A splendid speech from the Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles today to the Local Government Network's annual conference.
Mr Pickles said
A number of Labour councils have given way to temptation of reliving the past in an 80’s tribute band, maximising the cuts to the most political damaging. With a backing group of gullible and unquestioning BBC Regional reporting this has led to a heady mix.
This is an important point. It may not be entirely left wing bias. There is also the journalistic temptation to sensationalise. There is the sense that good news isn't news. "Why don't we do a story about a Council having its budget fall by 12% but managing to maintain services through finding efficiency savings in back office administration," might not be the most exciting pitch a reporter can offer his editor.
However there has been plenty of material of scandalous council spending of councils across the country produced by the Taxpayers Alliance via their Freedom of Information requests – they tend to have a greater chance of being picked up in the local papers than by the local BBC teams. The idea of council leaders having to worry about a BBC investigation of their extravagance is pretty remote.
Anyway we also had a clear message that Council Tax increases this year could not be justified:
Trusting the people is the very bulwark of democracy
If you need to raise Council Tax, just be straight with people
Take them into your confidence
Don’t treat them as fools
People will listen to a sensible case
But the voters aren’t stupid either
They will spot it if you try to pull the wool over their eyes
Like the democracy dodgers who try creep in under the radar, putting up their tax by 1.99 per cent.
Remember if you freeze the government will pay a grant equivalent to 1% so the raise is only about 0.9%.
If your officers tell you they can’t find 0.9%, my advice is get new officers.
If your officers say it is only in the base for two years remind them that NOTHING is in the base at the start of a new spending review.
The smug incrementalist approach to local government finance just makes the problem worse,
Anybody using loop holes, cheating their taxpayers, we will make sure they pay next year.
In some places Council Tax will increase by more than 2% without a referendum due to unelected levy boards.
Mr Pickles wants accountability extended to them:
At best, their meetings are buried away on the darkest parts of the internet.
At worse, they don’t even exist on Google.
What do I mean?
Unelected council tax levying bodies like:
Internal Drainage Boards
Integrated Transport Authorities
The Environment Agency
Joint Waste Disposal Authorities
National Parks Authorities
Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority
Harbour and Bridge Boards
Port Health Authorities
And the slightly sinister-sounding Crematorium Boards.
I want to open up this Secret State, and ensure their council tax setting is accountable directly to the people, and their policy decisions are open and transparent.
For example, in Manchester, their council tax this year is being forced up by a botched PFI deal signed by the unelected Waste Authority.
A 25 year deal which means they are paying double the market rates to dispose of their residual waste.
A deal which, despite funding to maintain weekly collections, has forced Councils into a double whammy of both fortnightly bin collections for some of its residents and higher taxes.
These details are buried in the small print of Manchester City’s budget this year.
A shoddy deal by a shadowy, unelected body, with no-one taking responsibility, and local taxpayers left with service cuts and higher taxes.
That isn’t local democracy. It’s municipal autocracy.