Saturday, December 10, 2011

A good start

To give credit where it is due, Eric Pickles the "communities secretary" has intimated that he will make mandatory a requirement to hold a referendum, where any local council seeks to impose a Council Tax increase of more than 3.5 percent.

"Councils have a moral obligation to help hard-working families and pensioners with the cost of living. If they want to hike taxes on local residents above 3.5 percent they’ll now need to get a direct democratic mandate to do it", he says.

This very welcome change is the essence of Referism and follows on from earlier experiments in local democracy, where tax rises were put to the vote.

More recently, the local paper ran a referendum in Brighton, which produced results very much in accordance with earlier votes – rejecting tax increases. The statutory requirement for a referendum, therefore, is likely to provide a powerful brake on council tax increases.

However, council tax is only a small part of the picture, and we are getting to a situation where income generated from charges exceeds that of council tax, which itself is only around 20 percent of councils' income.

Therefore, merely stopping local authority increases in council tax is no real control, especially when councils seem to have free rein to increase a wide range of charges, with no effective restraints. Any real democratic controls must extend far beyond just local taxation, and address council budgets in their entirety.

As a start, though, this is a good move, not least in getting people used to the idea of exerting their own power over local government spending. It would be better, though, if it was part of an incremental approach which eventually led to annual approval of local authority budgets, applied automatically to every single council.