Bernard Ingham: The riot that killed chance to curb our profligate councils

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NEXT Tuesday marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most shameful and vicious episodes in our post-war political history – the poll tax riot in Trafalgar Square.

Nearly 400 policemen were injured as rioters threw, among other things, scaffolding bars at them. The mob went on to damage shops, offices and cars over a wide area of central London in a rampage against Margaret Thatcher, the Tories and any convenient symbol of wealth.

It was, as Thatcher said, a miracle that no one was killed.

It was a graphic illustration of the hard Left’s propensity for violence in combination with anarchists who can be relied upon to batten on to any demonstration.

It was certainly no repeat of Wat Tyler’s peasants’ revolt against the poll tax of 1381.

After all, the 20th century poll tax was introduced to protect the citizenry from the systematic profligacy of mostly Left-wing local authorities. Between them, they regularly overspent by about £1bn a year.

In short, the hard Left rioted against the consequences of the Left’s propensity, continuing to this very day, to spend the public’s money like water. Where did they put their concern for the working class?

No government could ignore such overspending. But the idea that the Tories rushed into the community charge as a substitute for rates is bunkum.

As Thatcher’s Press secretary, I was needled for years by political correspondents over when she was going to do anything about the unpopular system. Ted Heath had promised action in his 1974 manifesto.

Local authority rates, linked to the value of the property occupied by the ratepayer, were as varied as they were disliked.

In a speech in Cheltenham while the rioters were knocking seven bells out of central London, Thatcher pointed out that it cost £96 more a year to live in Labour Warrington than in neighbouring Tory Trafford; £108 more in Labour Liverpool than in Tory Wirral; and £339 more in Labour Camden than in Tory Westminster.

As attempts to restrain councils came and went with little success, Lord Rothschild and William Waldegrave were sent away to apply their considerable intellects to the problem.

They came up with a flat charge on every resident as a means of increasing the democratic pressure on councils to moderate their spending, linked with a reform of business rates, which continue to cause angst.

The inequity and anti-democratic nature of the rating system is exemplified by the widow paying the same rates as a family of seven with five working children in an identical house next door. The minority foots the bill.

Thatcher hated the system for being, among many other things, “a tax on home improvements”, but I am not sure she would have grasped the nettle in the second half of the 1980s but for the Scots who now have the confounded cheek to complain they were used as poll tax guinea pigs. Balderdash.

Scotland was required by law to have a revaluation of properties every five years. The increases produced a political 
crisis north of the border. Something really had to be done, so the poll tax was introduced in Scotland in 1989, a year ahead of England and Wales.

While the government’s tortuous (and tortured) deliberations on devising the poll tax were going on from 1985, local authorities did what still comes naturally to them: they milked the system at every opportunity and raised their spending – and to hell with their residents.

What mattered to them – and still matters – was blaming central government for high rates while mucking up Whitehall’s budgeting.

This political war cost billions of pounds before John Major killed the 
poll tax in favour of the present council tax – i.e. effectively returning to rates – and with it any real control of local authority largesse.

Thatcher went to her grave believing that if the Tories had had the guts to persevere local councils’ appetites would have been curbed by a dose of democracy – that is by everybody contributing 
to the council’s financing instead of a minority.

Against this background, I have the gravest concern about the current government chucking billions at civic spendthrifts to re-make the Powerhouse of the North. After my experience of the poll tax, I am not inclined to trust the average councillor with a penny of my money.

Sooner or later central government will find a way of stopping them being free with it. I hope they manage to do so without a riot.