Emma Boon: Council tax rises unfair and unnecessary

New photo of Kersten England.
New photo of Kersten England.
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THE TaxPayers’ Alliance has uncovered thousands of examples of councils wasting taxpayers’ money since our inception.

We have continually campaigned for local authorities to be more open about how they spend our taxes too. Greater transparency has helped to keep a check on spending but there is still so much more to do. With more openness, it is easier for the public to hold local authorities to account.

Some of the stories of waste that we tackle may seem silly, but every penny squandered is real money taken from taxpayers’ pockets. We also look at the broader issues of how councils, police and fire authorities can approach their budgets as a whole and learn to work more efficiently to deliver medium and long term savings.

As councils across Yorkshire are making decisions about whether or not to freeze council tax in the coming weeks, we will be highlighting how they can make savings. It’s true that local authorities face challenging cuts to their central government grants, while spending on things like international development is increasing and expensive projects like high speed rail will go ahead. But many households are struggling to pay their council tax because it has almost doubled in the last decade.

Some local authorities have been living beyond their means and now that must change. Challenging times require challenging the status quo and innovative new ideas for ways to balance the books.

This year local authorities are being offered a Government grant to help to make it possible for them to freeze bills. With this added help from Westminster, there simply is no excuse for councils like York and Richmondshire, or police authorities like Humberside, to ask residents to pay more.

Several councils elsewhere in the country have shown that rates can be frozen or even reduced without hitting services. Seven councils in England have proposed a cut in council tax to help ease the pressure on their residents.

They are in the minority but they are standing up and proving that taxpayers don’t have to face an inevitable rise year after year. Around another 200 will freeze council tax with help from Central Government.

After consultation, Scarborough are already retreating from their proposed 3 per cent rise and will now offer councillors either a 2.5 per cent rise or a freeze. We hope they do what is right by local taxpayers and vote for the freeze.

To increase the pressure, our activists are taking part in action days in a number of areas where authorities are proposing a rise. There will be one in Richmondshire this weekend.

It is unfair to ask families or those on fixed incomes, who are already stretching their household budgets, to take the pain when there is non-frontline spending that can be cut first.

York Council pays staff who use their cars 52.2p per mile, that’s 7.2p per mile more than the HMRC recommended rate. Paying more than 45p per mile for car use is considered by the taxman to no longer be simply covering an expense but offering a taxable perk. Richmondshire pays a whopping 65p per mile to car users. It’s difficult to assess exactly how much could be saved, but it’s safe to say that this is one area where both councils could quickly and easily cut their spending.

The chief executive of City of York Council will have to be part of the team that makes several difficult decisions in the coming years about how to make savings. Kersten England is to be commended for turning down a pay rise earlier this month, but she still takes home more than the Prime Minister, with a £156,000 salary. Senior staff should not enjoy excessively high salaries or pay rises at a time when money is tight. They need to lead from the top and show that they are in touch with their residents, a small pay cut won’t balance the budget but will give council chief executives the moral authority to make necessary spending cuts elsewhere.

Councils need to focus on delivering services for the residents who pay for them. They need to try to drive down the cost of delivering those services and offer good value for money. Look at authorities like the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, or South Holland in Lincolnshire and you can see how they rigorously review and assess each spending decision to make sure that they are doing the best for their residents. Hammersmith and Fulham Council has saved millions by sharing services with neighbouring authorities.

Councils and police authorities don’t always need to increase council tax to balance the budget. A freeze this year doesn’t have to mean a higher increase next year. It’s time to establish a new culture in town halls across Yorkshire and the rest of the country and deliver lower council tax not just this year but in the long term.

* Emma Boon is campaign director of The Taxpayers’ Alliance.