The Local Government Association’s list of policies for the next Government’s first 100 days is rather like a present with bright shiny packaging – but then inside there’s just a pair of grey socks.
It presents itself as offering bright radical, localist new ideas. Then you look at the detail you find it’s just the usual dreary special pleading: demands for subsidy from central government on local government.
The only exception I spotted is the demand for a extra 10 per cent tax on all the revenues from shale – they say this is for “local communities” – but they then clarify they actually mean “private sector to local government”.
It’s a tired old LGA demand – and I have written before about how ludicrous it is. That demand was for a new tax going direct to town hall coffers rather than simply demanding more money from central government. It all comes down to a wish list for more tax, more spending, more socialism.
There is also a proposal which is described as “simplifying” the right to buy, which actually sounds like ending the Right to Buy. Then again, the wording is deliberately left a bit mushy. The idea is some meaningless formulation that both Conservative and Labour councils can sign up to – an example of why the LGA is so worthless.
Anyway, the eye-catching proposal from the LGA list was the following:
“Announce and fund the setting up of a new volunteering scheme to support communities, rewarding local volunteers with small discounts in council tax.”
The figure suggested is 10 per cent. There was a bit of a muddle from the LGA about paying for this. In the report it said the cost was nil adding a note that “cost is assumed to be negligible”. In the press briefing it gave a figure of £50 million – this was based on half a million volunteers getting a discount of around £100 each.
Now if the LGA reckons the cost – whether nil or £50 million – to be “negligible” then the good news is that councils don’t need to plead with central government. They can get on with providing it. The trouble is that not only is the LGA demanding more more from central government for the “sector”, they are not honest enough to admit that doing so involves a cost.
The Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles says:
“Councils already have the power to introduce such local discounts, and we would certainly encourage them to use these powers to help reward good behaviour – from special constables to local volunteers
“Under Labour, council tax more than doubled. But Conservatives in Government have kept down council tax by cutting bills by 11 per cent in real terms since 2010. We will continue to stand up for hard-working people.”
Some will say that those who volunteer are not motivated by the chance of lower Council Tax. That is the same argument against giving any recognition of marriage through the tax system. Such attitudes are mean spirited. It is not about the money in a narrow sense but the signal it sends. Those of us who are strengthening society – by getting married or volunteering – should get a positive message back rather than a neutral or negative one.
The initiatives in Southampton and Trafford to offer Council Tax rebates for Special Constables are entirely fair.
One way spending cuts are being so effectively absorbed by local government is through services being maintained by volunteers.
These include volunteers who provide services or company for elderly people and thus help them live happily and independently in their own homes rather than costly alternative of institutional care. Then are those who help out in libraries, youth clubs and museums – often making a crucial difference in allowing them to continue operating.
The Times reports(£):
“West Sussex County Council trains volunteers to inspect potential highway defects reported by members of the public. Community highway volunteers are allocated an area within walking distance of their own homes and inspect, photograph and complete a short report on defects such as faded road markings, missing or dirty road signs, potholes, rocking paving slabs and blocked drains.
“The Museum of Oxford works with about 90 volunteers to help with day-to-day running of the museum. It estimates that their help is worth £50,000.”
While the LGA’s report said:
“The Leeds Neighbourhood Networks initiative uses community volunteers to support over 21,900 older people to live independently in the community. Its work has prevented 1,450 older people from going into hospital and supported 617 being discharged from hospital. Intensive support in the home is currently being provided for 540 older people and 5,540 older people are being provided with one-to-one support, including befriending or escorting on shopping trips and outings. In the last year, 26 safeguarding referrals have been made to Leeds Safeguarding Unit by the schemes, 16 of which had direct involvement by the schemes and have protected older people from abuse, thanks to the schemes’ volunteers and professionals.”
I would be delighted for councils to offer council tax discounts to volunteers. If it increased the willingness to volunteer it could prove very good value for money. In any event it would be right and proper recognition. The ludicrous thing is that the LGA fails to acknowledge that councils already have the power to do this.
Yet again we have this Stockholm Syndrome of councils pretending they are still operating within constraints from Whitehall when these have been lifted.
My advice for any council contemplating this modest initiative would be to proceed. Such innovation might well prompt others to follow if it proved to make the Big Society bigger.
If any council is worried about loss of revenue then why not cancel their subscription to the Local Government Association?