With a recession biting, councillors should pay for their refreshments says Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers’ Alliance.
It may feel inevitable, given the decade of near-universal council tax rises we have just experience, but we should still be bothered by the survey published this week showing that the majority of council officers are planning for council tax rises of over 3% this year.
The constant council tax rises of recent years have been over the top and deeply unfair to taxpayers, but such a large rise in a recession is obscene. With the economy shrinking fast, if anything councils should be trying to reduce bills or at least freeze them, not hit people with even larger demands.
There are a number of ways this can be achieved through large scale savings, which the TaxPayers’ Alliance will be laying out over the coming weeks and months, but there are also a myriad of small scale savings that can and should be made.
The best place to start saving is at the top. This is both because savings can be afforded there but also, crucially, because the whole of local government must be led by example. If senior management and councillors are willing to find reductions in their own spending, or at the very least freeze it, then they have far more authority to press other staff lower down the tree to do so as well.
Eric Pickles was right on the mark this week when he unveiled plans to reduce the cost of town hall Chief Executives. The ever-growing salaries and benefits packages of an ever-growing number of senior town hall managers not only sets a bad example by implicitly suggesting that councils have money to burn, it also results in most councils, when criticised, explicitly announcing that they are entitled to behave like big businesses which splash cash around. Recent appointments such as that of Joe Duckworth at Newham on £240,000 a year show that the scale of pay awards is still increasing.
What’s more, awarding large pay rises to senior managers makes it much more difficult to negotiate restrained pay packages for the wider work force. What might seem like a one-off 5, 10 15% pay rise for a Chief Executive has the knock on effect of increasing the demands of local government unions, resulting in either bigger bills across the whole workforce or strike action (or both).
Of course, it’s not just council officers who need to lead by example – councillors should be tightening their belts, too. With their constituents and taxpayers facing a recession, councillors should do everything in their power to reduce costs, starting with the costs they run up.
For a start, no councillor should vote for an increase in their allowance this year. It must be tempting, given that they are allowed to vote on their own pay, to react to the tough economic times by pouring more taxpayers’ money into their own pockets, but it would be entirely the wrong thing to do. The last year has seen some truly shocking examples of councillors taking advantage of their position to award themselves more pay, most notably in Windsor where they awarded themselves a 91% pay rise. How can council staff be expected to be restrained with taxpayers’ money if the leadership behave like that?
Even smaller items like refreshments and other budgets must be part of the savings drive. A recent survey by the Northern Echo found that North East councils spent over £135,000 on tea and biscuits last year. Hartlepool, Stockton and Darlington councils, meanwhile, managed to spend nothing because they do not provide free refreshments.
This kind of expenditure is often defended on the basis that in the wider context of multi-billion council spending it is tiny, but it is that attitude which has contributed to this mess. Tell the 100 North East families whose council tax was spent entirely on tea and biscuits that their money was insignificant and see how they feel about it.
Just because the hundreds of thousands spent on refreshments, the millions spent on councillors’ allowance or the hundred million pounds spent on executive salaries are dwarfed by the total cost of local government does not mean that these costs are meaningless, or can be increased with impunity. Those in charge of our councils – and particularly those holding elected office – have a responsibility to find savings to help people through the recession, and they should lead from the front by reducing their own costs first.