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Elliott Keck is the Investigations Campaigns Manager for the Taxpayers’ Alliance.
This weekend’s Conservative Councillors’ Association local government conference includes a session which could hardly be more timely. Namely, what does the public really think about council services? What is perhaps missing from this open-ended question is a key aspect of any assessment of public perception of services, council or otherwise, which is: what do the public think about council services relative to the price that they pay?
This is critical, because last week it was revealed that the price residents are going to be paying is going up, a lot. Three-quarters of top-tier councils are hiking rates by the maximum of five per cent. Only one, Central Bedfordshire, is freezing Council Tax. Three councils, Slough, Croydon and Thurrock, are being allowed cap-busting increases of 10 per cent or more. It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s not a freshly painted one. Since 2002, the average Band D bill has doubled. What are residents getting for this price? Fewer bin collections in Wales, an end to free Sunday parking in Devon, and cuts to street cleaning in Dundee.
So perhaps the answer to the question of what the public thinks about council services is “not good enough for the price we pay.”
But council bosses are insistent that these tax hikes are vital to ensuring the books are balanced without devastating cuts. Cllr Sam Corcoran, leader of Cheshire East council said they had “little choice” with the alternative being “drastic cuts to frontline services.” Hiking Council Tax to the max was the only option, supposedly.
But is this true? Are the huge rate rises over the past 20 years simply inevitable? With average Band D bills set to clear £2,000, is there no other path for councils to take?
Certainly, there are increasing pressures on councils for which they are not entirely to blame. One thing cited by Cheshire East’s leader is the rising demand for social care, a very real phenomenon and one which, without broader reform, individual local authorities will struggle to control. That’s why the government separates the Council Tax cap into two parts, one to fund general council operations and the other to fund social care.
Nevertheless, it really is possible to deliver for residents without hiking rates every year. In Central Bedfordshire, Council Tax is being frozen, yet they are increasing spending on children’s services by £5 million. How did they do this? They put it down to “careful budget management over several years” noting they “had already budgeted for an increase in inflation.” Cllr Richard Wenham, the Leader of the Council, told me that breaking down silos between directorates, or “cross cutting” as he called it, has been particularly effective at reducing costs. He also cited investment in early intervention for elderly residents, delaying the point where they need to move into residential care, a demonstration that even on social care, councils have options. With particular relish, he said the council also avoids indulgences such as mayoral cars and the campaigning side we see from too many councils. “We focus on providing services to residents”, he concluded.
All councils can make savings then. The Labour Party’s investigation into government credit card spending demonstrated the savings that could be made by carefully monitoring even small, seemingly insignificant items of spending. Save the pennies, and the pounds save themselves. I wonder if, for example, Cheshire East’s leader (a Labour man himself) knows that the council spent almost £500 on bottled water for council meetings in 2021/22? This seems like an absurd amount of money to be concerned about. But as Labour say, small sums can really add up. Perhaps they could ask their chief executive (who herself received a package worth £241,131 in 2021/22) for some more ideas to save cash?
There are also options for larger savings. Our research published in the Sunday Express looked at the assortment of bids made by councils for the “UK City of Culture” and “London Borough of Culture”, with almost £4.5 million spent on failed bids. The most spent on a failed bid was Southampton, which splashed out almost £1.5 million on its 2025 bid. It has since declared a £20 million shortfall in its budget, a hole it will try to plug with a Council Tax increase and a decision to switch street lights off for three hours every night.
What this shows is that there are too many councils where backroom staff, many working from home, are allowed to waste vast amounts on their own personal pet projects, with little need to justify the sums. Even if a council were to win City of Culture it’s not really clear the benefits are worth the expense. The organisers for the previous winner, Coventry, were forced to defend the event after a survey found that 72 per cent of respondents did not believe the city had benefited. Clearly there is fat to be trimmed.
So as Conservative councillors gather this weekend, the real question that should be on their minds is: are we really delivering the best possible services with the budget we are given? Sometimes admitting there is a problem is the first step towards solving it.