Graphic from the Daily Mail
By Paul Goodman
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From one point of view, it is not localist to bar councils from raising council tax by more than 2% if they wish, and Eric Pickles's claims to localism are therefore a pile of hokum. From another, empowering local residents to approve or veto such rises is a localist move, and the Communities Secretary is right to have put it in place. Then again, it can be argued that such polls are all very well, but it isn't localist to have them enforced on local authorities from Westminster and Whitehall.
The theory is contested but the results are clear. The Daily Mail this morning reports that one in three councils are ignoring Pickles's plea to freeze bills. That's another way of saying that two out of three are not doing so, and that the Communities Secretary's mission is getting his own way more often than not. The Mail's own graphic shows how Band D rises have tailed off following the formation of the Coalition in 2010, and Pickles's consequent appointment to the Communities Department.
What Pickles is doing isn't pretty – at least if you're a localism purist – but it is effective. (And if you were a localism purist, you wouldn't start from here: the local tax base is relatively small, and until or unless that changes, real localism is a hazy dream). Near the base of the Mail's report, in the proximity of the usual tough quote from the Taxpayers' Alliance and the customary bleating one from Labour, is the Communities Secretary's claim about the average Band D bill.
"The average council tax bill has gone down in real terms by 9.7 per cent since the election of the Coalition in spring 2010," the report says. Matthew Sinclair of the TPA says that "‘at a time when household budgets are being squeezed by stagnant wages and rising prices, councils have a duty to ease the burden they place on residents" – a point of view put regularly on this site by our very own Harry Phibbs.
This is right. Councils can always find special circumstances to plead an exception – including some Conservative ones. But if some Tory local authorities can find a way of freezing council tax, there's no good reason why others can't find a way. Beset by high fuel prices, low savings rates and soaring electricity bills, most voters will be pleased by the results of Pickles's brutalism. But don't expect them to display their gratitude in May's elections.