George Osborne’s announcement in his speech at the Conservative Party conference that he was making £805m available to local authorities to freeze council tax in 2012-13 comes fast on the heels of news that Eric Pickles has found £250m for councils that maintain weekly bin collections. These are, as the Chancellor reminded us ‘challenging times’ and money is tight. That over £1bn has been found over the last few days might seem amazing, but find it they have.
The decision to offer local authorities cash to freeze council tax, a continuation of arrangements for the current year (2011-12) has been presented as evidence that “this government is absolutely committed to helping people through these times”. Putting to one side the fact that this will save the average person just £72, there is at least some evidence to suggest that the ‘help’ offered to citizens will actually be negligible.
The council where I live, the London Borough of Barnet, has for some time been committed to avoiding any increase in council tax. So it was hardly a surprise that they – like every single local authority in the country – decided to freeze bills for 2011-12. So far so good.
But with council funding severely cut, their budget has been put under great strain and so (again like every other local authority) they have been trying to find ways to balance the books. Efficiencies have been sought, costs cut and services reduced, but that appears not to have been enough. So attention has turned to ways of boosting income – charging more for some services, or introducing charges for things that had previously been free.
Barnet’s leadership, in another display of support for the government, have maintained their commitment to weekly bin collections. So the Environment and Operations Directorate – the team responsible for parks, open spaces, waste, recycling and residents parking – have sought to raise revenue rather than cut costs. What this has meant for hard pressed citizens is an increase of 400% in resident parking charges – wiping out the entire saving of a council tax freeze in one fell swoop.
I’ve also been told of by the organisers of a community festival being told that the cost of hiring the park was going up from £140 to £3,500. That is an eye watering increase of 2,500%! This community festival has been running in the area for 100 years and is surely the embodiment of Big Society – something Barnet are allegedly very keen to support (though perhaps no one told the Parks Department?)
I don’t mean to unfairly single out Barnet for particular criticism, I suspect there are many others doing similar things. I just happen to see in more detail what happens in Barnet – as an individual citizen as well as the perspective I get from my work. Nor do I wish to bash local government – there are plenty of others unhelpfully doing that already. I am a strong supporter of local government and I have been critical of the government’s lack of support for councils – particularly the decision to front-load cuts to their budget in the Spending Review. I can also see a strong argument for providing additional funding for local authorities (particularly to help them protect services to the most vulnerable and maintain support for civil society). However, what I do take exception to is presenting this funding as ‘support for cash strapped households’ when (at least in some instances) there will be no benefit to citizens.
As for Mr Pickles and his bin fetish, I cannot understand why the ministerial custodian of localism has such an obsession with maintaining weekly refuse collections. The Secretary of State is clearly entitled to create financial incentives for certain activity – just as local authorities should have the freedom to accept or reject them. However, in view of the fiscal climate and the huge range of challenges facing local authorities, I do not understand the prioritising of weekly bin collections over anything else.
Is there really a person in the land who thinks that weekly bin collections are the number one priority faced by local authorities? Are citizens having sleepless nights about their bins, rather than job security, pensions, health or education? I know there are some effective advocates who are campaigning to protect weekly collections, but I’ve not heard any of them say it was the priority we face today.
£250m is not, in the scheme of things, a huge amount of money for government. Nonetheless it would, as Simon Parker from New Local Government Network pointed out, pay for the residential or nursing care for 9,335 elderly people for a year. More significant is the signal is sends out, which is at best confusing and at worst downright damaging.