James Kerr: The people of Falkirk are abandoning the Labour Party

7 Jan

Cllr James Kerr is the Leader of the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Group on Falkirk Council.

Falkirk, a council area in the heart of Scotland, a northern outpost of the Roman Empire and the cradle of the Industrial Revolution in Scotland. The Carron Company, established in 1759 produced the carronades which contributed to the success of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Other iron foundries in the area produced telephone and pillar boxes not only for the UK but for across the Empire and beyond – and to this day Falkirk is still producing buses that can be seen in many of the world’s major cities. One of the largest petrochemical plants in Europe is also within the council area at Grangemouth.

Perhaps not surprisingly, for decades Falkirk was just another part of Labour`s Scottish fiefdom where votes were weighed rather than counted and where complacency followed countless successes at both Parliamentary and local elections.

The first signs of bricks being knocked out of Labour`s wall pre-date the switch to the STV voting system in 2007. Increasing SNP support, and Conservatives making inroads in towns like Grangemouth, should have warned Labour that Falkirk was looking for change.

Many of its old industries had gone and tourism-based projects such as  the re-opening of canals, building of the Falkirk Wheel and of the Kelpies, showed that the 21st century had brought a new Falkirk. The election of 2007 put Labour into a minority situation where to get anything passed they had to gain Conservative and Independent support. Some readers, particularly south of the border, may find it strange that Tories preferred to keep Labour in office, albeit on a tight rein but just like Falkirk, Scotland was changing.

2007 also saw something that Labour never thought could happen, the SNP for the first time, and by a single seat, became the largest party in the Scottish Parliament – and have, over the decade and a half since, proven impossible to dislodge.

The local elections in 2017 brought Falkirk Tories their best ever result, winning seven seats to Labour`s nine – the SNP gaining 12 and the Independents two. Labour went into a huff and would not work with anyone so the SNP took minority control despite them being nowhere near a majority. The result has been a weak administration, unable to pass major policies – and due to its inability to reach out has caused an opportunity for parties that can work together.

Labour`s current weakness in Scotland creates a void that can only be filled by Conservatives; we had near misses in two of Falkirk`s nine wards in 2017 and we will be working hard to win seats in both, but that is still not enough; 9 out of 30 is not where we want to be. We must be bold and in some wards put up two candidates; Labour themselves feel that five or six seats will be their maximum so to prevent the nightmare of an SNP majority risks will have to be taken.

Last autumn the resignation of a Labour councillor caused a by-election in the Falkirk South Ward, a three-member ward won by the SNP in 2017 by over 200 votes more than the Conservatives. Labour won the third seat 300 further back. In October not only did our excellent candidate, Sarah Patrick, come within 16 votes of overhauling the SNP on first preferences but increased our vote by almost seven per cent. Interestingly Labour voters favoured the Conservatives over the SNP with their 2nd preferences.

Whilst we take positives out of the result we certainly are not resting on our laurels; we unexpectedly lost out to a much improved SNP targeting of postal voters which gave them the edge. We are, of course, working to address this issue as unlike Labour we know that every vote has to be earned; our councillors have worked hard to gain the local profile over the last five years that is vital to show them as not only part of the community, but fighting for the community.

Whilst it is impossible in any Scottish election to totally avoid the constitutional angle, we fully intend to show why local voters should support our policies on local issues; we have exciting ideas and look forward to May without complacency but confident that we will again increase the number of seats we hold and yet again deny the SNP control.

Having just signed a £90m growth deal, from the UK and Scottish Government’s. Which brings approximately 2,000 new jobs. This is essential for every area of the Falkirk district.

Each of the nine wards has their challenges. Many feel the area has been left behind. Some families are choosing between keeping their homes warm or providing enough food on the table. We need to speak to, and for, them all.

Harry Fone: The financial situation in Slough is even worse than thought

10 Aug

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

A recent Slough Council meeting has further highlighted how desperate its financial situation is. In a presentation to members, the new Section 151 officer, Steven Mair, focussed attention on borrowing. In 2015-16, Slough’s debt was a seemingly manageable £1,200 per head of population. But in just five years it had more than quadrupled to £5,000.

Most interesting of all, is the council’s Minimum Revenue Provision (the minimum amount that must be charged to an authority’s revenue account each year for financing of capital expenditure). Slough should have somewhere in the region of £15 million allocated for this; it has just £40,000. The situation looks bleak. Not only does it have to find the cash to plug this hole, but the authority will likely have to convert short-term borrowing into long-term borrowing which is estimated to cost an additional £6 million per year. Currently, 20 per cent of the council’s budget is spent on debt charges.

Another factor that looks set to make matters even worse is rising inflation which could inflict yet more damage on debt repayment. No wonder Cllr Wayne Strutton, Leader of the Conservative opposition, is calling for the previous Section 151 officer, Neil Wilcox, to face questioning from council members. Wilcox is under no obligation to do so, but I hope will take up the offer. Unfortunately, as things stand the cuts to frontline services will likely be even greater than originally forecast.

A load of rubbish 

Controversy abounds in Stirling, Scotland after the council announced plans to move to four-weekly bin collections. Rubbish and recycling isn’t exactly the sexiest topic in politics but it is one aspect of local government where taxpayers can easily see firsthand what their tax pays for.

The council claims the reduction in collections will save money and be beneficial to the environment. However, documents from a council show that the waste services budget will actually increase from £8.58 million to £9.47 million by 2025-26 – this is despite cuts and things like garden waste charges.

As for the environmental side of things, the case doesn’t look watertight either. Falkirk Council is currently the only other local authority in Scotland to operate a four-weekly landfill bin collection which was introduced in 2016. Figures reveal that the switch from a two-weekly collection has led to a decline in recycling from 55.2 per cent in 2013 to 53 per cent in 2019. It can’t be ignored either that residents may end up making more car journeys to the tip and increased fly-tipping can’t be ruled out either.

It’s no surprise that many taxpayers are annoyed about these new plans. Stirling has the eighth highest Council Tax bill in Scotland at £1,344.29 (Band D) causing many local residents to question if they are getting value for money. Once again it’s a case of paying top dollar and not getting the frontline services that residents deserve.

Council Tax rises and inflation

As I alluded to with Slough Council, inflation could be the next ticking time bomb when it comes to local authority debt. So I was eager to find out how English Council Tax bills have fared since 1993 when adjusted for inflation. Using government data I recalculated Council Tax figures from 1993-94 into their 2021-22 equivalents and the results are quite interesting.

As is true today, the lowest Council Tax bill in 1993-94 was in Westminster at £749. Average bills have only increased by £80 since then to £829. Conversely, the highest bill in 1993-94 belonged to Newcastle upon Tyne at £2,013 but bills have only risen by a mere £10 since then. Newcastle upon Tyne, Greenwich, Manchester, Haringey and Liverpool made up the top five for highest council bills in the country in 1993-94. Compare that today where the top five consist of Nottingham, Dorset, Rutland, Lewes, and Newark & Sherwood.

The top five highest percentage increases in real terms went to Huntingdonshire (79.9 per cent), Hambleton (77.5 per cent), Hinckley & Bosworth (75.8 per cent), Tewkesbury (75.5 per cent) and South Cambridgeshire (74.9 per cent). The five lowest were, Wandsworth (-25.9 per cent), Greenwich (-17.6 per cent), Hammersmith & Fulham (-14.3 per cent), Hackney (-9.8 per cent) and Islington (-7.5 per cent). Between 1993-94 and 2021-22 only 12 councils have seen a real-terms decrease in Council Tax. Of those Manchester was the only council outside of London to see a reduction in bills.

The overwhelming majority of Council Taxpayers have seen year after year of inflation-busting council tax rises. This data shows exactly why the TaxPayers’ Alliance calls for councils to start a War on Waste. All too many households are seeing bills shoot up and receiving sub-par services.