Council Tax

Not Leigh Conservatives again!

leigh conservatives in touch spring 2015

Am I alone in detecting a sense of weary resignation in the headline “Bernard selected again…, as the Conservatives announce Bernard Arscott as their candidate for Leigh ward in May?

Of course, the leaflet needs to tell voters who the party’s candidate is (Even if, as with Prittlewell Lib Dems, they only do so as the merest afterthought -Ed), but I’m slightly amazed that they can’t muster even a little enthusiasm for their candidate.

And if they can’t, how are the voters supposed to?

Read on…

Southend Conservatives: Out of power, out of touch, out of ideas

Southend Tories we don't have a clue

Tonight, Southend Borough Council will debate the first budget of the joint administration. Or, to put it another way, the first Southend budget in fourteen years not to have been written by the Conservative Party.

I’ve made my own thoughts on the budget known, but as of 6am yesterday morning (Who makes announcements at 6am? That time of day is for repeatedly hitting snooze on the alarm, and eventually forcing yourself out of bed -Ed) Conservative councillor James Courtenay has made known his party’s.

And they’re fairly…weak.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s good that they’re trying. But one would think for the party which actually set the budget for nearly a decade and a half, and which has thrown quite so many hissy fits since it lost power over how others are doing it wrong, they might have something more solid to contribute.

Read on…

Lies, damn lies, and Southend Conservative Party posters

southend tory council tax poster corrected

The Conservative Party in Southend yesterday released their batch of local election posters. It’s pretty unadventurous stuff, to be honest, but I did like the rather brazen one about council tax. It takes some fairly impressive cheek to print something which, if not an outright lie, is certainly highly misleading.

I’ve written before about how the Conservatives in Southend have not yet recovered from the psychological shock of being rejected so emphatically by the people of the town in May last year. They have no new ideas to sell, so they cling desperately to the belief that the voters made a mistake, which they are bound to realise soon. Right? …right?

That, I think, is the mindset behind the “SOUTHEND’S COUNCIL TAX BOMBSHELL” poster. Luckily for the local Conservatives, I have “fixed” it for them, above. I’m generous like that.

Read on…

Fluent in Flewitt: decoding Mark’s budget views

mark flewitt

St Laurence ward’s Cllr Mark Flewitt is an enthusiastic blogger, I’ll give him that. Trouble is…well, he’s not terribly good at it.

(Not to overuse the Mandy Rice-Davies quote, but you would say that, wouldn’t you? -Ed)

When it is deciperhable without prior knowledge what exactly he is actually talking about, he meanders around from subject to subject without much regard for his audience’s ability to keep up

(Again, you can talk -Ed)

His latest blog, for example, starts off claiming that Labour activists have been instructed not to talk about the economy on the doorstep. For the record, we haven’t: I had many such conversations at the weekend with Blenheim Park residents, particularly about how George Osborne’s recovery for the few has seen their wages shrink and their living costs rise.

He then goes on to give his thoughts on the draft local budget for Southend Borough Council. Credit to him, Mark is the first opposition councillor to actually venture an opinion on the budget, but his approach is a little scattergun.


Southend budget: Vital services protected, despite £11m Tory cuts

southend civic centre

This afternoon, the draft budget for Southend Borough Council has been announced and made public by the joint administration. I haven’t had a chance yet to go over it in any great detail, so this is simply an overview of the headlines.

The most notable measures of the budget are:

  • Priory House care home has been saved from closure under the previous Tory administration’s policies.
  • No more children’s centres to close.
  • No more money taken out of Libraries.
  • At least £850,000 saved from new waste contract, with weekly service maintained.
  • To fund this, and plug the £11m gap in Southend’s funding resulting from Tory cuts, council tax will increase by 1.95%, which is equivalent to £2.19 a month, or  51p a week, on a band D property.

Read on…

Parish Precept Pickle, Part Two

scheming eric pickles

Last week I blogged about how the vaunted Localism Act 2011 contains a worryingly little-known loophole which makes it apparently illegal for Parish Councillors to set an annual budget without signing a special dispensation first.

Only two days after that blog was published, Brandon Lewis — a Conservative junior minister in Eric Pickles’ Department of Communities and Local Government — wrote one of those lovely DCLG letters to everybody-and-nobody on the matter (thanks to Cllr Martin Petchey for the tip). Mr Lewis says:

…some council monitoring officers are informing their councillors that being a council tax payer is a disclosable pecuniary interest in any Budget debate. Councillors are then informed they would be committing a criminal offence if they speak or vote in that debate unless they obtain a formal dispensation.

Whilst my department does not issue legal advice, in our opinion, such dispensations are unnecessary. Council tax liability applies to the generality of the population; councillors have no unique position in that regard.

Being a council taxpayer or being eligible for a discount under the new local arrangements for council tax support are pecuniary interests, but are not disclosable pecuniary interests as specified in regulations. Therefore a councillor does not need to seek a dispensation in order to participate in discussions or vote on decisions in the council tax setting process or local arrangements for council tax support.

Which makes for very interesting reading. It’s nonsense, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Mr Lewis appears to be trying to paint omitting an exemption from the interest declaration rules for the setting of precepts as a deliberate act. It’s common sense, says Mr Lewis. All councillors will be paying council tax, so it’s obvious that this couldn’t prevent participation in a budget.

A nice thought, but it doesn’t really hold water. The previous code of conduct had explicitly contained an exemption. The new code, under the Localism Act, has no such exemption. The only legitimate conclusion — if one assumes that the government is halfway competent, and knows what it is doing with legislation — is that the exemption has been deliberately repealed because it is not intended to apply any longer.

It would have been refreshing had Mr Lewis admitted that the DCLG had made a mistake in the drafting. It would even have been passable — though nonsense in a different way — if he had explained it as an ideological move to do…something. But I’m afraid this is just hollow spin from a government which doesn’t have a clue what its doing.

Uncle Eric’s Parish Precept Pickle

scheming eric pickles

It’s that time of year again — all across the country, local authorities are setting their budgets for 2013/14. From the big county councils and unitary boroughs, right down to the tiniest of parish councils, and Wargrave is no exception.

Last week, I and the other councillors on Wargrave Parish council debated and discussed our own budget. Decisions were made on the rates charged for services like the youth centre, and spending on upkeep of areas within our remit. We also made a decision on the precept, the element of council tax set at parish level.

Now, Uncle Eric (Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles) has already said that local authorities of city, borough and council level have to hold a referendum if they want to raise their council tax by more than 2% (a blog will be forthcoming in the near future on that, believe me). This doesn’t yet apply to parish level, but there are fears it will do  next year.

Anyway, in the course of setting the precept for the next financial year, an interesting problem has come to light in the drafting of the Localism Act.

Almost all parish councillors will live in the parish. Most will pay council tax in the parish. Some may even own property in the parish. Thus, they all have a personal and pecuniary interest in the level of the precept.

In the normal course of parish council business, if I have an interest in a matter under discussion (say, a planning application by my neighbour, which will potentially impact upon the value of my own house) I must declare it and leave the room for the duration that it is under discussion.

The old parish council code of conduct, under schedule 1, paragraph 10 of the Local Authorities (Model Code of Conduct) Order 2007, contained an exemption from the declaration rules in the case of setting the precept:

You do not have a prejudicial interest in any business of the authority where that business — … (c) relates to the functions of your authority in respect of— … (vi) setting council tax or a precept under the Local Government Finance Act 1992.”

However, that code of conduct was replaced under the Localism Act 2011. Now the provision dealing with declarations of interest is as follows:

(2) If the interest is not entered in the authority’s register, the member or co-opted member must disclose the interest to the meeting, but this is subject to section 32(3).

The member or co-opted member may not — (a) participate, or participate further, in any discussion of the matter at the meeting, or (b) participate in any vote, or further vote, taken on the matter at the meeting — but this is subject to section 33.

As you may notice, the exemption for setting precepts is gone. But it does mention s33 of the act, so what does that say?

(1) A relevant authority may, on a written request made to the proper officer of the authority by a member or co-opted member of the authority, grant a dispensation relieving the member or co-opted member from either or both of the restrictions in section 31(4) in cases described in the dispensation.

(2) A relevant authority may grant a dispensation under this section only if, after having had regard to all relevant circumstances, the authority — (a) considers that without the dispensation the number of persons prohibited by section 31(4) from participating in any particular business would be so great a proportion of the body transacting the business as to impede the transaction of the business…

So an exempting disposition can be granted, but it has to be done so specifically. Hence the Wargrave Parish Council clerk rushing around forms for us to sign so that we could decide the budget, last week. So when we approve the new budget tomorrow, it will be entirely legal — but how many parish budgets across the country won’t be?

Most people won’t have read the Localism Act, and won’t notice this change. Indeed, the lack of comment on it suggests that it might have escaped the notice of many who really ought to know.

To me it looks like either Uncle Eric has laid a cruel and unusual trap for parish councils, or he has no idea what effect his flagship piece of legislation has. Neither of which is encouraging…

Deafening Criticism, Met by Deafening Silence

As the letters page of the Wokingham Times fills with criticism, and the council holds its silence, the scandal shows no signs of blowing over.

We are now at two weeks since Wokingham Borough Council’s new waste collection started to roll out across the borough. As blue bags and explanatory notes reached residents, the true meaning of the new scheme sank in. And they weren’t amused.

On Monday I blogged about how the council had issued no response to residents’ concerns, or to my accusations of illegality. Rebuttal was left to non-political local government officers, and even as The Wokingham Times picked up my line about it being a stealth tax, none of the council executive members mounted a response. Even the usually vocal Cllr Keith Baker has been conspicuous by his absence from the comment threads.

I knew that the letters page of this week’s Times would be dominated by it. I half wondered if it would be there that the council issued it’s response. But no. None of the letters about bins were signed by “Cllr” anybody. So I can’t issue a response to a council statement, because one hasn’t been made. What I can do, however, is give you a flavour of the letters sent in.

I’ll start with Mrs N Hamilton, who I strongly suspect is @NikiH7. She too requested a breakdown of the cost, and comments on the enormous overheads included in the fee:

“If you purchase several rolls at a time whilst there is only one cost to the council we are still charged as of each roll were delivered separately. Either the council or Veolia will profit if people do this. When I suggested that surely we could purchase from the council offices and not be charged for delivery, I was informed that this is not possible as they can’t monitor the distribution of bags to ensure they are not used for commercial waste but Veolia can.”

If you’re wondering what precisely Veolia can do to monitor usage that the council can’t, you’re not the only one.

Next we have Mrs AW, from Charvil:

“I today received my new blue bags for my rubbish. They are 3/4 the size of normal black rubbish bags, and two have broken simply trying to get them off the roll…It is not sufficient for a family of two. Imagine a family with two or three small children- they will use their allocation in a month or two.”

She finishes, tellingly, by saying:

“I am a taxpayer, I am paying the salaries of council officials who have not consulted me or any other taxpayer I know in WBC about how to solve the waste problem – instead diktats from the lofty council officials we cannot speak to because we now have Wokingham Direct. Value for money from WBC? I think not.”

Karen Barnard says:

“…the bags are smaller and thinner than black plastic bags bought from the supermarket, so they can’t be filled as much and are likely split very easily, meaning that the rubbish may need to be double bagged. WBC may claim that they haven’t increased the council tax, but I beg to disagree… I feat that many people will take to dumping their rubbish in a ditch. But I suppose the old saying is true after all – where there’s much, there’s brass. Its certainly true for WBC and the company contracted to collect the rubbish.”

Oddly (or perhaps not, since he’s listed as UKIP candidate for Norreys ward), Keith Knight reckons it’s all the EU’s fault:

“The main reason being is that landfill in the UK and Naples, along with the rest of the EU comes under the EU Landfill directive. All countries across the EU are expected to comply…no matter who is running our council, our council has no choice but to cut down on the amount of waste going to landfill or face EU fines.”

Which I don’t buy. If it’s purely the fault of the evil EU, then why aren’t other councils burdened with such ridiculous waste schemes? Cutting down on landfill is, I feel, a noble aim. The problem is this isn’t the way to do it. Rather than using charges to stealth tax residents, the council should aim to expand the range of materials that they recycle.

June Wilson agrees with me about the stealth tax:

“How dare the council say that there is a council tax freeze… As someone who pays £107 per month council tax, when I learned that the £60 for the wheelie bin is not a one-off payment but an annual fee I was outraged. This is 56 percent increase in the council tax of those who have an environmental conscience.”

I’ll finish with this from John Barnard, in Lower Earley. It did rather tickle me, and it sums up how I (and, it seems, many others) feel about the council and this policy:

“‘Yippee,’ said Noddy. ‘If we give everybody small flimsy rubbish bags, not only will everybody throw away a lot less rubbish, but most of the bags will break before they reach the lorry, so we only need one lorry instead of two.’

“‘D’oh!’ said Homer, ‘but where will all the real rubbish go?’

“‘It will be taken away by the fairies,’ said Noddy, with undisguised glee.”

Botching the Bins

The new bin bags of Wokingham's (possibly illegal) waste collection scheme, and a poll from the Wokingham Times showing how residents feel about it.

It’s unpopular, its possibly illegal, and it’s happening now! I am, of course, talking about Wokingham Borough’s new waste collection and disposal scheme, the rolling out of which has begun today.

The gist of the scheme is that households will be restricted to 80 bags of waste per year. These bags will be given out to residents, and waste in any other bags will not be collected. If more bags are needed, then residents will have to buy them at £0.40 each.

Today saw the first stage of distribution of the bags. Now, since these are rationed out amongst households, and more have to be paid for if needed, this means that the rolls of 80 bags going out today and throughout this month are worth £32 each. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that they were simply being left on doorsteps.

There has already been some discussion of a “blue bag black market” once this scheme is rolled out, so the council should be on top of this. There is so much potential for opportunistic theft here, as people look to amass a stock of bags to meet their own needs, and to sell any surplus for profit.  These bags represent £32 of council tax paid by each household- what the council are doing is the equivalent of giving you a £32 tax rebate and leaving it in cash, in an envelope taped to your front door.

This is shocking, but not terribly surprising. The whole scheme has been poorly thought out from the beginning, and potential problems with it have been raised from all sides, and been brushed off by the Conservative administration. What they are doing is introducing additional charges (“stealth taxes”, if you will) for services which were previously paid for by your council tax, in order to be able to shout about how your council tax isn’t going up (which, incidentally, if you live in Wargrave it is). They aren’t actually saving you money, they’re just charging you more on the sly.

Credit where it’s due, whoever operates the @WokinghamBC twitter account has been trying their best to field queries about this all day, and I had a particularly enlightening exchange with them (below) which explains what to do if your bags are stolen. But with a policy which was never popular, the council seem determined to scale new heights of criticism. The Wokingham Times article about it is brimming with unhappy commenters, and their online poll (pictured) shows just what residents feel of it.

My somewhat-helpful exchange of tweets with the council, about the distribution of the new blue bin bags.

For Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe (and other RG10 area) residents then, your blue bags will be delivered on FRIDAY 9TH MARCH. I’m not sure how much use knowing this will be, as it’s likely to be in the day and many residents will be at work, but you might want to make arrangements for someone to secure yours on your behalf. Other than that, I’m not sure what else can be done, but if you want to send an annoyed letter to your local councillor then maybe they’ll at least realise how riddled with holes this scheme is.

The truth is that this was a botched idea, a botched conception, and now a botched execution.

UPDATE: Fresh news on this fiasco this morning. The Wokingham Times are reporting that Paul Baveystock, the head of waste and recycling, has promised to replace all bags reported as stolen free of charge. This is a positive step, and frankly the only reasonable thing that the council could have done, but questions still remain.

Firstly, this has been a disaster. And not an unpredicted one. The council executive repeatedly ignored concerns raised over it, assuring everyone that these problems would not occur. Well, they have. And whilst I salute Mr Baveystock stepping in, what needs to happen is for Cllr Gary Cowan (executive member for environment) to stand account for these failures.

Secondly, the entire point on which this scheme was mooted was one of savings (though, in fact, expense was only shifted onto residents, through a stealth tax). If Mr Baveystock will replace all bags reported stolen free of charge, and has said:

“We take those reports at face value…”

then, whilst that is definitely the right thing to do, the scheme is opened up to fraud. How much will this cost the council? How will this affect the finances? And what other public services will have to be sacrificed to pay for Wokingham Borough Council’s ineptitude?