Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
A recent Slough Council meeting has further highlighted how desperate its financial situation is. In a presentation to members, the new Section 151 officer, Steven Mair, focussed attention on borrowing. In 2015-16, Slough’s debt was a seemingly manageable £1,200 per head of population. But in just five years it had more than quadrupled to £5,000.
Most interesting of all, is the council’s Minimum Revenue Provision (the minimum amount that must be charged to an authority’s revenue account each year for financing of capital expenditure). Slough should have somewhere in the region of £15 million allocated for this; it has just £40,000. The situation looks bleak. Not only does it have to find the cash to plug this hole, but the authority will likely have to convert short-term borrowing into long-term borrowing which is estimated to cost an additional £6 million per year. Currently, 20 per cent of the council’s budget is spent on debt charges.
Another factor that looks set to make matters even worse is rising inflation which could inflict yet more damage on debt repayment. No wonder Cllr Wayne Strutton, Leader of the Conservative opposition, is calling for the previous Section 151 officer, Neil Wilcox, to face questioning from council members. Wilcox is under no obligation to do so, but I hope will take up the offer. Unfortunately, as things stand the cuts to frontline services will likely be even greater than originally forecast.
A load of rubbish
Controversy abounds in Stirling, Scotland after the council announced plans to move to four-weekly bin collections. Rubbish and recycling isn’t exactly the sexiest topic in politics but it is one aspect of local government where taxpayers can easily see firsthand what their tax pays for.
The council claims the reduction in collections will save money and be beneficial to the environment. However, documents from a council show that the waste services budget will actually increase from £8.58 million to £9.47 million by 2025-26 – this is despite cuts and things like garden waste charges.
As for the environmental side of things, the case doesn’t look watertight either. Falkirk Council is currently the only other local authority in Scotland to operate a four-weekly landfill bin collection which was introduced in 2016. Figures reveal that the switch from a two-weekly collection has led to a decline in recycling from 55.2 per cent in 2013 to 53 per cent in 2019. It can’t be ignored either that residents may end up making more car journeys to the tip and increased fly-tipping can’t be ruled out either.
It’s no surprise that many taxpayers are annoyed about these new plans. Stirling has the eighth highest Council Tax bill in Scotland at £1,344.29 (Band D) causing many local residents to question if they are getting value for money. Once again it’s a case of paying top dollar and not getting the frontline services that residents deserve.
Council Tax rises and inflation
As I alluded to with Slough Council, inflation could be the next ticking time bomb when it comes to local authority debt. So I was eager to find out how English Council Tax bills have fared since 1993 when adjusted for inflation. Using government data I recalculated Council Tax figures from 1993-94 into their 2021-22 equivalents and the results are quite interesting.
As is true today, the lowest Council Tax bill in 1993-94 was in Westminster at £749. Average bills have only increased by £80 since then to £829. Conversely, the highest bill in 1993-94 belonged to Newcastle upon Tyne at £2,013 but bills have only risen by a mere £10 since then. Newcastle upon Tyne, Greenwich, Manchester, Haringey and Liverpool made up the top five for highest council bills in the country in 1993-94. Compare that today where the top five consist of Nottingham, Dorset, Rutland, Lewes, and Newark & Sherwood.
The top five highest percentage increases in real terms went to Huntingdonshire (79.9 per cent), Hambleton (77.5 per cent), Hinckley & Bosworth (75.8 per cent), Tewkesbury (75.5 per cent) and South Cambridgeshire (74.9 per cent). The five lowest were, Wandsworth (-25.9 per cent), Greenwich (-17.6 per cent), Hammersmith & Fulham (-14.3 per cent), Hackney (-9.8 per cent) and Islington (-7.5 per cent). Between 1993-94 and 2021-22 only 12 councils have seen a real-terms decrease in Council Tax. Of those Manchester was the only council outside of London to see a reduction in bills.
The overwhelming majority of Council Taxpayers have seen year after year of inflation-busting council tax rises. This data shows exactly why the TaxPayers’ Alliance calls for councils to start a War on Waste. All too many households are seeing bills shoot up and receiving sub-par services.