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

During my time at the TaxPayers’ Alliance we’ve experienced a notable rise in what are commonly referred to as stealth taxes. A number of cities have introduced innocuous-sounding schemes from Clean Air Zones to Workplace Parking Levies. These are sold on the premise that they will improve pollution and congestion but in reality they are nothing more than a desperate tax grab to boost councils’ coffers at the expense of local residents.

Authorities have also become increasingly aggressive at using motorists as cash cows. Last year alone they raked in £1.76 billion in fines and fees, just in England. So with this in mind maybe I shouldn’t have been as shocked as I was to learn that Brighton and Hove City Council managed to rake in £1.8 million from just four bus lane cameras in a little over a year.

What angers me most though, about this particular example is the unsporting tactics employed by the council. Yes, motorists should be fined if they flout traffic and parking regulations. However, councils also have a duty to ensure that any vehicle restrictions are clearly signposted and quickly intelligible. As you’ll gather from this article it’s not hard to see why Brighton council fined 310 cars per day at its peak in October.

It’s not cricket and speaks to a worrying attitude I think we’re seeing more of from councils. Many would rather drum up ways to hoover up cash from already over-taxed motorists rather than putting greater effort into eradicating wasteful spending and operating more efficiently.

Winchester’s woeful welcome

In a similar vein, the Welcome Back Fund continues to irritate me as, yet again, a local authority’s use of the cash is questionable to say the least. Winchester City Council is currently tendering a contract worth between £5,000 to £7,000 for an “artist or design agency to design and install artwork / imagery on the vacant shop window of the former Debenhams building.” According to the council the building has been vacant for some months and an “artistic window wrap” is needed to dress up the high street.

Several questions immediately spring to mind. Who in their right mind approves this nonsense? How did they come up with the value for the contract? And is this really the best use of taxpayers’ cash at a time like this?

Yet again this shows what I believe is the poor mindset of many people in local government and how they deem it appropriate to allocate public money. Fair enough that the council seeks to improve the appearance of the high street, no one likes to see empty dilapidated shops. But why not contact the local university and ask if any art students would be willing to showcase their works or perhaps create something?

I suspect many students would be happy to do it for free to gain experience and for a bit of self-promotion. Consequently, thousands of pounds could be put towards more pressing matters. Perhaps new outdoor seating, cleaning graffiti or helping to attract businesses to take on the shop lease and start paying business rates again?

Simple savings make a big difference

It’s not all bad news though. I can report that at least one council seems to have the right attitude to taxpayers’ money. Test Valley Borough Council in Hampshire has managed to cut its stationery costs by £55,000 over the last five years. Pens and paper may not be the most interesting or glamorous items of spending but it’s a real world example of simple savings that local authorities can make.

In this case, the savings are enough to cover around thirty Band D Council Tax bills. That’s really important to consider when the economy and people’s finances are in dire straits – every penny matters. Like we saw with council printing costs during the pandemic, millions of pounds can be saved.

If every local authority in the United Kingdom made on average £50,000 of stationery savings that would add up to approximately £20 million. This is the mentality that councils need to have – making spending cuts that benefit taxpayers and don’t result in cuts to frontline services.