Monday, April 29, 2013

Local politics: taking us for fools

Express 029-tax.jpg

One way Mr Cameron could counter the influence of UKIP, which is even getting Roy Greensladeworked up, might be to treat the electorate like adults, and stop trying to take us for fools.

Doubtless, there may be a few people impressed with his claim – retailed by the Express, but very few other newspapers - that "we" (the Conservatives) will peg Council Tax, but he might be more convincing if he admitted that local authority spending is largely out of control.

A more serious politician would, for instance, acknowledge that, while rises in headline figure of Council Tax are being held down, local authorities are simply ramping up their charges elsewhere, and devising new ways of extorting revenue from increasingly unwilling "customers".

Thus, as Booker was able to point out last February, there has been a gradual shift from Council Tax to fees and charges, so much so that this source of income now exceeds the headline income from Council Tax. 

But, like the proverbial snake oil salesman, Mr Cameron seeks to keep our attention focused on just the Council Tax. He neglects to tell us that, in the past six years local government spending in England alone has risen by more than 25 percent to an all-time record of more than £170 billion. 

The freeze on Council Tax rates, therefore, is so much window dressing, making Mr Cameron's entreaties an irrelevance. 

And although not all people will realise this, we have learned to adopt the default position that, when politicians tell you something, they are either lying or trying to hide something. In this particular case, such a position would be completely justified. 

Before leaving this subject, though, we might perhaps pass further comment on the controversyraised yesterday over UKIP's lack of policy. Here, it is all very well complaining about Mr Cameron's dissembling, but – in the policies area of its website, UKIP doesn't even have a dedicated local government section. 

Its latest manifesto, however, tells us of its belief that "council taxes should go down, not up, especially when times are tough and people are finding it hard to make ends meet". 

Then says UKIP, in a sort of "no-shit, Sherlock" sort of way, "That means finding ways of delivering services more cost-effectively, not just automatically cutting service delivery". Like Cameron, though, no mention is made of the way local authorities are grabbing money from other sources. 

On the plus side, the party tells us "it's time to bring power back to the people", so major decisions should be subject to binding local referendums, if the people demand it. On the petition of five percent of the local population, it says, major planning and service provision decisions should be put to a local vote. 

Strangely though, the party fails to notice the failure of the referendum initiative of Council Tax, devised by Mr Pickles, where a proposed increase of two percent on the tax triggers a referendum. We note that councils have simply responded by increasing rates by 1.99 percent, by-passing the referendum requirement. 

Putting local government budgets on the map, by requiring them to be submitted, in toto to referendums, would be a real exercise in bringing power back to the people. One longs for the time when local people really do exert their power and reject a council budget. 

But such issues are not for politicians, neither Tories nor UKIP. They are all taking us for fools.