Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance. This is the first of a new column from him.
With many households struggling to pay their bills, it is hoped that councils across the country are tightening their belts and eradicating wasteful spending to avoid inflation-busting rate rises. Some local authorities are certainly trying but others leave a lot to be desired.
In Bristol, residents are taking part in a consultation on whether or not to increase council tax. Looking at the last five years, Bristol has hiked rates by the maximum permissible sum every time. It’s hard to imagine that council members would freeze tax even if everyone called for it.
The consultation lays out the economic challenges Bristol City Council faces. A shortfall of £9 million is forecast for this financial year – to be expected given the pandemic. But maybe the shortfall didn’t need to be so great given the millions of pounds of wasteful spending uncovered by the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
The council spent over £900,000 on taxis alone between February and September this year. Add to this, £12 million on an entertainment arena that has yet to get off the drawing board and £37.7 million up in smoke on a failed energy company. Perhaps most ridiculous of all, councillors awarded themselves an allowances increase totalling £180,000, just as the pandemic was starting to take hold.
Rates could rise by as much as five per cent – described as “modest” by Bristol Council. Hardly modest when households in a typical band D property would see bills rise by nearly £90 to £1,846 (more than £2,100 when you include parish precepts).
The council asking residents for their feedback is most welcome. But given Bristol’s repeated tax hikes and poor record with taxpayers’ cash will it actually listen?
In Lincolnshire there has been “fierce backlash” to South Kesteven District Council’s (SKDC) plan to potentially spend £100,000 of public funds to unveil a statue of Margaret Thatcher.
The leader of SKDC, Cllr Matthew Lee said:
“My expectation and that of our Cabinet is that the cost of the event will be fully met through donations and not the public purse. The Council will simply be providing a cash flow situation to support the forward funding of the event of up to £100,000.”
Of course there’s no guarantee that the council will recoup the money in full and there are more pressing local concerns. As one South Kesteven councillor put it to me:
“Some of our tenants have gone through two winters without proper heating in place. Rather than focusing on the needs of our residents, the Cabinet has decided to devote time and resources to a vanity project.”
I’m inclined to agree. Data shows that between 1997 and 2017, council tax has increased by 65 per cent in real terms for South Kesteven residents – every penny of their taxes must be used to procure the best frontline services possible.
The council has history when it comes to vanity projects. In 2019, SKDC announced plans to spend £103,000 on a giant outdoor TV screen “as part of its drive to develop the cultural scene in the district.” Given the threat of another rate rise many people will not be pleased to see precious funds spent on an unveiling ceremony.
Mrs Thatcher was very much a champion of getting the best possible deal for the taxpayer. After all she uttered the famous line:
“There is no such thing as public money, there is only taxpayers’ money.”
It has to be asked, would the Iron Lady herself approve of this largesse?
Good news west of Lincolnshire though. Reports suggest that Stoke City Council is set to trim the number of staff on its books. The authority is aiming to cut four roles from its senior management team. One idea is to merge the directors of Housing and Place into a single role. The most recent figures reveal each received remuneration in excess of £150,000. No wonder the council estimates savings of £360,000 a year.
Since 2007, the TaxPayers’ Alliance has compiled an annual list of council employees who receive remuneration in excess of £100,000. As of 2018-19, 2,667 individuals across 384 councils enjoyed six-figure pay packets – remuneration totalled £360.1 million. The average salary, excluding bonuses, pension contributions, expenses and loss of office payments, was £116,478. If each of the 384 councils were (on average) to cut just one position, recurring nationwide savings in the years ahead would be around £45 million.
It’s pleasing to see Stoke council taking positive steps to cut down on a bloated management structure. Other authorities must now follow their lead. For the sake of ratepayers who pay their wages, council bosses should be minimising wasteful spending and maximising efficiency wherever possible.