department of communities and local government

Tories/ Lib Dem coalition slashes Southend’s funding by £11 million

southend civic centre

Can you picture £11 million? I mean, actually picture it? In cash, in change, in whatever denomination you like. Can you see it in your mind’s eye?

I cannot.

But the number is one which I haven’t been able to escape. £11m is how much Southend-on-Sea Borough Council’s funding has been cut for the 2015/16 financial year. £11m is how much less that the council have to spend on local services for Southenders.

So when you’re writing your Christmas thank you letters, don’t forget to thank the Tories and Lib Dems, and especially Uncle Eric at the DCLG. Because of them the council will have to make some tough decisions next year, and won’t be able to fulfil as much as it would like to to make your lives better.

Cheers for that.

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.

An Open Letter to Grant Shapps

Dear Mr Shapps

It has now been over a week since I wrote a blog about your statement of opposition, reported in January 2011 by the Daily Mail, to Wokingham Borough Council’s plans to change their waste scheme. At the time I attempted to ask you about this over Twitter, and sadly received no response.

However, I accept that you are a busy and popular man, and keeping track of so many tweets must be difficult at best- so I hope that this email will make it easier for you to respond.

Wokingham Council, as I am sure you are aware, is currently implementing a change in its waste collection scheme, to limit households to 80 blue bags, to be provided by the council. These bags will be collected weekly, and when residents run out they must purchase more from the council at £4 for a roll of 10 (or 40p per bag). In addition, the council is introducing a £60 charge for the green waste collection service, which was previously included within the council tax charge.

The Daily Mail quoted you as saying, in relation to the scheme:

If councils think they can hammer residents with stealth taxes through this sneaky route, the Government is prepared to take whatever steps necessary to protect taxpayers’ interests.

Some the Conservative members of the council have, again on Twitter, denied that you have said this, so I suppose my first question would have to be whether or not you did? Are the Mail mis-attributing or mis-quoting you, as your Conservative colleagues have suggested?

Secondly, given that the council have apparently paid no heed to your objections, what actions do you intend to take? Does the DCLG have a policy for matters such as these?

I understand that several local authorities have undertaken such limitation-and-charge methods, which myself and many other local residents see as a “stealth tax”. I am sure that yourself and your ministry colleagues will share our concern, and indeed I have seen myself letters from your department and DEFRA demonstrating concerns over its legality. What is your current stance over the legality of Wokingham’s plans? And if you believe them to be illegal, will you be taking them to court over the matter?

On a related note, my reading of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 seems to indicate that whilst the council can dictate the type of bag to be used, they cannot specify a particular bag provided by themselves as this would constitute an illegal monopoly. Thus, if residents use bags of the same specification as those provided by the council (80 litre capacity and 25 micron thickness) then the obligation to collect waste remains.

Similarly, s46(3) of the Enviromental Protection Act states that:

In making requirements under subsection (1) above the authority may, as respects the provision of the receptacles—…(b) propose that they be provided, if the occupier agrees, by the authority on payment by him of such a single payment or such periodical payments as he agrees with the authority; (c)require the occupier to provide them if he does not enter into an agreement under paragraph (b) above within a specified period…

This seems, to me, to indicate a capacity on the part of local residents to opt out of the scheme and use bags of their own provision if they so wish. Yet from what I have heard from other residents any such attempt to opt out is met “robustly” (to be polite) by council officials.

What is yours and your departments stance on these matters? Can you confirm my reading of the law? And in light of your aforementioned statement in the Daily Mail, what action will you be taking to prevent the council for enacting the scheme?

I hope you will agree with me that this is an important and worrisome matter, of much importance to local residents. in light of the public interest, I will be posting this on my blog, and when I receive your reply I will do the same with that- so that residents can see the national government’s response to their situation, even though local government remains intrangisant.

I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely

Matthew S. Dent