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

We’re barely into 2022 and already local and national newspapers are reporting that there will be more hikes in council tax. Given the mounting cost of living crisis, it’s critical that further tax increases are avoided. So I’ve come up with five New Year’s resolutions that I want local authorities to adopt in an effort to ease the financial burden on hard-pressed households.

Account for every penny

This may seem obvious, but it’s worrying how some councils seem unable to do this. A recent audit at North Ayrshire council revealed that 400 staff had access to council credit cards. Some didn’t know what the rules on their use were or how much they had spent in a given month. Adding insult to injury, of the ten employees questioned about their use of cards, only four responded. Taxpayers have every right to know how their hard-earned taxes are being used.

A lack of a proper audit trail can have dire consequences as we’ve seen yet again in Slough. When the authority filed a Section 114 notice its budget deficit stood at £174 million. However, at an Audit and Corporate Governance Committee meeting in early December last year I was shocked to learn that it has now risen to £308 million. Where on earth has a further shortfall of £134 million suddenly come from? Let this be a lesson to all councils; make sure you have the right people in place to enforce proper auditing and accounting procedures.

Stop wasting money

Despite 17 years of relentless campaigning by the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA) many councils still aren’t getting the message. From failing energy companies to white elephant projects, many local authorities have continued to pour public money down the drain. For example, spending thousands on hold music for council phone lines is far from a bright idea.

The pressure is mounting on millions of households to pay their bills every month. Not only are they set to be hit with soaring energy costs and a National Insurance hike but council tax bills are likely to rise too. Rooting out and eradicating wasteful spending is a sure-fire way to avert rate hikes. Mansfield Council has already announced a freeze in bills; let’s hope more authorities follow suit.

Make savings wherever possible

Once councils have put an end to wasteful spending, they need to look at how to spend taxpayers’ cash more efficiently. The pandemic has brought some unexpected benefits when it comes to saving money. TPA research showed that councils saved at least £32 million on printing in 2020-21. There may also be opportunities for staff to work from home more often, reducing the need for expensive office space and the various accoutrements that go with it.

Fundamentally though, town hall bosses must have the right attitude when it comes to taxpayers’ cash. They should strive to make savings. That means getting the best deal on everything from vehicle leasing and IT infrastructure to biros and paperclips. I’m a big proponent of a policy idea put forward by US political activist Austin Petersen – he argues that all publicly funded bodies should be able to find cuts totalling one per cent every year. Surely every council in the UK could manage this?

Put a stop to plush pay packets

One area they should start is to stop handing out overly generous pay packets and golden goodbyes to senior council bosses. As the Town Hall Rich List shows, an ever greater number of local authority staff are benefiting from remuneration in excess of £100,000 per year. In 2019-20 the deputy chief executive of Coventry council received a loss of office payment totalling £395,110 on top of his salary of £151,991. Across the entire county, 19 bosses enjoyed such payments in excess of £100,000, costing the taxpayer nearly £3.2 million. Total remuneration for the 2,802 staff receiving over £100,000 came in at close to £380 million. Just trimming this pay by 1 per cent would save £3.8 million.

The same goes for councillors and their allowances. Taxpayers have been sick to the back teeth of seeing council-after-council awarding themselves increases in the midst of a pandemic. In 2018-19 the cost of allowances to the public purse was £255 million. If members want to make their voters happy they should consider a freeze and taking a stand against fat cat town hall bosses.

Be open to ideas

If local authorities stick to the resolutions above then they should have absolutely no trouble keeping council tax rises well below the maximum permissible amount. But if they’re still struggling to keep a tight grip on the purse strings they shouldn’t be afraid to look elsewhere for inspiration.

Not long after I joined the TaxPayers’ Alliance, I ventured up to Middlesbrough to help local campaigners in their efforts to avert a big rise in council tax. They had put together a very sensible alternative budget that if implemented would have resulted in a tax freeze with not a single penny funnelled away from essential services. Sadly that proposal was never adopted and local taxpayers paid the price with a four per cent rise. Councillors must put politics aside and listen to alternative viewpoints to get the best deal for their constituents.