Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
It’s all kicking off in Kent, after a dispute over Council Tax led to two Conservative councillors having the whip withdrawn. The axe was swift to fall after Paul Cooper and Gary Cooke spoke out against a five per cent rates rise.
Delving into Kent County Council’s budget for 2021-22, it seems clear that a smaller increase could have been implemented. Despite everything that has happened in the last twelve months, KCC “is still forecasting a significant underspend in the current year [2020-21], primarily due to the reduced demand for core services”. Furthemore there will be a £14 million increase in general reserves. As I have argued before, surely this is the perfect time to be using the hoards of cash that councils have squirreled away over the years.
Then we get to what I think many will find to be the most egregious part of the budget. Council staff are to be rewarded with a two per cent pay rise, costing Kent households £4.6 million. Given that private sector workers have endured tremendous hardship, and many can only dream of a boost to their pay, this really isn’t a good look for the council. I don’t doubt that KCC employees have worked hard, but their salaries and pensions have been virtually guaranteed this year. Many in the private sector have not been so fortunate.
Defenders of the Council Tax hike will argue that it only equates to a rise of £1.30 a week for a Band D property but that ignores the countless inflation-busting rises households have suffered in recent years. Councils like Kent must try harder to avert these hikes in future.
Slough’s swanky council offices
An inside source at Slough Borough Council recently sent me photos of the authority’s swanky new headquarters. The interior is rather luxurious and looks like an office you would expect to find in Silicon Valley rather than Berkshire. Staff are able to relax in rooms with bean bags, rocking chairs, designer lighting suspended on ropes and even sprawl out on artificial grass carpet if they desire.
Staff need somewhere decent to work but I suspect local residents will be flabbergasted that the council has splashed their hard-earned cash on such ostentatious offices. If the bean bags aren’t comfortable enough, the photos also reveal more seating available in ‘padded pods’ complete with flat screen TVs. My mole informs me that nearly £30,000 was spent on fake plants and even ping pong tables in an attempt to reduce the amount of staff sick days.
Recently the council revealed it had a £10 million black hole in its budget. Worth noting then that the HQ was purchased in 2018 for £39 million and a further £8.5 million spent on refurbishment, with annual running costs of £1.3 million. Given that council tax increased by four per cent last year (Slough has only cut it once in the last 20 years) perhaps authority bosses should consider focusing funds on essential services rather than lavish workspaces and the accompanying accoutrements.
Very accommodating councils
Last Autumn, I sent freedom of information requests to all councils in the UK, asking for a breakdown of their spending on putting up those affected by homelessness in hotels for 2019-20 and 2020-21.
Across all local authorities spending was at least £198 million. Edinburgh had the largest expenditure at just shy of £24 million, followed by Lewisham at £14.7 million. London councils featured prominently in the top ten biggest spenders. As you might expect, spending dramatically increased due to the pandemic. This isn’t unreasonable, but what I have to question is some of the hotel choices by certain councils.
For example, Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council seems to have a penchant for 4-star accommodation. It booked some 855 nights at luxury hotels such as the Basingstoke Country Hotel & Spa, plus Mercure hotels in Newbury and Winchester. Similarly, councils in Stratford-on-Avon, Broxtowe, Doncaster, Eastleigh, Erewash, Greenwich, and Wakefield also opted for high-end stays. Cambridge City Council even forked out public money on £3,381 worth of “deep cleaning” and a further £203,505 for “on-site security”.
Now, it may well be that these rooms were the best value for money given the options available at the time. But it doesn’t send the right message to taxpayers, who in many cases can barely afford to pay their Council Tax each month, let alone enjoy a stay in a 4-star hotel. Councils must be able to demonstrate that they achieved the best value for money in these instances.