Cllr David Burbage, leader of Windsor & Maidenhead Council, on how they are cutting the Council Tax in real terms while finding more money for policing.

With the national economic picture looking bleak – and somewhat scary – here in October 2008, writing some words on shaving a few percentage points off the local Council Tax might seem to some as a rather surreal exercise.

However, for a good number of residents that are on fixed and limited incomes, often elderly, the Council Tax can be the biggest bill that they pay. For those on average incomes the bill is still a hefty charge each month – even at the 1991 rated values, our average dwelling in Windsor & Maidenhead is rather more Band E than it is Band D and tax is therefore some 22% higher than the ‘average’ headline Band D rate that we set in the annual budget.

There is the fundamental Conservative driver that, where money can be left in the pockets of the taxpaying public, it should be. Unlike income tax, Council tax is an ‘after tax’ tax and as such a typical householder in paid employment needs to earn rather more in actual wages to pay the Council Tax because Gordon Brown and friends take a fair chunk before it can be used for anything else.

We inherited the Council in 2007 following 4 years of Liberal Democrat
tax rises amounting to just short of 25%. After inflation, that’s an
increase of over 10% in real terms. Worse, much of the increased
revenue went on staff salaries rather than providing the taxpayer with
millions of pounds worth of extra public services. Their financial
policy was – in black and white – that “the Borough’s strategy to
calculate future Council Tax increases to be marginally below the
anticipated capping limit ..” (yes – really!) and also "it is important
that it [Council Tax] is used to generate the maximum amount of income

So to revert to the 2003/4 levels of Council Tax, in theory there’s
budgetary scope for our Council Tax to be reduced in real terms by 10%.
If we were further to assume that the 2003/4 level was too high, then
even more reductions could be possible, all things being equal. It’s
rather more complex than this, but it sets the scene.

Our policy, from our 2007 manifesto, is “to aim to limit Council Tax
rises, at or below the rate of inflation without cutting services”. The
‘to aim’ part was reluctantly necessary because of the power of
Government to change the rules – outside of our control.

We decided on a 2.4% rise last year, a real terms cut at 1.5% under
September RPI, and the fifth lowest unitary rise in the country
(non-Met) (and the second lowest of unitary councils who didn’t have
elections)! And George Osborne’s recent announcement would have given
us a cut in absolute terms had it been in effect for the current
financial year.

As Windsor and Maidenhead is a unitary authority, we have adult social
care, the full range of childrens’ services as well as the
responsibilities of a district Council. Savings have been found by
increasing use – and careful management – of external providers for
domiciliary care, by smarter procurement, by reducing administrative
staff positions and holding posts vacant where existing staff could
operate normally. With a determination to avoid service cuts, we
operate a policy of maintaining front line posts but actively
scrutinising managerial, administrative and back office structures when
vacancies arise; we saved a good six figure sum in the last financial
year by this strategy. We have met understandable resistance from
officers when trying to remove existing posts on a permanent basis, but
the interests of residents must always come before those of (their)
employees in the Town Hall.

All this might give the impression that we’re just in the business of
cutting everything back, continuously. So in general whilst we’re in
favour of the smaller state, it’s not uniformly so; in fact, we’re
expanding the number of our community wardens and the powers available
to them. We’re also sponsoring additional PCSOs in the Borough to add
to the rather underfunded (by Labour) Thames Valley Police.

Budgeting is not straightforward – but as with most things in life, the more you do it, the better you get.