Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
Following the release of the Town Hall Rich List, my inbox has been flooded with examples of local authority profligacy. Of particular interest was a tip-off from Wolverhampton which revealed the massive increase in the Council’s expenditure on its communication team.
Figures show that since 2014-15 spending has more than doubled from £412,681 to £922,978 in 2020-21 – an increase of 123 per cent. In 2019-20 spending peaked at over £1 million. Alongside this, Council Tax has increased from £1,522 (2014-15) to £1,989 (2021-22). You have to wonder if council bosses have their priorities in the right place.
The council argues “the team has remained relatively stable and costs have reduced year-on-year”. I’m not sure I would describe an increase of 123 per cent as stable. Furthermore, cost reduction only came in the last year after five consecutive increases.
It’s worth adding that the director of communications hasn’t seen any reduction in their salary. Quite the opposite in fact. In 2019-20 they were paid £95,800 but by 2021-22 this had risen to £105,113. Let’s not forget a healthy pension contribution of over £27,000 as well. That means that 14 per cent of the communication team’s budget was spent on just one member of staff.
Residents in Wolverhampton suffered a 5.3 per cent increase in their council tax this year. I’m not saying councils shouldn’t have the means to communicate information about local services. Rather, maybe this money would be better spent on key services, such as collecting bins and fixing potholes.
Vanity and virtue-signalling
Similar questions need to be asked of Leicester City Council. Its use of taxpayers’ cash isn’t exactly exemplary. Band D Council Tax bills increased by almost £100 this year to £2,012. What are residents getting for their money? A litany of highly questionable spending decisions, it seems to me.
For starters, the authority wrote off a loan worth £600,000 to a local theatre, after it went into liquidation. This came after spending £3.6 million renovating the building which reopened in 2018, only to close three years later. Once again it begs the question, why does the public sector think it can succeed where the typically highly efficient private sector has failed?
Not put off by the failure, plans are now afoot to convert a museum into a tourist attraction at a cost of £11.6 million. But it’s not just vanity projects the council is fond of, it’s now planning to virtue-signal with taxpayers’ cash. On the council’s website and in its Capital Programme for 2021-22, £500,000 of funds have been set aside for the political movement Black Lives Matter. As my colleague, John O’Connell laid out on this website last week, taxpayer-funded lobbying creates something of a merry-go-round and cash is diverted away from frontline services.
Over the last five financial years, the average tax rise by Leicester City Council has been 4.5 per cent. Only on one occasion was the increase less than 4 per cent. Arguments that there is no fat left to trim from council budgets simply don’t hold water. If the trend continues, bills will be over £2,100 by next year. Residents deserve better. The authority must put an end to its specious spending.
Waffle from Waltham
The TaxPayers’ Alliance warmly welcomes transparency at all levels of government, especially when it comes to public sector procurement. As such the Contracts Finder website is an excellent resource for everyone from armchair ‘waste watchers’ to broadsheet journalists, wanting to keep an eye on public tenders. However, this is only any good if what is written in the contract makes sense.
Take this example from Waltham Forest Borough Council. It’s looking for “consultancy support for a strategic reset”. This sounds like something that would emanate from David Brent’s mouth. But it gets worse. The details of the proposal can only be described as a word salad:
“The Council is seeking to commission a Bidder to help us shape our strategic activity over the next year, creating a compelling narrative, working with management team to define and agree priorities and establishing the strategic programme that will enable us to deliver our priorities effectively.”
You’d have to go a long way to find a worse example of rambling middle management speak than this. I might be wrong of course and it might make perfect sense to you. If so, I recommend you apply as this ‘non-job’ pays up to £75,000. Maybe this role will bring long term benefits to the taxpayer but I wouldn’t bank on it.