The Conservative party is split on the question of council tax rises. Conservatives in central government are saying they want to see council tax kept at its current level, but locally in Cambridgeshire we’ve got a Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner and a Conservative run County Council who are proposing council tax rises.
I have previously commented on Police and Crime Commissioner Graham Bright’s announcement that he plans to raise the policing element of council tax and it was as a result of that article I was invited to talk to the ITV national news reporter who visited Cambridge on the 28th of January 2013 to film a report on the council tax rises we are facing here.
I suggested to ITV news that they might want to speak to Cambridge Conservative Agent Timothy Haire who has publicly opposed the Conservative led County Council’s proposed council tax hike. I thought that pitching his views against those of the County Council leader, Cllr Nick Clarke, would illustrate the split at a local level.
Cllr Clarke has expressed a view that people vote for party brands; the problem when you’ve got a party’s ministers saying one thing, and councillors from the same party in power locally actually doing another is that voting on the basis of a party brand no longer makes any sense, as it’s not clear to voters what they are getting.
Police and Crime Commissioner Graham Bright has argued that he is imposing no-extra burden on council tax by with a 1.9% rise on the grounds it is below the rate of inflation. I think that inflation isn’t the key figure here, it’s not what’s important when working out what extra burden a tax rise will have on people, what matters is the people’s incomes and those in many cases are not going up as fast as inflation at the moment.
The Office for National Statistics’ latest figures report:
- Average Weekly Earnings annual growth rate of 1.5% (September-November 2012)
- Annual Inflation Rate as of December 2012 according to the Consumer Prices Index:2.7%
- Annual Inflation Rate as of December 2012 according to the Retail Prices Index: 3.1%
This was one point I made which made it onto the national news, where I featured for about eight seconds.
People on fixed incomes such as pensioners will be particularly hard hit by council tax rises.
Income Tax, where the more you earn the more you pay, is in my view a fairer tax than council tax; and while I think a local element of taxation is acceptable and helps provide a link between taxation and representation I would not like to see a greater shift towards funding local services from council tax rather than general taxation, the largest fraction of which is Income Tax.
One of the other key points which was put to me was that Cllr Clarke was defending his council tax rise by saying Cambridgeshire is growing, and more homes are being built in the County. I responded to this by noting that this means the council tax take rises automatically as more households pay the tax; it doesn’t follow that council tax rates ought rise.
There were many other points which didn’t make the TV which I’m able to expand on here:
- I agree with Cllr Nick Clarke; a referendum would be scandalous waste of taxpayer’s hard earned cash. Councillors are elected on the basis of their manifestos and it’s at election time that people get to decide what they want. Personally I would like to see councillors come up for election more often; I’d like my three city councillors, and my county councillor, to all be up for election at the same time each year. This would mean councillors breaking their promises, or simply not performing could be removed quicker. This would not cost more, as elections are being held each year anyway – it’s just I can only vote out one of my four councillors in any one election.
- Uncertainty about future levels of central government funding for the police and local government services appears to be driving our local elected representatives to increase council tax. Giving grants for a year, or two, at time from central government is the problem. I don’t personally agree with the view that council tax needs to be increased now, just in-case a cut in central government funding means it might otherwise need to jump in future years. I’d say take the central government money now. Imagine a domestic analogy – if central government offered to pay £200 towards your gas bill this year, would you take it, or would you refuse on the grounds that they might not give you the £200 next year so it might feel like your gas bill had gone up a lot.
- Central government needs to put much better incentives in place to encourage local government to cut costs. Its current short term council tax freeze grants and requirement for expensive referenda are bonkers, and ineffective.
- We need to elect councillors who will reform, and redesign, local government, making it work smarter, making better use of technology – perhaps locally looking to the Chief Constable’s approach to making policing more efficient for inspiration.
- Local government also needs to be given the incentives to take actions which will make savings for the wider state. For example a lot of Cambridgeshire County Council spending goes on supporting older people and providing care. If the council does its role well it can keep people out of hospital saving money for another arm of the state – the NHS (as well as improving people’s quality of life). The problem is that the council doesn’t, in almost all cases, have the financial incentive to invest money into making savings for the state as a whole. Putting these kinds of incentives in place is the kind of way central government ought be reforming the way local government is funded, rather than attempting manipulation by the crude council tax freeze grants and referendum requirements.
- Council tax freezes are very confusing. People hear ministers announcing them, but the don’t happen because local councillors don’t take action. People hear one of their councils announcing one, perhaps even the one which prints the bill and takes the money, but the bill goes up anyway because another council, fire authority, or police and crime commissioner have decided to increase their element.
Effort and Resources
The effort and resources which are thrown into a few seconds worth of TV or radio are often astonishing. For the short piece from Cambridge there was a producer working from London arranging things, a team of three in Cambridge: presenter, camera operator and producer, as well as I was told an outside broadcast team meeting up with them at some point to send the material recorded back to base.
Cambridgeshire County Council press officers were also involved in arranging the interview with Cllr Nick Clarke and ensuring the council’s strict rules, policies and practices, controlling such filming were enforced.
Filming my interview involved the crew spending £8 on drinks (in return for which they got to film in the pub, which then got shown on the national TV news); and the tea cups were carefully arranged on the table, and the crew even lit the candles specially! The professionalism was impressive and my few second includes three different types of shot – me speaking, the interviewer, and the wider shot of us talking at the table; that’s in addition to the shot showing where we were sitting in relation to the Shire Hall. (The reason we were in the pub was it was raining too hard to do the interview outside).
Caption: “Local Businessman”
The caption of “local businessman” has caused some comment, with County Council Leader Nick Clarke writing in his blog:
I was surprised to see Richard Taylor, described as a local businessman, on the feature.
Cambridge City Councillor Colin Rosenstiel tweeted
“Described as a local businessman” @RTaylorUK #chuckle
Resident Andy Bower jumped in with:
But he is, isn’t he?
I think this raises an important point about how the media portray those with views on how society is run. Sometimes describing people sensibly in a caption is easy; for example often people are speaking in a particular role, or as a spokesperson for an organisation. Often though due to the pressure of time, and the need to simplify a story in order to get it across and you end up with someone say speaking captioned a “cyclist” and someone else as a “motorist” to take a common example. People generally can’t be summed up in a word or two. Many cyclists also drive.
I actually proposed: “Council Tax Payer”, or “Cambridge Resident” as those appeared my most direct interest in the subject matter. I also offered them my web-address of rtaylor.co.uk.
The County Council’s ex press officer Andy Alsopp suggested
I think ‘keen cyclist’ is a much better description. For a start, it’s true
All the labels are true; as are “transparency activist, democracy evangelist, civil liberties campaigner” and many more.
Perhaps councillors Rosenstiel and Clarke would like all members of the public commenting on their actions to be captioned “local nutter”, and perhaps forced to inhale helium to subtract credibility from what they are saying?
As for who I am; well I’m Richard Taylor, and perhaps the best way of saying which Richard Taylor is to say the one of rtaylor.co.uk – there’s loads of background there from which anyone use to make up their own mind on how, if at all, I ought be described.
(The spelling of Rosenstiel has been corrected at various points in this article)