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

Back in February this year, I revealed that Slough Borough Council had spent millions of pounds of taxpayers’ cash adorning their new headquarters with plush fittings, astroturf and even bean bags. I questioned whether council bosses had their priorities straight – and it would seem that a recent independent audit confirms my suspicions.

The report by Grant Thornton lays bare the local authority’s financial incompetence, “we are not satisfied that, in all significant respects Slough Borough Council put in place proper arrangements for securing economy, efficiency and effectiveness in its use of resources for the year ended 31 March 2019.”

At the time of writing, Slough Council is yet to publish its latest statement of account. It’s perhaps not hard to see why given the auditor’s comments that there is a “lack of supporting audit trail for key notes in the accounts”. Worse still, the council has a budget gap of nearly £1.3 million and is forecast to have a mere £550,000 in its general fund reserves.

Grant Thornton has recommended a series of measures to address the council’s financial management. For the sake of local residents who suffered a 5.1 per cent increase in Council Tax this year, I hope town hall bosses are able to turn the ship around. They shouldn’t get comfy in those bean bags just yet.

Councils face tax deficit

The latest figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government reveal that councils in England face a £509 million net shortfall in the amount of Council Tax they expect to collect. The revelations come despite another year of inflation-busting council tax rises.

Out of 309 local authorities, 258 (83 per cent) reported they are expecting a deficit in council tax collections which totals close to £546 million. 10 councils are on par with just 41 reporting an expected surplus amounting to nearly £37 million.

Liverpool City Council has the highest deficit at £17.7 million compared to South Oxfordshire which had the greatest surplus at just over £4.2 million. Another name that jumped out of the top ten highest deficits was Croydon at £9.2 million – which will offer little comfort to local taxpayers who have seen their council go bankrupt in 2020 and leading to massive increases in council tax.

No doubt the pandemic has greatly affected balance sheets and the government has allowed councils to spread shortfalls across upcoming financial years until 2024. But once again this highlights why local authorities shouldn’t see residents as cash cows to be milked. They need to trim the fat in their budgets. As I wrote just the other week, there are plenty of places where they can make a start.

Laying down the law

I was delighted to read this week that the newly elected Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for Nottinghamshire has announced plans to save taxpayers £78,000 a year. Caroline Henry is set to scrap the role of deputy PCC and furthermore will not claim any expenses.

In fairness to the previous incumbent Paddy Tipping, he didn’t claim any allowances in 2020 and only claimed £1,885 in 2019. A relatively small amount of money in the scheme of things but it’s great to see Henry displaying the right attitude towards taxpayers’ hard-earned cash. Especially so, after residents were subjected to the maximum possible increase of £15 (Band D) for the police precept this year.

In a perhaps unfortunate twist, she may be forced to employ a deputy. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel is seeking to make the appointment mandatory in the near future. Time will tell whether this is the right move but I’m not sure it will please taxpayers. Doing some back of the envelope calculations and assuming an average salary of say, £60,000 for a deputy (it’s likely to be higher) – across the country the cost will be in the region of £2.5 million a year. This is just for salaries; the bill will likely be much larger when pensions, perks and expenses are factored into the equation.

In response, Caroline Henry has said she will not appoint a deputy until she is legally mandated to do so. I hope other Police and Crime Commissioners will follow her lead.