public services

The Cult of Council Tax


Here, on Thursday 23rd February, Wokingham Borough Council will vote on the budget for the next year, with embarrassingly little scrutiny or debate

So, a week from the debate where it will be doubtless rubber-stamped with as little debate as possible, Wokingham Borough Council have released their budget for 2012/2013. Make no mistake, this is only because the law forces them to- if they could, the first any of us would see of it would be when it was debated on the floor of the chamber.

I haven’t had a chance to properly scrutinise it- and likely as not I won’t until it’s already been passed- but if you want to have a look, feel free to. The budget itself can be found here (with thanks to RobDennis), and if you see something you don’t like, feel free to tell your (likely-as-not Conservative) councillor(s). You might also want to ask them why only a week has been allowed for resident scrutiny, and the publication of the budget timed so as that by the time the paper version of The Wokingham Times can report on it, it will only be the day before the debate. Just an idea.

So far, the biggest headline has been the frozen council tax- made possible by the grant from central government for that purpose. A cynic might suggest that this is hiding something more unsavoury in the budget. One suspects, however, that Wokingham would have kept it frozen regardless of the grant, given that they have previously frozen it and the glee with which they’re cutting and selling off services.

This is a recurring theme of Conservatives in local government: council tax must be cut or frozen at all costs. And really, only a fool could believe it can be done without cost. There are doubtless efficiency savings that can be made in areas, but on the whole local taxation goes to pay for local services. If the amount of money that local government receives is cut (and a freeze is a cut in real terms, as inflation means a sum one year is not worth the same as the next) then it has less to spend on service provision.

And there are problems too with central government’s scheme to provide grants for councils to freeze council tax. Foremost is that the money is only guaranteed for this year. It’s very unlikely that, with economic and deficit reduction policies failing, the Tory-led coalition will be able to repeat this populist handout. Hence councils who take the money this year to freeze their tax will next year be faced with an increased gap- and have to raise it by twice as much to make up the gap. That council tax freeze will look really good this time next year when residents are facing a huge hike.

Wokingham residents are already seeing hints of things to come as far as that is concerned. Social care and library services being sold off. Charges introduced for different kinds of waste collection. That will only get worse as money gets tighter. What’s more important, shaving a few pounds off your council tax bill, or keeping services flowing and available to all? I suppose that’s the dividing line between parties.

I also find it ironic that this doesn’t actually mean that council tax bills won’t go up. Local authorities make up only a part of the sum, parish council precepts and other charges making up the rest. And, as you might guess, parish councils don’t get a lovely big government grant to make up their losses.

The Conservatives like to paint this as black and white. To them, cutting/freezing council tax is good, and raising it is bad. But local government is there for something, to provide essential services to residents. If funding is cut to the bone then services will suffer, that’s the simple truth that Eric Pickles and David Lee alike seem not to grasp. I’m not advocating council tax rises; I’m simply calling for a more reasoned look at what the money pays for, and what the consequences of a cut could be.