Localism was always a con game

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Localism was nothing more than a sound bite, created for the benefit of the media. It was also designed to con an increasingly unhappy and non-voting public, in to thinking that things were going to change for the better, when it came to local decision making.

There can be little doubt that the public have now realised that they’ve been conned, but worryingly, they don’t actually seem to care that much. Using local elections, as a way of sending a message to the government of the day, is something of a tradition in this country and may well indicate the true feelings of the majority of people when it come to local government in general and their local councils in particular.

Perhaps it’s time for political parties to bow out of any further involvement in local government. Why not require all councils to run elections without any party political logos or emblems on the ballot papers, as in the case of parish councils?

Once elected, councillors would be required to form alliances in order to form an administration. Without party politics in the mix, the public would be required to focus on the performance of the people in charge and not the political party they belong to. This isn’t a plea for proportional representation by the way, as I don’t support that, given it’s continued linkage with Party based politics.

Those who chose to form alliances and work together,min order to get each other elected and subsequently form an administration, would still be elected on their own merit and the reputation they had gained with the local electorate, not just the fact that they belonged to a particular political party, that a particular element of the electorate supports come what may. It may be something of an exaggeration, but it is suggested that some dyed in the wool voters, would vote for a gate post as long as it had their Party’s emblem on it!

An added bonus from such a system, would be the dismantling of the political party associations. These tend to be made up of those who have to be in them by default, because they are standing for election under that particular party emblem. This requirement gives some prospective parliamentary candidates a standing workforce (in theory at least), that other, non-party political candidates, don’t enjoy. Breaking the link between MPs and local government, would probably be good for the democratic process in more way than we can imagine!

Now to the point of this post and an LGC comment that partially echoes a previous posting of mine.

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Why Labour should not support council tax referendums
Don’t sacrifice localism on the altar of spending restraint
20 March 2014 | By Nick Golding

So who doesn’t expect Ukip to be the big winner of the local government elections, which are being held on the same day as their European counterparts?

One of the main reasons that a party set up to oppose the European Union will win seats on numerous councils is that the electorate is indifferent to voting for candidates representing regular parties who may have local policies but lack the ability to implement them.

Central government imposes cuts on councils without regard to local need and councillors have seen their powers over issues such as planning and education whittled away to the point of impotence. With representative democracy looking this unhealthy, one can understand someone’s rationale for using the local elections to make a bold statement about an issue largely unrelated to local politics or indeed not voting at all.

So the question arises of how local democracy can be reinvigorated. It is clearly an issue shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn has given much contemplation.

In his LGC interview this week, Mr Benn proposes the extension of city deals to counties, ensuring power is devolved in more places, making it more worthwhile to vote in them. The same is true of his promise that councils will get a significant role in commissioning back-to-work schemes.

However, Mr Benn says Labour is likely to retain council tax referendums, forcing locally elected politicians to navigate a prohibitively expensive and risky hurdle if they seek to safeguard services by raising bills above an arbitrary limit imposed from afar by a minister. To date no council has successfully pursued this path.

Mr Benn says the impetus to keep bills low brought about by the referendum policy will help people suffering due to the “cost of living crisis”. While it is true that council tax bills cost people dear, so too do service cuts that have had their worst impact on society’s most vulnerable. And so do opportunities to drive growth that are missed because councils lack the resources to lead on projects to create jobs.

Eric Pickles regards the council tax referendum as a device to secure democracy. Well, if that is true, will the government commit to holding polls every time a decision is required on the expenditure it controls? More likely, ministers will argue their government is the democratic representative of the people, entrusted to make tough decisions on their behalf. The same argument applies to local government.

Councillors should take decisions on local public expenditure, facing grief at the ballot box if they prove unpopular. Referendums only muddy the waters of local democracy, introducing a semblance of people power which hinders representative democracy. The fact that they are only applicable to a minute portion of public expenditure – one of the few slithers of spending not centrally controlled – makes them a democratic illusion.

The council tax referendum is a bellwether issue when it comes to local democracy. In this case Labour has sacrificed localism on the altar of spending restraint.

Nick Golding, editor, LGC

Another hidden tax on the council taxpayer is set to increase

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LGA calls on chancellor to freeze landfill tax
7 March, 2014 | By Chris Smith

The chancellor has been urged to freeze the landfill tax as part of this month’s budget by council leaders.

Ahead of George Osbourne’s keynote speech on 19 March, the LGA claimed landfill tax had achieved its purpose and warned any increase would punish hard-pressed families.

Mr Osborne was urged to keep landfill tax at its present rate of £72 per tonne and to redistribute revenue to local taxpayers.

The tax, paid by businesses, is set to increase to £80 per tonne in April and the money raised goes into central government funding.

The LGA warned the costs would be passed by on to residents and claimed each household would pay £30 towards landfill tax in 2014-15.

Mike Jones (Con), chair of the LGA’s environment and housing board, said: “Instead of using the receipts from the tax to boost recycling technologies and reward residents for the gains made in recycling levels, the Treasury has held on to receipts. We need a clear indication from the chancellor that this tax will be frozen at its present rate, with the money raised from it returned to taxpayers and invested in growth.”

Planning and highways spending slashed

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29 August, 2013 | By Ruth Keeling

Planning and highways have seen the largest reductions in spending, according to the latest local government financial data published on Thursday.

Expenditure on planning services fell by 13.2% between 2011-12 and 2012-13 while spending on highways and transport services fell by 9.5% over the same period.

The cut in spending on services linked to growth, a number one priority for the government, contrasts with much smaller cuts in social care spending and increases in spending on housing benefit costs.

The LGA has previously warned that the combination of growing demand for social care services and significant funding cuts would mean spending in other areas, such as planning and highways, would be squeezed harder and harder.

Social care spending fell by just 0.2%. However that masked a different story for children’s social care, where spending increased by 2.8%, and adult social care, where spending fell by 1.4%.

Other areas of increased spending were housing benefit costs, which increased by almost 5%.

Although education spending fell by 7.7%, government statisticians warned that comparisons should not be made over the two years because the reduction was caused by academies leaving local authority control.

While total revenue expenditure fell by 5% between 2011-12 and 2012-13, the reduction was just 0.2% once changes to education responsibilities and funding were removed from the comparison.

The figures also show that councils increased their reserve levels by £1.7bn, not including a £0.9bn addition to the Greater London Authority’s reserves.

However, there were a quarter of councils which did not add to reserves and ended the year with less in the bank.

Early figures reveal cuts of 16% for some councils

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8 August, 2013 | By Ruth Keeling

Councils forced to revamp their savings plans after early sight of their individual funding allocations revealed cuts as high as 16% in 2015-16.

The indicative allocation figures, released last month by the Department for Communities & Local Government, have caused alarm within local government which had expected cuts of around 10%.

Councils suffering the deepest cuts have warned they could now be pushed towards a ‘doom’ scenario where services would have to be closed and vital growth plans ditched.

The extent of the cuts is the result of a series of ‘top slices’ taken from councils’ revenue support grant to fund central government programmes, such as the ‘Dilnot new burdens’ budget announced by the chancellor last month.

The hardest hit councils have been told their funding settlement assessment could fall by 16% in 2015-16. Only two authorities, Wokingham BC and Surrey CC, face cuts of less than 10%.

North Kesteven is among 69 councils facing a 16% cut. Deputy chief executive Alan Thomas said the authority might have to rethink its growth priorities. Its previous £1.75m saving plan will now have to be increased to £2.25m, equivalent to 15% of its £11.5m a year net budget.

Mr Thomas said the Conservative-run council might also review its existing policy of reserving New Homes Bonus payments for infrastructure spending. “I think we are going to have to take a different view of that now and use quite a bit of that New Homes Bonus to support core spending, otherwise we won’t be able to balance the books,” he said.

The authority was already reeling from the “absolutely devastating” government announcement that up to 35% of New Homes Bonus income will be handed to local enterprise partnerships from 2015-16, he added.

Districts and inner London boroughs were the hardest hit group of councils in 2015-16, facing 15% cuts on average. Outer London boroughs, metropolitan districts and unitaries face reductions of 14%; counties will see an average reduction of 13%.

David Huxtable (Con), cabinet member for resources at Somerset CC, which faces a 15% cut, said the reduction matched its most pessimistic plan and would have “a huge impact on services”.

He said: “We will have to stop doing things… We will only be looking after statutory services.”

While the early release of individual figures for 2015-16 has been welcomed, treasurers bodies are due to meet senior civil servants to discuss missing details in the coming months.

Brian Roberts, former president of the Society of County Treasurers and Leicestershire CC director of corporate resources, said: “Having these before the summer recess is very helpful. But there is still a lot of uncertainty.”

Money from a supermarket, or blood from a stone?

I received this email text today, it contains an intriguing idea, that seems almost too good to be true. A way of getting supermarkets to put something back into the communities from which they get so much!

I am contacting you to ask for your help regarding a new idea that would bring your Council more money.

The idea is based on legislation passed last year by the Northern Ireland Parliament to add a new levy on large supermarkets of 8.5% based on their current rateable value. Last year the Scottish Parliament passed similar legislation for a levy of 9.3%.

The idea is for English local authorities to be given the power to introduce a similar levy in their areas and to collect the revenue and spend it in ways they think would help local communities.

Evidence shows that the revenue from this levy has helped local businesses and communities in Northern Ireland and public services in Scotland.

Furthermore the concerns about this levy are unfounded: the British Retail Consortium have specifically said that the levy will not be passed on to customers, inward investment has increased in Northern Ireland and there would be a positive effect on employment.

Specifically, the proposal is:
“That the Secretary of State a) gives Local Authorities the power to introduce a local levy of 8.5% of the rate on large retail outlets in their area with a rateable annual value not less that £500,000; and b) requires that the revenue from this levy go directly to the Local Authority in order to be used to improve local communities in their areas by promoting local economic activity, local services and facilities, social and community wellbeing and environmental protection.”

The evidence for this and more is in the updated proposal here.

To date, 63 councils (of all party leaderships) have expressed serious interest in submitting this idea as a proposal under the Sustainable Communities Act. I very much hope that your council would be interested in joining them. We think this proposal now has a real chance of success and want to work with councils to help achieve it.

Could you please put forward a motion for your next Council meeting resolving to submit this proposal under the Sustainable Communities Act? Further below is a suggest version for convenience.

Please keep me informed of any progress on this matter. Please contact me if can provide any assistance with this. My contact details are directly below.

Kind regards
Steve Shaw
National Co-ordinator
Local Works – helping councils use the Sustainable Communities Act
office: 020 7278 4443 direct: 020 7239 9053 mobile: 07788 646 933website: http://www.localworks.org

SAMPLE MOTION
notes the request from ‘Local Works’ to consider submitting the following proposal to the government under the Sustainable Communities Act:
‘That the Secretary of State gives Local Authorities the power to introduce a local levy of 8.5% of the rate on large retail outlets in their area with a rateable annual value not less that £500,000 and requires that the revenue from this levy be retained by the Local Authority in order to be used to improve local communities in their areas by promoting local economic activity, local services and facilities, social and community wellbeing and environmental protection.’
The Council notes that if this power was acquired it would present the opportunity to raise further revenue for the benefit of local communities, should the Council wish to use it.
The Council resolves to submit the proposal to the government under the Sustainable Communities Act and to work together with Local Works to gain support for the proposal from other councils in the region and across the country.

Crisis leads to council tax referendum call

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30 May, 2013 | By Mark Smulian

Herefordshire Council could become the first to hold a council tax increase referendum after an emergency meeting over a budget crisis.

This followed a review by incoming chief executive Alastair Neill, which found the budget set only in February contained errors and weaknesses.

It must now save an extra £8.4m this year and make 290 job cuts, against some 120 originally intended.

The council has saved some £21.1m over the last two years, and must save a further £32.2m over this year and the next two.

Mr Neill’s review found areas in the February budget “where the plans were not sufficiently resilient and [where] additional savings need to be made to ensure that the council delivers its plan within its budget”.

This included £1m of procurement savings which had “slipped and needed to be tackled” and £3.8m of learning disabilities grant which had in effect been counted twice.

Tony Johnson (Con), the council’s new leader, said: “We are facing a very challenging time over the next few years and as such we need to consider alternative approaches to delivering some of our services.

“Inevitably, non-mandatory services must bear the brunt of the cuts and although this will unfortunately involve job losses, it does not automatically mean the loss of services.”

The extraordinary council meeting agreed that the cabinet would consider holding a referendum to increase the 2014-15 council tax above whatever cap level is imposed.

Some 25% of Herefordshire’s income comes from council tax, which it had frozen from 2011-13. It increased it this year by 1.9%, equivalent to £1.5m.

Cllr Johnson said: “We must consider the possibility of raising council tax responsibly and proportionately across the county, as we begin to consider next year’s budget.”

Before doing so, he wanted to gauge whether residents “would be prepared to vote in favour of raising taxes to protect the county’s vital services”.

The coalition dropped Labour’s council tax cap, but substituted a system where tax could be raised above a nationally defined level only following a local referendum.

No council has yet held such a referendum, fearing both the cost and the likely outcome. In Herefordshire’s case a referendum would cost £100,000 to conduct.

In a joint statement with Unison, Herefordshire said it had agreed to reduce from three to two the number of days of unpaid leave to be taken during the Christmas period and to increase redundancy terms from the statutory minimum to 1.5 times that level.

Unison would prefer to keep in-house provision but will engage “fully in consideration of alternative business models that may be required in areas of service, where the council has to reduce or withdraw funding”.

Benefit schemes to be cut back next year

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14 March 2013 | By Ruth Keeling

Many people on low incomes will see big jumps in their council tax bills when the government stops funding schemes to cushion them from the removal of benefit, research seen by LGC reveals.

Almost 20% of the 195 billing authorities receiving a share of the £100m pot intend to switch to less generous support regimes in 2014-15 or review the more generous ones that transition cash helps fund, according to National Policy Institute figures.

This comes after the government announced one year of funding for schemes that aim to limit the council tax liability of claimants who previously received a 100% discount on bills to just 8.5%.

The funding, revealed in October, led many councils to change their original plans.

Sabrina Bushe, a researcher at the NPI who is compiling the figures, said they provided an early indication of what authorities would do next year.

“Many councils will simply revert back to the – sometimes quite harsh – schemes that they had initially consulted on,” she said.

The NPI figures show that 13 of the 195 councils will switch back to less generous discount schemes in 2014-15, while 23 will put this year’s regime under review.

Sevenoaks DC, one of the authorities reverting to a less generous discount regime, will expect claimants to pay a minimum of 18.5% of the total tax. Council leader Peter Fleming (Con) said that the 18.5% figure reflected the size of the funding cut applied to Sevenoaks.

The council was unable to use other budgets to plug the financial gap once transition funding ran out, he said. “We are making far more than 10% savings in all our other budgets,” he said.

Referring to the need for councils to fund support schemes, he said: “They have handed us something extra and are not fully funding it.”

Another authority reverting to a less generous scheme is Newcastle City Council, according to NPI’s research. Its proposed scheme for 2014-15 will include a minimum contribution of 20%.

City treasurer Paul Woods said the council would revert to the regime it proposed before ministers announced the transition funding for 2012-13. “As we have already fully consulted on this, further consultation is doubtful and would not be good value for money,” he said.

However, Mr Woods suggested the government could combine the £50m it underspent on the transition funding with any leftover council tax freeze grant to provide a second year of transition funding. “This would give greater certainty and stability while the new arrangements bed in,” he said.

A spokesman for the Department for Communities & Local Government said the grant was to help councils deliver long-term savings.

“The expectation is local authorities will be taking all possible steps to help families with their cost of living, keeping down pressure on council tax bills by sharing services and back-office functions, cutting wasteful expenditure, and smarter procurement,” he said.

“We will consider whether further action is required in due course.”

Full list of councils