Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
Following the local elections, there will be many newly elected councillors, possibly now in overall control of a council, eager to make a big difference in their local communities. One of the best ways to do this is by ensuring that every penny of council tax nets maximum possible value. But of course hand-wringing council bosses and bureaucrats may well claim that there is no fat left to trim. That’s why I’ve laid out where simple savings can be made.
New research by the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) reveals that councils made huge savings on printing over the last twelve months. Local authorities spent just £41.6 million from April 2020 to February 2021, a staggering £32 million less than the previous financial year.
Some things must be printed out, perhaps most notably everything required to run a successful local election, but big reductions are possible as Chorley and East Riding have shown. Locking in these economic and environmental savings for the future can only be a good thing.
Make changes to senior staffing
As the latest edition of the Town Hall Rich List revealed, thousands of council employees are enjoying remuneration in excess of £100,000 per year. Polling by the TPA showed that 59 per cent of people want their salaries to be frozen or cut.
But questions remain about whether these executive positions are needed in the first place. Many insiders I’ve spoken to argue that there are too many directors in councils – a lot of the work could be done at management level.
Stoke City Council is seeking to reduce its number of senior staff and save taxpayers £360,000 a year in the process. If staff numbers can’t be cut, why not consider sharing senior staff between two councils and halve the wage bill for taxpayers?
Work with the private and voluntary sectors
I think most Conservatives would agree that the private sector tends to be more efficient than the public sector. I would argue that local government doesn’t fully explore the potential that’s available – there is no shortage of people and organisations seeking to make their area better for all.
Consider council award ceremonies for example. In 2019 the TPA discovered that nearly £6.6 million was spent on these extravagances. A minority of entrepreneurial councils managed to cover the costs through private sponsorship. More authorities should do so – not just for awards ceremonies (which are highly questionable in the first place). But perhaps for beautifying town centres or even covering the costs of Christmas lights. The possibilities are endless and if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen numerous examples of councillors awarding themselves increases in their allowances. From Bristol to Tower Hamlets, elected members have been seemingly tone-deaf to the financial problems many households have experienced.
As a newly-elected councillor, why not lead by example and return a portion of your allowances to taxpayers? If more of your fellow councillors follow suit there are huge savings to be made. In 2018-19 alone the TPA calculated the cost of allowances to the taxpayer at £255 million. At the very least, councils should commit to a freeze in allowances for as long as possible. Local taxpayers will thank you for it.
Seize the benefits of the working from home revolution
As I recently highlighted, councils are all too eager to splash the cash on shiny new headquarters. But given the pandemic has seemingly kickstarted the working from home revolution, should councils think again before building a new office block? With fewer people coming into the office, a smaller amount of space will be needed. Hot-desking is likely to be more widely adopted. With it comes very welcome savings on heating, electricity, IT equipment, to name a few.
It’s also worth considering what impact working from home could have on productivity and absenteeism. Figures by the ONS showed a huge decline in public sector productivity in Q2 and Q3 of 2020. Public sector absenteeism is still greater than that of the private sector and the trend doesn’t look like reversing anytime soon. Council wage bills eat up huge amounts of taxpayers’ cash. Councillors must enact policies and practices that get the best performance out of staff.
Savings must be made
It’s very plausible that in 2022-23, the average Band D council tax bill in England could be just shy of £2,000. Residents want a break from inflation-busting rate rises. They need proactive councillors who will keep a tight grip on the purse strings and ramp up efficiency.
There will be plenty of people who will tell you this can’t be done, but the government begs to differ. This document outlines even more ways to make savings. I hope this will inspire you to launch a ‘War on Waste’ in your local authority. If you’d like a helping hand, feel free to email me, harry.fone@taxpayersalliance.