Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
As it’s Christmas I thought now would be the perfect time to look at the performance of local authorities over the last twelve months and see which are on the TaxPayers’ Alliance naughty or nice list. It may be the season of goodwill but many councils deserve a lump of coal after their misuse of public money. They could certainly learn a thing or two from those that have made it into our good books.
Slough – It’s been an utterly miserable year for Slough council after racking up debts of £760 million and going bankrupt. Years of questionable spending decisions have led to this point. Who could forget council bosses splashing millions of pounds on an office building complete with bean bags and artificial grass for staff to sprawl out on after a hard day of frittering away taxpayers’ cash.
Nottingham City Council’s fortunes perfectly summed up why local authorities investing in energy companies is a terrible idea. At the start of the year, Robin Hood Energy went into administration leaving taxpayers on the hook for £31.6 million of losses. It’s no wonder that bankruptcy could still befall the council after years of questionable financial decisions. A rocky road lies ahead for 2022.
Things weren’t much better on Merseyside at Liverpool City Council. Not only was the mayor Joe Anderson arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation but the authority was put into special measures following a damning report that revealed staff were frightened to speak out. As things stand Liverpool has the highest Band D council tax bills in the North West at £2,129 and thirteenth overall in England.
In Brighton, the i360 tourist attraction continues to be a totem of mediocrity. Yet again the owners of the tower have failed to repay a loan instalment to the council. The money now owed has risen from £33 million to £45 million. Covid obviously hasn’t helped matters but the project was underperforming long before the start of 2020. Perhaps not surprising then that local residents saw their tax bills hiked by 5.1 per cent and the council has resorted to desperate measures to boost revenue.
Unlike Nottingham, Portsmouth council sensibly decided the best thing to do was to jettison its energy company as soon as possible. After being elected as council leader, Gerald Vernon-Jackson bit the bullet and scrapped Victory Energy, reversing the decision of the previous administration. While there was a loss to the taxpayer of £3.2 million, things could have been much worse as research by the TaxPayers’ Alliance made clear. It’s not just Nottingham that lost millions. Between them, Warrington and Bristol councils have seen £68 million go down the drain.
It was another year of inflation-busting council tax rises. Not a single council in England implemented a freeze or a reduction in tax. Only one council kept its tax hike to less than one per cent. Hartlepool increased bills by a mere 0.3 per cent which equals just £6.91 for a Band D property. Let’s hope they can keep bills to an absolute minimum in 2022 as well.
Despite everything the pandemic has thrown at the country there have been one or two upsides from a taxpayer point of view. Cornwall, Chorley and East Riding councils all made huge savings on their printing costs. Overall across the whole of the UK, printing costs declined by £31.9 million. Local authorities should look to keep this trend going in the coming years.
Continuing the theme of cost-cutting, Stoke City Council deserves praise after it announced plans to reduce the number of senior staff. By doing so it is estimated that taxpayers will save £360,000 a year. As this year’s edition of the Town Hall Rich List revealed, 2,802 council staff received remuneration in excess of £100,000 in 2019-20. Cutting the number of town hall fats will always be popular with voters.
Let’s hope councils learn from their mistakes, focus on their statutory duties and stay off the naughty list next year.