Cllr Ferris Cowper is the Cabinet Member for Finance of East Hampshire District Council.
East Hampshire District Council has just announced that Council Tax for 2018-19 will be frozen. Last year we cut it. The year before that, we cut it. The tax for 2018-19 will be the same as it was in 2010-11. All front line services are being maintained or improved. We have stated our aspiration to have the capability to charge no tax at all by 2021-22.
Does this win votes for East Hampshire Conservatives? Of course. A lot. In 1999 the Conservatives took control from the Liberal Democrats by one seat, 21-20. Last year, when two Liberal Democrats switched party, we held a 44-0 majority and we still do. And over that time the MP’s constituency majority has also done pretty well.
In the midst of a sometimes incomprehensible Brexit debate, one long standing and rock solid Conservative principle shines out in East Hampshire; “low tax and small government” still wins votes.
What’s more, recent TV and press dissection of my statements and policies by Conservatives, Labour, and the Green Party commentators, indicates these initiatives appeal to other partys’ voters as well. Not just a vote winner but also an election winner too.
But how? Can you do it in your Council? What if you are a councillor on an “upper tier” local authority with the costs of Adult Social Care?
I use the acronym EASI to describe the overall strategy. Efficiencies, Attitude, Sales and Investments.
The most important element of the strategy is “Attitude”. Cutting out the central government hand-out has given us the chance to think “outside the box” and to be inspired to devise radical strategies.
“Efficiencies” means just that and it doesn’t mean service reductions. With our partner, Havant Borough Council, we were the second ever pairing of councils to agree to share the full senior management team, from Chief Executive down to Head of Service. With so much criticism of public sector top management pay, our Chief Executive costs our taxpayers just £60,000 a year, a figure previously thought impossible.
“Sales” covers selling services to the public, to other councils and public sector organisations and to commercial businesses. In 2018-19 we will sell well over £10m of services and that doesn’t count a huge public sector contract currently going through legals. We offer profitable services on regeneration consultancy, planning, parking, dog fouling, littering and many more.
“Investments” has mainly taken us into commercial property which almost all councils are doing now. We have a tight process that minimises risk, but is not risk averse. Our portfolio makes over seven per cent before interest costs and will probably grow in size to the Full Council agreed limit of £200m this calendar year.
Does any of this work for other councils? Obviously all four do. I have a lot of views on better ways of financing Adult Social Care, all of them beyond the scope of this note. But for me the big driver is Attitude. There are some very impressive upper tier local authorities out there and we have learned from them. But there are also some that just seem to want to moan about the loss of grants and that doesn’t play well with voters.
Our experience is that voters admire our bold approach and respect our resolve to find a new way of financing the public sector. Most people accept that in the medium term tax is simply never going to be sufficient to pay for health and adult social care.
Ours may not be the only way but it is one way and it’s working.