Monday, 22 February 2010

The Berkshire Council Tax Debate: Views And Perspectives

The proposed changes in Council Tax is regularly the biggest debating issue of the year on the local scene - and it looks like 2010 will be no different!

The jockeying for position has already begun as each party sets out their stall ahead of the general election to offer indications about how they propose to balance economic and social pressures at hand.


RBWM grabs the headlines

Grabbing all the headlines has been the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead, which has decided to buck the trend of perpetual rises to slash Council Tax rates by 4%.

The Conservative-dominated council has been held up as a model authority by party officials, which they suggest indicates exactly what they are possible of achieving when in power.

Leader of RBWM, Cllr David Burbage trumpets the move. He explains that the cut fulfils a 2007 manifesto pledge to deliver below-inflation rises every year - and that this was done by reducing expenditure by £6.2m without impacting frontline services.

He cites the example of car-maker Toyota's 'lean' business model as one which should be followed by councils, describing how his Conservative group are "rolling out Lean throught the council" - however this manages to overlook the recent scandal to hit the company which saw the recall of over 8 million vehicles after safety concerns were 'resisted' by the reliance on flawed reports which directors covered up by issuing 'misleading' statements.

Toyota president Akio Toyoda has since explained that "priorities became confused" at the company.

Unison's head of local government services group Heather Wakefield writes on this precise point in Public Finance magazine that the model of finding efficiency savings in 'back office administration
"is a crude mechanism that conveniently overlooks the fact that well functioning administration and technical support behind the screen are critical to effective and efficient front-line services,"
adding that "what this all means for Windsor & Maidenhead’s vulnerable elderly and children is clear to see."

Neville Hobson looks at the lasting implications and wonders whether their organisation can survive such a damaging blow to their public trust.

But the announcement that RBWM would be the second council in the country to make real-term cuts in council tax drew a range of excited responses from ideological 'cutters'.

The Daily Telegraph also noted that Prime Minister Gordon Brown had issued a directive that he would reduce the cap on rises from 5% to 3% due to the current economic circumstances.

The Tax-Payers Alliance described the development as all the more remarkable because it followed rises of 1.9% and 2.5% in the two preceding years.


Elsewhere in Berkshire

Meanwhile a similar refrain has coloured the issues throughout the county.

Commenters on Slough Forum were unimpressed by the lack of debate on the issue - with Slough likely to remain Labour-controlled for at least the short-term Catweazel suggests the only option is to move to Maidenhead!

Bracknell blogger Darren Bridgeman analyses the budget proposed by the ruling Conservative party in Bracknell Forest. Surprisingly Bracknell will have a near maximum 2.9% rise this year - the highest in the county.

Reading's Cllr Richard Willis was particularly impressed by the tough stance taken by his colleagues in Maidenhead saying it would cut the burden on the public. He argues that local services are 'inadequate' in a number of areas, and paid for by taxes which are the highest in the county (although this discounts any local factors within the borough).

Cllr Willis also offers the pledge from Reading Conservatives that Council Tax will be frozen if they gain control of the authority in May's local elections.

Reading's Labour party responded to this through Cllr John Ennis. He launches a volley against the Conservatives in Reading for failing to provide any concrete counter-proposals and he challenges them to be clear with the public about precisely what they would cut.

He highlights the case of Wokingham where the relatively low rise of 1.9% will be accompanied by 150 job cuts among council staff as the Conservative-dominated authority seeks to find savings of £9.5m after being severely hit during the Icelandic financial crisis.

Leader of Wokingham's opposition Liberal Democrat group, Cllr Prue Bray gives a particularly interesting insight.

She explains that Wokingham tories have passed an incomplete budget which will require a 'supplementary estimate' later this year, as she says, "the Tories have put together a budget which leaves out some of the things they know they are going to be spending money on."

She goes on to comment:
"The idea that you can actually PLAN to raid the reserves because you are deliberately setting an inadequate budget is, to say the least, unusual. What would you do if there was a real emergency?"
And in an odd reversal of affairs Woodley's ruling LibDem Town Council were attacked by Conservatives as 'out of touch' for setting a reduced rise of 1.45% - below the 1.9% set by Wokingham Borough (Woodley Town lies within Wokingham Borough).

Somewhat ironically a Conservative spokesperson described them as "inconsistent, unreliable and [showing] a complete lack of experience with financial matters."

But the final word goes to another Town Councillor, this time Wokingham's Robin Smith, who advocates for a complete reform of the taxation system, starting with an adaptation of the Council Tax.

He says, "everyone hates Council Tax no matter what you do."

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Update: Independent Cllr Tony Jones describes as 'bogus' Labour's claim that a 2.2% rise in Reading was kept "as low as possible, while protecting services."

LibDem Cllr Glenn Goodall takes aim at the Conservatives for moaning about cuts to sandwiches, while they 'put nothing on the table'.

In the event Conservatives in Reading were embarrassed when they missed the vote on the budget, allowing the Labour proposals to pass unamended.

The potential for another marathon 3-day session (as happened last year) was averted as the 18 Conservative councillors sat outside the chamber and Labour won the vote by 19 votes to 8.

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More on Reading Borough Council's Budget for 2010/11

2 comments:

  1. Hey, you got the vote wrong... Tony Jones wasn't present so the 8 Lib Dems formed the only opposition against Labours 2.2 % council tax hike.

    I'm sure the Tories will somehow try to blame us for this, but it was their Mayor which allowed the vote... we even tried to delay the vote (calling for a named vote) but this was disallowed :S

    Quite shocking and sneaky tactics from Labour... I'm sorry to say it looked like incompetence from the Tories.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oops - typo! I did read the article before I used it as a link, honest!

    Amended now, thanks.

    ReplyDelete

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