Harry Fone is the grassroots campaign manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
With Britain set to have a new Prime Minister in a few weeks, there are many issues he or she will need to tackle. Somewhere relatively high up on that list of issues should be council tax and local government. I’ve listed seven things that are easy to implement and will mean big savings to taxpayers up and down the country.
1. Stop wasting money on pet projects
On paper, schemes like the Welcome Back Fund had some promise. But like most government interventions with taxpayers’ cash, much has been wasted. From ludicrous examples like a pop-up beach in Stoke or a Lego arts trail in Rugby, we are long overdue for a clampdown on these pointless pet projects. Every pound wasted on vanity is a pound that could have been spent on adult social care, to name just one key service.
2. Implement a cap on council tax rises
Council tax is one of the biggest bills faced by households up and down the country. With the average band D bill in England likely to exceed £2,000 next year, more pressure must be put on local authorities to tighten their belts. Limiting rises to two per cent will force councils to make a decision. If they want to raise by more than that, a referendum will have to be called. It’s highly unlikely the electorate will vote for higher council tax, thus sending a clear message to councils.
3. Business rate retention
One thing that particularly irks me is the funnelling of money into Westminster from the rest of the country, only for a smaller amount to be meted back out. Business rate retention is a perfect example of this. Previous governments had outlined plans to allow councils to keep 100 per cent of business rates but this seems to have stalled. Covid hasn’t helped of course but now’s the perfect time to get this policy back on track. Decentralisation of tax powers is long overdue.
4. Stop rewarding failure
One thing local taxpayers find particularly galling is having to foot the bill for gross incompetence and effectively rewarding failure. We’ve seen countless examples of senior officials at local authorities wasting tens of millions of pounds only for them to receive six-figure golden goodbyes on their way out. Blink and you probably missed it but the government did briefly manage to impose a cap on public sector exit payments. There were promises to reintroduce the cap but almost two years later and we’re still waiting.
5. Commercial property investments
Numerous councils have used the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) as a means to amass huge commercial property portfolios. As our investigation with The Times revealed last year, hundreds of millions of pounds are at stake. The defence put forward by local authorities is that the profits will be used to reinvest in frontline services and keep council tax low. But as we’ve discovered, any material gains are not crystal clear. The era of cheap borrowing is over, even from the PWLB. It’s more important than ever that investment plans are scrutinised more closely. A new government should look at tightening the rules.
6. Rein in councillor allowances
Like senior staff pay, councillor allowances are another area that irritates ratepayers. It has been completely unacceptable that a number of authorities awarded themselves increases during the pandemic. Now it may not be possible for central government to impose itself on the pay schemes of councillors. But at the very least I’d ask that DLUHC consider publishing an annual report on allowances – allowing taxpayers to easily see and compare whether they’re getting value for money or not.
7. Stop the non-jobs
It’s absurd that many Brits are struggling under a record tax burden and struggling to earn enough money every month, yet all the while local authorities are still recruiting for ridiculous non-jobs that pay way above the average salary. As I wrote back in September last year vague titles and virtue-signalling are back in force. The new PM must tackle this head on and stop pouring public money down the drain.
These suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg but they would have an overwhelmingly positive impact for taxpayers. For far too long, many households have suffered at the hands of ineffective local government. Things must change – and fast. The new prime minister, whoever he or she may be, should make this a key priority.