Published:

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

One of the common rebuttals to the TaxPayers’ Alliance’s Town Hall Rich List, is “if you don’t pay top dollar, councils can’t attract the best staff”. I was reminded of this after reading an in-depth report published recently by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) into the bankruptcy of Northamptonshire County Council in 2018.

It’s a highly critical analysis of a failed council and lays bare the “cultural malaise” that engulfed the authority. The report’s authors write:

“A ‘group-think’ mentality had prevailed at the Council for many years, with senior officers and politicians inclined to pursue misguided courses of action while failing to accept the reality of the organisation’s predicament. Dissenting voices were ignored, partners were brushed aside if they didn’t adhere to the Council’s view and offers of help from within the sector were rebuffed until it was too late.” 

Perhaps no surprise then, that an impartial assessment of the authority’s finances revealed that a forecasted shortfall in the budget of £8 million was actually nearer £64 million – it would almost be funny if the consequences weren’t so serious.

Looking back over the figures for 2017-18, Northamptonshire employed 19 members of staff who received remuneration in excess of £100,000. The annual bill to the taxpayer for these staff alone was £2.8 million. Adding insult to injury, the outgoing chief executive – who ironically then went on to work for a firm that advised councils on how to reduce financial pressures – received a loss of office compensation package of £142,000. So much for the top dollar argument…

If you’re a councillor and your authority also suffers “from a lack of strategic direction” or a “preoccupation with far-fetched experiments and ill-thought through exotic solutions”, I urge you to read the report and act on its recommendations.

Can we have some more, please?

From one report to another, as the Public Accounts Committee released its latest report on COVID-19 and the effects on local government finance. As you would expect, it details the impact of the pandemic on council finances – despite injections of funds from central government the future still looks bleak.

A number of recommendations are made to MHCLG. A key one is that there should be more certainty about the amount of funding coming from central government. Consequently, there have been yet more calls for gaps in council budgets to be plugged by central government.

This is one of the big issues I have with the report. Yes, I’m sure MHCLG could improve, but what about local authorities? The report notes that councils are making efficiency savings to make up for funding shortfalls but seems to suggest that the pips are already beginning to squeak.

As I hope I’ve made clear in this column over the weeks and months, there is still plenty of fat left to trim. Councils’ first instincts shouldn’t be to demand more money from central government (read: taxpayer) – this mentality must change.

The highs and lows of Council Tax bills

Last week I visited Nottingham where residents are now paying the highest council tax in the country at £2,226 for a Band D property. On the journey, my colleague asked me what the highest bill in England was irrespective of banding. I didn’t know, only that it would be over £4,000 for a Band H property in Nottingham. This got me thinking, we always talk about Band D bills because it’s a handy average but what about bills at the high and low end of the scale?

Data reveals that the highest council tax is indeed in Nottingham with a Band H bill coming in at a colossal £4,452. 104 local authorities in England have a Band H charge in excess of £4,000 but only one is in London – Kingston-upon-Thames charges £4,114.

On the other end of the scale, only eight councils charge less than £1,000 for a Band A bill (without any form of discount, e.g. single person or carer discount etc). Of those seven are in the capital, the City of London, Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Wandsworth and Westminster. Westminster has the lowest Band A bill in England at a mere £553. Windsor & Maidenhead is the only local authority outside of London to charge less than £1,000 for Band A at £982.

It’s interesting to see the huge range in Council Tax charges across the country. However, if trends continue next year we’ll likely see fewer people paying less than £1,000 and more facing bills of over £4,000. This is why it’s vital that authorities eradicate as much wasteful spending as possible.