Archive for the 'council tax' Category

Dodgy statistics and Labour’s local election launch

So, Labour has launched their local election campaign with Ed Miliband claiming that they are “your first line of defence” against public spending reductions. An interesting thought, and I’m sure that people will be able to make up their own minds as to whether he (and the rest of his colleagues in the former Labour Government) should bear any of the responsibility for those public spending reductions. Certainly I thought that the sight of him speaking at the “Stop the Cuts” rally at the weekend, and using Martin Luther King and the Sufragettes to support his case, was one of the more cynical acts of political opportunism I have seen in recent years. (As David Cameron said yesterday – Martin Luther King had a dream and Ed Miliband is still living in one!)

Labour are also up to their old tricks again with figures and statistics. They make their usual claim that council tax bills in Labour-controlled councils are lower than those in Conservative-controlled ones. Which is of course nonsense as they are comparing apples with pears. Labour-controlled areas tend to be in the city centres which have a much greater percentage of homes in the lowest council tax bands which pay less council tax. Therefore, the council tax in these areas, averaged across all bands, is obviously going to be lower. However, if you make a proper comparison – i.e. with homes in Band D – then Conservative councils have lower council tax bills by £43 compared to Labour councils (and £114 a year less than Liberal Democrat-controlled ones!).

They also don’t really have a leg to stand on when it comes to this argument as they opposed the Coalition Government’s council tax freeze policy which will save an average family up to £72 a year on a Band D home.

Locally here in Brighton & Hove, of course, Labour has an even worse record on council tax – having increased it by 124% (or £743) during the 10 years they were in control of the City Council. And back at Budget Council on 3rd March, they (and the Greens) vetoed our proposed 1% reduction in council tax for next year. Do we really want a return to the days where council tax payers were constantly being asked to bail out the profligacyof their Council?

Labour must be honest with residents over spending plans

So Labour Group Leader Cllr. Gill Mitchell thinks families will be £1,500 worse off next year due to reductions in Government spending.

This does rather beg the question then of why at Budget Council her Group voted against our proposed council tax and resident parking permit reductions which would have put money back in to local people’s pockets!

But to be quite honest, Labour do not have a leg to stand on when it comes to criticising the actions of the Coalition Government. Who was it who left the country with the worst structural budget deficit in the developed world? Who was it who doubled our national debt during their years in power? And who was it in Brighton & Hove who presided over a 124% increase in council tax (that’s £743 for a band D home) during their 10 years in control of the council? Yes, the Labour Party.

Their tactic now seems to be denying that the Labour Government had anything to do with all this – blaming it all on those nasty bankers. Well firstly, as I have argued before, the public finances were way out of control even before the banking crisis hit. And secondly, if the bankers did act recklessly and irresponsibly (as some of them undoubtedly did), then why didn’t the Government do anything about it during the 13 years when they could have regulated to stop it?

Labour’s pre-budget announcement today shows that they still aren’t being honest with people about how they would deal with the deficit – and they are still racking up new spending commitments by the week. Yes, things are going to be tough for the next couple of years but I firmly believe that the bedrock of economic growth in the future has to be getting the nation’s finances back in order as soon as possible.

A budget for the whole City

Last week we unveiled our budget proposals for 2011/12, the centre-piece of which is a 1% reduction in council tax. This would be the first council tax decrease in the history of the City Council and would leave residents in a ‘band d’ home almost £60 better off than if council tax had gone up by inflation. This is in stark contrast to the increase in council tax of 124% imposed by the previous Labour Administration during their 10 years in charge of the Council.

Other measures in the budget include:

  • A 5% reduction in the cost of resident parking permits
  • An additional £500k of new money for youth services
  • Protection of the budgets for voluntary organisations, Supporting People, Homelessness, Aids Support and respite for carers.
  • Free swimming for under 11s
  • Increased small grants for sports clubs and funding for the Take Part Festival
  • Funding to refurbish Portslade Town Hall
  • Removal of the controversial Grand Avenue / The Drive cycle lane
  • More funding for repairing potholes, pavements and street lighting
  • Establishing a new Local Homes Venture Fund for new housing

In addition, in contrast to many councils up and down the country, we have committed to:

  • No library closures and no reduced opening hours
  • No closures to Sure Start Children’s Centres
  • No cuts to City bus services
  • No closures of public toilets
  • No move to fortnightly bin collections
  • No enforced staff pay cuts and a minimising of compulsory redundancies

All this has been achieved in spite of a £17 million reduction in the Government’s Formula Grant to the City Council. This is not a cuts budget, this is a budget to support the City. At a time when residents are struggling with high fuel and food bills we think it is important that we give them some relief by reducing their council tax and parking permits. The proposals will now go before the Full Council for approval on 3rd March and I would urge the opposition Groups to think very carefully before casting their votes. I don’t think that residents will thank them if they combine to overturn this budget.

A significant part of the £24 million savings package which we are putting forward have come from the innovative Value for Money review. This review was initiated in late 2009 when it became clear that councils would be required to make a significant contribution to the Government’s national debt reduction package. Measures taken include:

  • removing vacant posts
  • improving procurement practices
  • cutting out unnecessary layers of management
  • more effective management of sickness absence
  • cutting down on the use of agency staff
  • working to share costs and buildings with other councils and public sector partners in the City.

We have been planning very carefully for these challenging times and I think that the hard work has paid off. We have managed as far as possible to cut the cost of delivering services whilst doing our utmost to protect the frontline.

This has not been an easy budget to set by any means but we have made full use of the new freedoms and flexibilities provided by the Government’s decision to remove the ringfence on almost all their grant funding. This has allowed us to protect all our Sure Start Children’s Centres and funding for vital community safety work which we would otherwise have been forced to cut.

Increasing efficiency can protect frontline services

A very interesting report caught my eye this week. Written by the Westminster Sustainable Business Forum, it is about how councils, and the wider public sector, should be getting much greater value for money (and sustainability) out of the buildings and land we own. With the country’s public finances being as tight as they are at the moment, it is a very timely piece of work.

The report contains some fascinating figures. The value of national public sector property assets is estimated at £370 billion, around £250 billion of which is owned by local government.

These assets cost around £25 billion just to run every year, so you can imagine that there is vast potential for achieving savings by lowering operational and maintenance costs.

Reading the report, I was very encouraged that, here at Brighton & Hove, an awful lot of the things that the Forum recommends we are either already doing, or are planning to do over the next few years.

For example, they suggest that local government can achieve efficiency savings through decreasing the space it occupies by 20-30%, by implementing low cost, flexible working practices. At the Council we have already launched a “workstyles” project as part of our value for money programme, the first phase of which involves moving around 600 staff from Priory House to Bartholomew House by Brighton Town Hall. And we are looking at other options to make better use of our civic and staff buildings over the medium to longer term which I’m confident will deliver better value for money and better customer service.

We are also leading a city-wide public sector property group – another of the report’s key recommendations. This involves working with local healthcare providers, the emergency services and the universities to look at possibilities for sharing assets, accommodation and services in order to improve value for money and efficiency across the whole public sector – not just in our individual ‘silos’.

And from the sustainability angle, we are doing a huge amount of carbon reduction work looking at Energy Service Companies, participating in the Carbon Reduction Commitment and making use of the new Feed in Tariffs to generate cheap electricity in our civic buildings and council housing. Energy costs are already high and are only likely to get more expensive so it is vital that we minimise these as far as possible.

So, all in all, I think we are making good progress. There are other areas in the report which we will be looking at more closely and clearly, with a piece of work like this it isn’t going to happen overnight. However, as the report’s authors state, with the savings that all public sector organisations are having to make over the next 4 or 5 years, this work is not optional. And when we talk about protecting frontline services by driving down back-office costs, this is precisely the sort of thing we mean.

New local growth proposals will benefit Brighton & Hove

The announcement that our proposal for setting up a new Local Enterprise Partnership – “Coast to Capital” – had been successful grabbed most of the headlines this week. But there were also a number of other important pro-business proposals announced as part of the Local Growth White Paper which passed under the radar somewhat and which I would like to highlight.

In particular, I warmly welcome the proposals around restoring a degree of local accountability to business rates.

Under the current system councils such as Brighton & Hove collect business rates but they are then passed straight to central Government who redistribute them to all local authorities according to a complicated ‘needs’ formula. Over £20bn of business rates collected by councils are pooled and redistributed in this way. The result is that whilst councils have a vital role in supporting the local economy, we have very little financial incentive for encouraging new business start ups.

So, the Government is now proposing that we be allowed to keep the money we raise in new business rates, thereby giving us a more direct stake in the future of our local economies and access to funding to deliver services that our communities (and businesses) need. This is not a full relocalisation of business rates that many people are calling for but it is nevertheless an important step forward and emphasises once again the Coalition Government’s ‘localist’ credentials.

Hand in hand with this is the proposal to introduce new powers for councils to borrow money for regeneration schemes against the future business rate revenues that the redevelopment would bring in. This so-called Tax Increment Financing is widespread in many other countries, in particular, the USA, and I would warmly welcome this in Brighton & Hove. Finding funding for major projects is never easy, particularly in the current economic climate and this would give us another viable option for business redevelopments.

Gum removal machine will transform our streets

I have been reading with interest some of the negative reaction to the council’s purchase of a gum removal machine.

Our city is the chosen destination for over eight million tourists every year and their repeat visits are something businesses rely upon. I would much rather that visitors thought our city clean, inviting and full of things to do, than ‘interesting but grimy’. Put simply, how the City looks is vital to our continued economic well-being.

Some of the criticisms levelled around value for money, I’m afraid I just don’t accept. The ‘Local Authority Machine’ is being supplied by specialist cleansing firm Gum Clear. The council has done a deal on the technology, which involved helping develop the device and demonstrating it to other local authorities, to secure a discount of around £30,000 on the normal price of £123,000. It will clear around 200 metres of pavements an hour, lifting anything from up to 40 pieces of gum a metre.

The machine is a vast improvement on older technologies because it sucks up and recycles 97% of the water it uses. Earlier machines would blast water with high-pressure pumps, often spraying dirt onto shop fronts, blocking drains and damaging the pavements.

Councils pay up to £3,000 when they employ contractors to clear gum, usually treating around 2,500 metres of pavements each time. Doing this job in-house could reduce Brighton & Hove City Council’s costs to just £400 a day, making savings of thousands over the coming months and enabling far more cleaning. We will also look to recoup the initial costs by hiring out the machine.

The chewing gum industry is worth £300 million a year, yet Brighton & Hove has been saddled with a yearly bill of around £25,000 cleaning up the mess. I’m declaring war on this dreadful blight on our city’s streets. I want visitors to Brighton & Hove to be greeted by sparkling clean pavements, not by the unpleasant sight of sticky gum stains. By investing in this machine we hope to rescue our beautiful urban landscape from this menace. But we also need residents and visitors to do their bit by putting chewing gum in the bin rather than throwing it on the ground.

Who to blame for the public spending cuts

The local Labour Party are accusing me of denying them a debate on the £3.5 million of in-year cuts which we are having to make as a result of Eric Pickles’ budget announcement back in June.

This claim flies in the face of what is actually happening! There will be a full debate on the in-year budget cuts at the Council meeting tomorrow (Thursday). Any comments and suggestions from the opposition groups will be taken on board in time for the Cabinet meeting on 22nd July where the final decision will be taken. At this stage we don’t envisage any of the specific budget proposals falling outside of the framework which was agreed at the budget Council meeting in February. Therefore, these decisions are quite rightly being taken by the Cabinet.

I must say that I find it a bit rich for Labour councillors to be talking about schools not being built and roads not mended when they know full well that it was their Government which has left the country bankrupt and the new Government is having to pick up the pieces. The outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury – Liam Byrne – was quite right when he said that there was ‘no money left’. And this is not just because of the international financial crisis and subsequent bank bailout as Labour politicians like to claim – as the respected independent think tank, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, confirm, there was a massive structural deficit before any of this happened. Here is their exact quote from “The Public Finances: 1997-2010”:

“During Labour’s first four years in office, the public finances strengthened further, as the new Government stuck to the tight public spending plans laid out by the Conservatives. The following seven years, however, were characterised by fiscal drift. By the eve of the financial crisis, this had left the UK with one of the largest structural budget deficits in the developed world.”

Labour claim to be the champions of the poor and the vulnerable but it is their reckless approach to taxing and spending which is now directly threatening some of the vital public services and benefits which many of them rely upon.

What does the Budget mean for Brighton & Hove?

After 13 years of a Labour government, their out of control spending has finally come home to roost. Former Chief Secretary to the Treasury – Liam Byrne – was quite right to say in that infamous note to his successor that “there’s no money left.” It would be nice if he could also offer an apology to the nation for their profligacy, which we are now all having to pay for.

It is now up to the coalition government to sort out the mess and, in my view, they are quite right to get on and tackle it straight away. Leaving the debt interest to rise for another year would be a complete waste of public money and would only make the situation worse.

I have always said that there are going to be some tough decisions to be taken whoever won the general election in May and, to his credit, George Osborne had the courage to take some of those yesterday. The public sector pay freeze will be difficult for staff at the Council but I’m pleased that he has decided to protect those on incomes below £21,000. And I think that the review of public sector pensions has become unavoidable given the taxpayer liabilities that have been building up over the last few years.

But the tough choices were also mixed in with some really positive proposals. For example, thanks to our sound financial management over the last 3 years, we are going to be able to deliver on our pledge to Brighton & Hove’s residents to freeze council tax for next year. This Conservative Administration has delivered the lowest council tax rise in the history of the council for 3 years in a row now and has saved £30 million of taxpayers’ money in the process. A freeze next year will be a real boost for residents who are struggling to pay their bills, as will George Osborne’s decision to take almost a million people out of paying income tax altogether by raising the threshold.

There was also some really good news for businesses. The cut in Corporation Tax will be hugely welcome, as will the partial reversal of Labour’s proposed ‘jobs tax’ – the employer National Insurance contributions. It is crucial that we allow the private sector to prosper, both locally and nationally, as this is where the future economic growth – and taxation to support vital public services – will come from.

We will now be looking at George Osborne’s statement in more detail to see how it affects the Council’s finances. However, as always, I will do my utmost to ensure that frontline services are protected.

Why I’m in favour of scrapping regional housing targets

Those who are now criticising the new Government’s plans to scrap the current system of top-down regional housing targets in favour of more local ones are missing a very important point – the current system has failed spectacularly to deliver and at the same time has alienated local communities who quite rightly want a say in what gets built in their neighbourhood.

The figures are very telling. The rate of house building since 1997 has dropped by almost 24,000 homes a year – to around 147,000 – compared to the levels under the previous Conservative government. Over the same period of time, house prices have gone through the roof, pricing many people – especially first time buyers – out of the market. Partly as a result of this, the number of people on council housing waiting lists has increased by 50% over this period to around 1.6 million people nationally.

And, because of this top-down, target driven approach, even the houses that have been built have not significantly helped to meet the needs of local communities. For example, the proportion of new homes built since 1997 that are flats has more than trebled. In places such as Brighton & Hove, which has a dire shortage of larger family housing, this trend has been nothing short of disastrous. And with the regional housing targets still in place, this trend has been very difficult for us to reverse.

What the new Government is proposing is a different approach – giving local councils and local communities incentives for building new housing, not imposing central targets and then penalising them for not meeting them. How often have you heard people say that they would be more than happy to have new housing in their communities if the necessary infrastructure – schools, GP surgeries, roads etc. – were in place? Allowing local authorities to keep the council tax receipts from new housing and for this to be spent on benefitting those communities directly affected, should help to achieve that.

Nobody is denying that there is a shortage of good quality housing in Brighton & Hove, as in large parts of the country. Where we differ from the previous Labour Government is how to address this. What I think they failed to recognise is that without local support and buy-in, it is very difficult to get new housing built. Simply saying that you are going to build 3 million new homes and waving a magic wand doesn’t mean that in reality it will happen. I think it is also very unfair to criticise local residents (and the councillors who represent them) as ‘nimbys’ when they are being given precious little say about what happens to the place that they choose to call home.

There is no doubt that it is an incredibly difficult balancing act – providing sufficient land both for business to set up and expand and also to house the workers who will be employed by those businesses. Not to mention protecting our much cherished green spaces and downland. This is especially true in a City such as Brighton & Hove which is severely constrained by the Channel to the south and the Downs to the North. But the point is, we should be able to decide that balance for ourselves, not told what to do by an unelected planning inspector up in London, who has no connection with the City whatsoever.

The top-down target driven approach has failed – it’s time to try something different.

Conservative Spring Forum comes back to Brighton

It was a hectic week for me last week with our annual budget council meeting on Thursday and then the Conservative Spring Forum at the weekend.

I was really pleased that we were able to get our budget voted through and that there was no repeat of the ‘Core Strategy’ Council meeting last December when the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ (Greens, Labour and Lib Dems) voted us down on some key transport policies. So we were able to get through a council tax increase of just 2.5% which is the lowest rise since the Council was formed in 1997. We were also able to put some additional investment into areas such as youth work, improving the seafront, winter maintenance and replacement floodlighting for the Royal Pavilion. It is very important that we keep the City looking as good as possible to attract the visitors and tourists that the local economy relies upon.

As I said, at the weekend the Conservative Spring Forum was held at the Metropole and it was great to be able to host the party in my home town! Brighton & Hove is, for many members,  still associated with the dreadful IRA bombing of the Grand in 1984 and so it is a big step for the organisers to come back to our City. The weekend itself went very well from what I saw and also from talking to many delegates who were delighted to be here. Hopefully it will be the first of many more visits in the near future.

For my part, I took part in a session with Caroline Spelman MP, who is the Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. There will be some interesting and, in my view, beneficial changes in this area if the Conservatives win the general election in May (or whenever it is called!). I hope that a Conservative Government will feel able to trust local councils such as ours with greater powers and freedoms than we currently have because I believe very strongly that at present our ability to help residents is  stifled by red tape and centrally imposed controls and restrictions. A key part of this is the pledge to abolish the whole tier of regional quangos which many of us feel are both wasteful and contrary to the priniciples of localism which we all believe in. For those of you who may be interested, there are more details in the Control Shift policy paper.


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