, but all too often our towns are blighted with anti-social behaviour. That’s why the Welsh Conservatives would work with the police to tackle problems such as fly-tipping, graffiti and dog mess – which would in turn attract more investment and entice more visitors.

Roads plagued by potholes and cracked pavements are major problems in many of our towns which leave people with damaged cars and sometimes serious injuries. Welsh Conservatives believe it’s high time we started investing in our roads and pedestrian areas to make sure they are up scratch.

Local businesses are at the centre of our communities. They boost the economy by providing jobs for people and giving residents somewhere to meet. But they have been persistently let down by Labour. Our high streets are being left to go to wrack and ruin under the pressure of the highest business rates in Great Britain.

We want to see businesses thrive – not just survive – and our essential tourism sector boom as we start to build back from the pandemic. We would look at scrapping car parking fees at weekends so those who cannot use Wales’ crumbling public transport network are supported and not ignored.

Over the last two decades, the cost of living has increased with council tax in Wales rising by nearly 200% – adding a huge £900 to the average household bill. At the same time, pay packets have only gone up by 78%, widening the gap with weekly pay packets for Welsh workers £60 lighter compared to other parts of the UK. Welsh Conservatives, both at a national and local level, have long campaigned for action for fairer funding across Wales to stop Labour from financially depriving communities.

There is no doubt that council staff and councillors went above and beyond throughout the pandemic to ensure vital services carried on running. Despite the unprecedented challenges, and against a backdrop of historic underfunding, our councils pulled out all the stops to help local communities. It’s only right that councils across Wales are properly financially equipped to deal with the ever-increasing pressures they are faced with.

In the Senedd, the Welsh Conservatives have made repeated calls for the current funding formula to be reviewed as it is simply not fit for purpose as it stands. Unfortunately our calls have been ignored, but that won’t stop us pushing for change. Welsh Conservative councillors would work with our colleagues in the Senedd to carry on the campaign while also ensuring value for money for taxpayers.

A Welsh Conservative council would deliver the essential services residents rely on and work with neighbouring authorities in a bid to cut costs and improve services. For far too long, Labour– and their nationalist pals in Plaid – have taken Wales for granted and think that they know best – rather than trust local people.

It’s crucial that voters remember these elections are about local issues. It’s about making sure bins are collected, potholes are filled, dangerous pavements are repaired, and people receive the education and social services they deserve. The Welsh Conservatives want to work with residents, businesses, community groups, and other partners to build stronger and safer communities across the country.

It’s time for change, and only by voting for local Welsh Conservative champions on May 5th can people take control of their communities’ future.

Oliver Dowden: In the local elections, choose a better deal for your area – vote Conservative

20 Apr

Oliver Dowden is Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party and Member of Parliament for Hertsmere.

We are living in historic but challenging times. A global pandemic followed by war in Europe have left us with rising inflation and rocketing energy costs.

The effects are being felt across Britain, every time someone fills up their car, does their weekly shop, or opens their monthly bills.

So the cost of living is the first thing people want to talk about when I knock on doors. Across the country the questions are the same. How am I going to afford to get through the next year? How are you going to help me?

My answer – as I embark today on another tour of crucial council seats, including in Staffordshire, Edinburgh, the Scottish Borders, Northumberland and Newcastle – remains the same. There is something very simple you can do right now to keep your cost of living down: vote Conservative at the local elections on May 5.

Conservative councils charge the lowest taxes in the country, yet they deliver more.

You can see the evidence on your street – Conservatives recycle more waste than Labour and fix four times as many potholes. And you can see it in how they care for the young and vulnerable, with the only children’s services rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted being those run by Conservatives.

How are we able to do this? For a start we have a better record of collecting the taxes that are owed, so hardworking people don’t have to subsidise those who don’t pay.

But more than that: we get the big calls right and take the difficult decisions needed to grow our economy.

Thanks to our strong economic stewardship we have been able to give residents a veto over excessive council tax increases and, this year, offer households a £150 rebate.

And at the same time we have increased government funding to councils faster than at any point in the past decade. That is enabling them to help level up the country, spreading opportunity far and wide.

In fact, councils are at the forefront of that mission, giving people the skills they need, building the homes they want to buy, regenerating the local areas they live in, and, ultimately, ensuring they don’t have to sell their homes if they need care in the future.

We have been able to go further on the cost of living too, offering a record increase in the living wage, cutting fuel duty, reducing the universal credit taper rate, and delivering the biggest net cut in people’s taxes in a quarter of a century.

Behind this lies the age-old Conservative principle of cutting people’s taxes to make work pay. I’ve always been clear that the single best answer to the cost of living is more better-paid jobs.

But these things just would not be happening if the Prime Minister had not made the big calls through the pandemic. The fact that we protected jobs, rolled out the fastest vaccination programme in Europe, and opened up when we did has meant that our GDP has grown faster than any other country in the G7, and unemployment is back down to pre-pandemic levels.

I well remember the difficult decisions we as a Cabinet had to take in the run up to Christmas, where Labour, the Liberal Democrats and others were demanding we push Britain back into lockdown. And now the outcome of that decision is clear: we were right and they were wrong.

Labour’s management of local government is what you’d expect from a party who doubled council tax when they were in power. Today, they charge the highest rates in the country. Some examples are eye watering – £2,000 a year for the residents of Hyndburn, where the average house price is £91,000.

Wales have it worse; council tax has trebled there under Labour. The party even wants to make lone parents, widows and widowers pay more, with their proposals to scrap the single person discount.

Meanwhile Labour have driven local authorities to the brink of bankruptcy while giving their councillors above-inflation pay rises. More often than not, hard-earned taxpayers’ cash is wasted on dodgy investments and woke vanity projects, like pulling down statues and renaming streets.

Perhaps “Rip-Off Road” or “Squander Street” would work in the Labour-run borough of Merton, where residents pay a whopping £900 more a year than their neighbours in Conservative-controlled Wandsworth.

It’s a similar story with Lib Dem councils, who have the distinction of being the first party to charge more than £2,000 for council tax in London, in Kingston. That is more than double what residents pay in Westminster. Pity those in Teignbridge and North Devon who are forced to spend more than ten per cent of the average salary there on their local rates.

In Scotland, the SNP have removed the cap altogether, giving councillors carte blanche to jack up taxes.

When it comes to the choice before us at these elections, our councillors’ desire for value, efficiency and lower taxes is what sets us apart from the others. We want to give working people the freedom to spend their own money.

Indeed, freedom is a thread that runs through all we do.

We are strong on defence and tough on crime because we want people to their lives free from fear and tyranny. We take a common-sense line on issues of culture and identity because we want people to be able to live their lives how they wish, but also to know that they can speak their minds without being descended upon by woke warriors.

For those on the left, government knows best. But our trust is, and always has been, in people.

We know we face challenges in this set of elections: we have been in government for more than a decade and that we are at a ‘mid term’ stage which is always tough. Increasingly people are saying to me that they are sick of hearing about Westminster politics and just want to see politicians focused on what is happening in their lives where they live.

That’s why our message is that we are getting on with the job of delivering on the people’s priorities. What will make a difference in today’s cost of living crisis is not political games in SW1, but who runs your town hall.

And that’s why we need to help hardworking local Conservatives get elected again across the country in May.

So this is my message. At a time of rising costs, why risk paying more for less with Labour and the Lib Dems when you can get a better deal with the Conservatives? You can make that difference, by voting Conservative on May 5.

Harry Fone: Over half of households face Council Tax bills of over £2,000 – as waste and extravagance continues

5 Apr

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

There was little to joke about on April Fool’s Day as a cacophony of Council Tax rises and cost of living increases hit millions of households. Almost every household across the nation will be suffering another year of Council Tax rises.

Although the average tax rise of £67 (excluding the £150 rebate) in England for 2022-23 wasn’t as severe as last year’s at £81, it still places a greater burden on millions of people trying to make ends meet every month. I’ve pored through the Council Tax data from England, Scotland and Wales to see which areas of the country are feeling the squeeze most.

At a national level, on average, you’re better off living in Scotland when it comes to Council Tax. In England, a typical bill comes in at £1,966 and in Wales, £1,777. Scots will pay just £1,336. Despite Scottish authorities having no cap on increases this year, the largest was a fairly modest four per cent in Falkirk. 22 out of 32 Scottish councils opted for a three per cent rise. Only one, Shetland, froze Council Tax. It also had the lowest bills in Scotland. Residents in Midlothian faced the highest charges at £1,442.

In Wales, there are encouraging signs that the days of double-digit Council Tax rises may be over. The highest percentage increase was recorded in Pembrokeshire at five per cent. The average rise across the country was just 2.2 per cent. Blaenau Gwent topped the charts with the highest Council Tax bill at £2,099 – over £500 higher than neighbouring Caerphilly. Bridgend wins the award for lowest percentage increase in Council Tax at 0.7 per cent. While there’s better news from Wales this year, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the Welsh Government has unleashed new regulations that could see Council Tax bills skyrocketing on second homes.

In England it’s a mixed picture, but purely in terms of Council Tax bills you’re better off living in the capital. On average, London boroughs were £334 cheaper than the rest of the country. In fact, if you omit these authorities from the data, the average Band D bill in England climbs past £2,000. Mapping council tax bills shows that it’s households in the South West, East Midlands, and North East that are enduring some of the biggest Council Tax bills.

This year Rutland knocked Nottingham off the top spot to claim the highest Band D bill in England and indeed Great Britain. Since 2018 Rutland has climbed from seventh spot and bills are now hitting £2,300. In the last five years its average Council Tax rise has been 4.4 per cent. If the trend continues, residents in Rutland will be paying just shy of £3,000 for a Band D bill in 2028. Those in Band H could be forking out close to £6,000 a year in Council Tax.

Mercifully bills aren’t at £3,000 yet but an ever greater number of households are paying in excess of £2,000. For 2022-23, 171 local authorities (55 per cent) have achieved this lamentable state of affairs. Just four years ago, not one single council in England had a Band D bill greater than £2,000. Looking at the bigger picture, since 1993-94, Council Tax has increased by 246 per cent in cash terms.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. As I wrote in my last column, some councils are bucking the trend. I’m pleased to see that in total seven have frozen bills and two managed to cut taxes for residents. Of those that froze bills, six were district councils with Southampton being the only unitary council. Residents of Wandsworth had the second lowest Council Tax in the country and also enjoyed a one per cent cut.

Sadly the cost of living crisis doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. That’s why at the TaxPayers’ Alliance we implore councils to be relentless on eradicating wasteful spending. As we’ve consistently shown, there is plenty more fat left to trim. Councils like Wandsworth, Southampton, and Harlow, are proof that bills don’t always have to go up. A rise of just two per cent next year will see the average Council Tax bill in England soar past £2,000. Authorities up and down the land must do everything possible to spare their residents yet more punishing tax hikes.