Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Council shouldn't forget Pickle's

Now HDC, CCC, Police and Fire are looking to increase Council Tax this year and not take the Government Freeze money. What seems to be worrying is these local authorities didn't see this coming. In the Conservative manifesto for the 2010 General election was:
The Conservatives stood for a freezing of Council Tax for 2 years. The Conservatives didn't win and went into coalition with the Liberal Democrats. In their Coalition agreement says:
So a one year Council Tax freeze should have not come as any surprise to any local authority. The Coalition was able to fund the freeze in year 1 for 4 years. The likelihood of the same funding for another Council Tax freeze in year 2 was not there. All pointed to a one off payment as announced by George Osbourne at the Conservative Party conference in September 2011.

With all these promises and announcements why haven't the local authorities planned for taking this money. Local Authorities, in the main, want more power and money because that is their "reason to be". Labour understood that local authorities just take the money and don't change. That is why Labour introduced a ton of regulation that left each local authority looking towards central government for approval rather than their electorate.

Eric Pickles, Communities Secretary, has abandoned much of what Labour has put in place. Instead of capping, the Coalition has introduced referenda. Instead of embracing referenda the local authorities are looking at ways to circumvent this clause. And this is fundamentally why HDC, CCC, Police and the Fire Authority are looking to increase Council Tax and not take the rise.

In contrast to these mainly Conservative run Authorities (The Police have 8 appointed independent members and 9 Councillors (Conservative 6, Liberal Democrat 2 and Labour 1)). Liberal Democrat run Cambridge City Council is not raising Council Tax next year.

Cllr Sian Reid, Lib Dem leader of Cambridge City Council, said: “We are very conscious of the fact that these are extremely difficult times for our residents financially and that was a major consideration in making the decision to freeze our share of the council tax.”

So we end up in the ludicrous situation where the Liberal Democrats adhere to the Coalition policy of a two year freeze and the Conservative run Councils ditch this policy. Well done the Liberal Democrats!

What the local authorities not taken the Freeze Money should consider is Eric Pickles is in charge. He will set the level at which a referendum is needed to increase Council Tax. Any future plans must assume that with a lower inflation rate that this level will come down from 3.5%. The inflation rate was 4.8%. If inflation falls to say 2% then councils could be looking at a threshold for a referendum at 0.7% - 1%.

A Peterborough City Councillor has resigned from his Conservative Group over the Council Tax proposed there. Good for him!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Lets keep it all secret!

The Coalition Government has a Transparency Agenda to make itself and local government as transparent as they could be. On the Communities website the following is said:

Local government transparency

Getting council business out in the open will revolutionise local government and enable the Big Society. Transparency is the foundation of accountability. It is also a powerful means of promoting efficiency, without requiring the heavy-handed intervention of an unaccountable bureaucracy.

Local people should be able to hold politicians and public bodies to account over how their council tax is being spent, and decisions made on their behalf. This will work in tandem with decentralisation to foster a new spirit of local enterprise; allowing local institutions to compete, innovate and diversify increasing the accountability of councils to their residents.

So when HDC looks into how the Leisure Services are being run and the finances the deliberations and reports remain secret. Hardly transparent. The public is hardly able to ...hold politicians and public bodies to account... when all this is discussed behind closed doors.
As seems to be the case, this Conservative run Council is picking and choosing when it comes to Conservative Government policies. One like transparency and New Homes Bonus it simply ignores.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Wait until 2013

Eric Pickles (Conservative Cabinet Minister in charge of Local Government) in a recent speech said:

This year, it will be tough for many people - facing pay freezes at work, be it in the public or private sector, as well as a rising cost of living.
This is why it's essential in February and March, as town hall budgets are set, that councils sign up to the council tax freeze.
It's practical help every councillor can offer to their ward constituents. A vote against the council tax freeze is a vote for punishing tax-rises. Local taxpayers will remember that decision next time they cast their vote at the ballot box.
Councillors have a moral duty to sign up to keep down the cost of living - anything less is a kick in the teeth to hard-working, decent taxpayers.

With the Government offering money for a Council Tax freeze for next year (2012/13), I thought I would take a look at the authorities which make up our council tax bill and whether they are taking the cash. Councils, Police and Fire will have to hold a referendum on whether Council Tax should rise over certain amounts.

The smallest is St Neots Town Council which has put in a zero increase for this year. The Town Council receives no government grant and therefore will get no money to freeze their Council Tax.

The Cambs Fire Authority is looking to not take the grant and is having a public consultation until 25th January 2012 on this subject. The Fire Authority presents the decision not to accept council tax freeze money as thus:

As the Government grant is a one-off payment and will not feature as part of the ongoing base budget, it will mean that come 2013/14, the fire authority will have two options:

1. Increase the council tax by a significant amount, over and above inflationary pressures. This will be to cover 2012/13 and also an increase for 2013/14.
Or, if the Government caps a rise on council tax and only allows a certain percentage increase:
2. Add the deficit to the budget cuts that CFRS already face (£4.2 million to £6 million) which could contribute to the loss of more jobs and more resources, such as retained fire engines.

Capping has gone. Abolished by the Localism Act. What the Fire Authority is missing is it would have to hold a referendum to increase Council Tax substantially. The Fire Authority is not directly elected. Therefore I feel they should ask the people through a referendum on whether they should increase tax.

The Cambs Police are looking to either increase the Council Tax by 2.5% or take the freeze money and let the newly elected Police Commissioner sort this out once elected in November 2012. Though they are having a consultation this has so far come out for taking the freeze money.
Whilst having this Consultation the Police Authority hasn't geared up for taking the Council Tax freeze. As it says in this linked report:

Two options are presented: 2012/13 council tax increase at 3.0% (Table A)and 2012/13 council tax increase at 2.5% (Table B). Both sets of figures have been produced on the assumption that the Authority will reject the Government's offered 2012/13 Council Tax Freeze Grant.

Huntingdonshire District Council is looking to add 2.5% to their portion of the Council Tax bill and is set not to accept the freeze money. No consultation on this at all.

As for the County Council, I have no idea on what their stance on this matter is. This is far the largest part of the Council Tax bill. The 2012/13 budget comes up for discussion on 31st January 2012.

So far two authorities are consulting - Police and Fire. The Town Council has decided to freeze. HDC is looking to increase. Whilst the County Council has yet to come forward with a draft budget. It looks as though the local authorities are looking to increase Council Tax and spurn the freeze money.

Yet there is another way! In 2013 the County Council is due up for election. If any authority wishes to increase Council Tax then they can do so via a referendum. The whole county will be having elections so all can combine to put any Council Tax increases to the voters and therefore gain the approval needed at a shared cost.

Let the people have their say on Council Tax increases.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Defending the indefensible

Nick Guyatt (NG), Deputy Leader of HDC, was on the Jeremy Sallis (JS) Breakfast show on Monday trying to defend HDC's stance on the New Homes Bonus. Nick didn't do very well. Below is a transcript of what he had to say. The transcript isn't verbatum but is as near as I can get it. What snrednek says about what they say is in red.

If you want to hear the interview on the video below (give it a 5 seconds):

When the Coalition came to power on of their first initiatives was to introduce the New Homes Bonus. This is to reward communities accepting new developments with a bonus thereby showing communities there is a good financial reason for accepting new developments. A good idea, one rooted in a Government report. The The Government decided on an 80/20 split in favour of the District Council over the County Council. The normal split for Council tax is the other way round. The New Homes Bonus is funded for one year and thereafter Councils will see a reduction in grant to pay for the New Homes Bonus.
HDC firstly hid the New Homes Bonus as the New Homes Reward Grant and now is spinning that it is a reward for itself and not the communities accepting developments.

Anyway here is the transcript of the interview:

Jeremy Sallis: Is St Neots being robbed of cash which should be going towards new developments?

Nick Guyatt: No! Not at all

JS: Why?

NG: Erm because the first thing is Cllr van de Kerkhove has obviously misunderstood what the New Homes Bonus is about. The government has decided that it is going to re-look at the way it is going to finance local government and it wants local government to be more responsive to its desires for economic growth and the Government wants new economic growth to come in via new houses. So what is actually doing is reducing the grant it gives to local authorities erm to cover all the services it gives throughout the whole of their area. And is saying we will reduce your money one end and we will give you some more money if you achieve some of these spending targets.

Cllr van de Kerkhove hasn't misunderstood what the New homes bonus is about. The misunderstanding is HDC's. The Government is looking into how local government is financed. That has nothing really to do with the New Homes Bonus.

There are also no spending targets. These have been taken away by the Coalition. So what Nick was on about in his answer is a load of rubbish.

JS: That is not the impression given by the Government’s own Communities website which suggests this is an incentive as to why communities should accept new homes in their area.

Very true

NG: I can’t speak for the Government.

Well your informing us what the Government is telling you. A get out by Nick which didn't work.

JS: Well your speaking on behalf of the Government when you say they are telling you it is to be spent all across the board as opposed to just the areas where new developments are going up.

This is a Conservative/Liberal Democrat government and this is a Conservative policy.

NG: Let me give you two analogies first of all. If I say to you that I live, I don’t, in a house that pays £1000 tax to the local authorities and you live in house that gives £200 tax does that mean you should receive a fifth, er 20 percent of a year less spending on you because you produce less council tax? No it doesn’t. Council tax is spent across a whole district for the benefit of every member of the communities. If government reduces the money it gives us for spending on all the communities then all the communities have to suffer that cut.

So what has this answer got to do with the New Homes Bonus? I just don't know! The answer must be in the last sentence. What Nick can't seem to accept is the areas accepting new housing should get more money than those areas not accepting new housing.

JS: Love’s farm residents suffering more than most. If they are having houses put up without the facilities being put when there is money there to provide those facilities.

Now Love's Farm has yet to be completed. Much of the housing was built before the New Homes Bonus was introduced. Section 106 agreement monies from the developers to pay for local facilities is where the money comes from to pay for a community centre and play areas.

NG: Can you differentiate please between what there provided by the Council and what is provided by the developer. It is a relatively new development which is happening. I heard people talking about the drains in the road. That because the roads haven’t been brought up by the developer to the standard required by the Council to adopt them.

And it is up to HDC to ensure these things happen.

JS: Residents are telling us about the lack of facilities for young people. Your getting £8000 per property.

NG: We are not getting £8000 per property. We are getting £800,000 of new money in the first year. Thereafter all the money is coming, we are told by the Government, out of the revenue support grant.

How does Nick know that? HDC cannot produce any figures on how the New Homes Bonus is calculated for HDC. So how does Nick know it isn't £8000 a property? The Council is looking to get £1.8 million in NHB for 2012/13. Indeed it is forecast to rise even further in future years.

JS: That will be the tune of?

NG: That will be to the tune of a £1 million next year.

JS: Is any of that money being spent on these new Developments?

I think Jeremy get the wrong end of the stick. Nick is going on about a cut whilst Jeremy thinks it is a gain.

NG: A lot of this money is being spent in St Neots and the new developments.

Where and how much?

JS: How much of that money? The majority or all of the money intended by the new homes bonus.

NG: If your granny lived on Love’s Farm and she fell down the stairs and went to hospital and came back as said she needed a stairlift. And she was eligiable for a grant for a stair lift we would be put in a stairlift in for her. OK. That is the kind of way we spend peoples money.

So no answer on where and how much. Indeed with this answer I have to wonder how Nick got to be Deputy Leader. "That is the kind of way we spend peoples money". 

JS: lets go back to the communities website again. This is money coming from the Government. I just want to quote something from this website. Communities themselves will decide how to spend this extra fundingwhether council tax discounts for local residents boosting frontline services like rubbish collections or providing local facilities like swimming pools or Leisure Centres. Of which these people talking to us are calling out for. Have these communities, have these residents been consulted. Have you spoken to them and asked them how they would like these monies spent.

NG: Lets go back the very basics. We have spent a lot of money on St Neots swimming pool and leisure Centre. A lot of money was spent before, in fact, Love’s Farm was even digging the foundations of Love’s Farm. So a lot of the money the council is spent isn’t spent on a whim, erm based on what happened last year we have to plan what we spend going forward.

Yes money has been spent on the Leisure Centre. But this was all planned before the New Homes Bonus was introduced. The New Homes Bonus is there to show communities the benefits of new housing. Now the argument seems to be we have given you a Leisure Centre so we'll take the money back for that.

JS: A very simple question. Have these residents been consulted?

NG: Most of them weren’t here to start with when the decisions were made. They have elected representatives who have an input into how into deciding how the money is spent.

The New Homes Bonus is intended for the communities accepting development. The DCLG wants councils to consult with the communities accepting development on how the money should be spent. HDC will not do this.

This is the problem with the New Homes Bonus. The Government thinks if it tells local authorities what to do then they will do it. Councils have a reputation of taking the money and doing something else. Whether the Leisure Centre has been upgraded is a backwards argument. The money is new and here and HDC is nicking this money to prop up it failing budget.

I can hear the frustration in the voice of Jeremy Sallis as he fails to get answers to many of the questions he asked. If Nick is deputy leader of HDC and this is the muddled thinking behind HDC decisions then you have to wonder whether the Conservatives are best in charge. All we got from Nick is a mixture of muddled arguments and answers that went no-where.