Bernard Ingham: A dose of common sense to balance council books

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THIS is the season of the abacus, bean counters and deviousness. I refer to the annual local government ritual of book balancing, council tax setting and damning central government for the consequent loss of services.

It is no way to run a railway. Roughly a third of councils are proposing to defy the Government’s council tax freeze, even though at the last count they had overall £16bn stashed away in reserves.

Few, if any, will go to the lengths of running a referendum to allow them to raise the tax by two percent or more. They know turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

In any case Whitehall last year offered £550m help with the freeze while enabling councils to raise more of their own revenue through retaining part of the business rate.

All this adds up to demonstrating that too many of our councils are run by a bunch of economic and political illiterates.

Local government spends £114bn a year – twice the defence budget – and cannot be immune from cuts when the nation still has a £100bn budget deficit nearly four years since we got rid of that ultra-spendthrift, Gordon Brown.

Until that is eliminated, we should recognise that we are all handicapped and that the people who will suffer most the longer it exists are the worst off.

Moreover, the real cut in local government spending averages a mere 1.7 per cent.

It is true the highest is over eight per cent but even then the Government provides cushions and incentives.

The only conclusion I can reach is that central government handles local government with kid gloves because of councils’ propensity, often regardless 
of political control, to claim credit for every success and blame Westminster 
for every cut.

It is fair to say that, by the very nature of the news business, we seldom hear nationally of councils’ successes.

We hear too often of their idiocies. How’s this for this year’s sample:

Ipswich knocking together two council houses for a jobless couple on £52,000 a year in benefits and expecting their 13th child.

Northampton cancelling a course on how to look after hamsters when nobody signed up.

Clydesdale spending an estimated £40,000 on an “eyesore” 200ft slalom ramp in the front garden of a house with three flights of steps allocated to a family with a girl in a wheelchair.

55 of the most deprived parts of the country lining their streets with 2,391 betting shops in which £13bn was gambled.

a majority of councils sacking around 1,000 lollipop men and women to save money.

all of them looking for ways of raising cash, including some charging for rat catching.

At the very least these examples suggest that some local authorities are administratively useless, spend money like water, don’t know what‘s good for their town and couldn’t care less about what a plague of rats could do to public health.

I am the first to recognise that many councils are under pressure on several fronts from Labour’s politically disgraceful open door immigration policy as well as an ageing population

But the overall image of current local government is frankly depressing for someone like me, brought up by a Hebden Royd Labour councillor who, so far as I could detect, judged cases on their merits rather than by their political advantage.

I have reached the conclusion that we have to go back to first principles. What is local government for? Is it to satisfy every trendy whim of the politically correct and indulge every minority or is it efficiently to secure the health, safety and basic interests of the community and protect the vulnerable as distinct from the indolent?

Is it to conduct civic affairs with economy in mind or lazily use central government as a scapegoat when its natural tendencies to tax and spend are frustrated?

I ask these questions because the evidence suggests local government has lost its moorings in common sense. It has long been clear that the salaries of council CEOs (formerly town clerks) are out of control, too many of them far in excess of the Prime Minister’s £142,000.

Yet, at the same time, borough councillors take home £10,000 or so simply for turning up at meetings. Council leadership pays better than a full time day job. And, blow me, central government has had to stop these graspers from giving themselves pensions, too.

I rest my case. Local government is not the same as when my father did the job for nowt.