Harry Fone is grassroots campaign manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
Debate about council tax has raged since Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, announced that the cap on rate rises would be increased from 4.9 to 5.9 per cent. Most councils are taking the opportunity to increase it by the maximum allowed before triggering a referendum: many council leaders across the country defended the increase, arguing that it was entirely necessary to maintain adequate funding for local services. A phrase often used to describe councils’ budgets by local politicians and left-leaning campaigners is that they have been “cut to the bone”. But is this really true?
The TPA’s Town Hall Rich List, a comprehensive document detailing the best paid staff at local authorities, suggests that there is a little more fat left to trim. For example, in the financial year 2016 to 2017, there were over 2,300 council employees who received remuneration in excess of £100,000, and more than 500 earning more than the Prime Minister (£150,000+).
Is running a council more difficult than running the country? Some will make the case that the Prime Minister should be paid more (which may have merit), but this cannot be used as a coherent argument for justifying the high salaries of many council staff. I suspect many reading this would be happy to take on these council jobs for far less than our survey reveals.
As grassroots campaign manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance I travel all over the country meeting our supporters and organising campaign days. Since December, we have been rallying against council tax rises and we hear the same thing from local residents nationwide: “Where does our money go?”
In part, it pays for very high salaries for lots of council employees. Bournemouth Borough Council spent £1.7 million on three employees, and the Chief Executive and Head of Paid Service at Birmingham City Council “earned” an eye-watering £666,662 last year. At a time when wage growth in the broader economy and other parts of the public sector is low (if not idle) how is it fair that taxpayers’ are asked to pay more, and yet local authority employees continue to receive ever larger pay packets?
People are fed up with being forced to stump up greater and greater tax sums every year, and not seeing improvements in local services. The average band D council tax bill in England is nearly £1,600, a 57 per cent real terms increase in the last twenty years. Taxpayers are being forced to pay more, yet the roads are still potholed and in some areas rubbish collections are every four weeks or, worse still, you have to pay a surcharge for green waste.
A common rebuttal to our campaign is that central government funding for local authorities has been reduced. This is indeed true but, even in years when this was not the case, councils were still increasing tax. I have spoken to many councillors who freely admit that when the funding was reduced they were able to make cuts to the tunes of millions of pounds without affecting frontline services. Many councils have continued to deliver high-quality services, and some aren’t increasing council tax. A striking example of this was on this very website just the other day, Kingston upon Thames council has made savings of £54 million, and reduced council tax by 60 per cent in real terms.
One of the most striking examples of simple ways to save taxpayers’ money came to light on recent a visit to the north east. I met with the Middlesbrough Independent Councillors Association and Middlesbrough Conservative Group. Together, they proposed an array of savings, merging the Chief Executive and Mayoral posts, capping staff salaries at £75,000, scrapping procurement of a large screen TV in the town centre, ending a grant of half a million pounds to the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, and much more. The upshot: total savings of just over £3 million and council tax could have been frozen without affecting front line services. Instead, the current Labour administration increased council tax by five percent: they wouldn’t even allow the alternative proposal to be read out at a budget meeting.
It’s not just local Labour administrations that deserve criticism – the Conservatives are just as guilty at times. One of our supporters in West Sussex was recently chided by his local Conservative Association for joining our campaign against council tax rises. We keep hearing Conservative politicians say they are the party of low taxes, but that doesn’t always bear out in reality. It is tempting to devote many paragraphs to the disastrously run Northamptonshire County Council but I won’t – Harry Phibbs has written in detail about it on this site. Suffice it to say it further highlights the glaring inefficiencies in local government.
At the TaxPayers’ Alliance, we are contacted daily about multiple examples of wasteful spending by local government. Whether it is spending £10,000 to moving parking meters from one side of the road to the other, demolishing a £4.2 million “state of the art” solar powered canopy just ten years after construction was completed, or even councils launching their own unprofitable energy companies, the list is seemingly endless when it comes to examples of misspent money. When combined with excessive local authority salaries the amount of money that could be saved conceivably stretches into the tens of millions of pounds. That councils’ budgets are cut to the bone seems to often be little more than a bleeding stumps argument. Yes, there is plenty to do to face up to and effectively tackle the care crisis, but there is still room for many councils to get their spending and very generous salaries under control before asking hard-pressed taxpayers for yet more money.