Council Tax – a philosophical point of view, a game of bluff or people’s hard earned money

This week the debate on Council Tax has sprung to life as Councils across the county start to announce their Budget proposals. At Suffolk County Council we have a different approach and our 0% Council Tax rise is the worst kept secret, a manifesto pledge at last year election, it’s been to the county’s Scrutiny Committee twice in October and November and I and a number of my colleagues have been around the county taking part in Suffolk Biggest Budget Conversation taking about the plans and getting feedback.

In Brighton the minority Green administration yesterday proposed a 4.75% rise in their Council tax and that they would want to be the first ever Council to go to referendum to get it though, closer to home in Essex they proposing a 1.49% rise in Council tax, both of which have been associated with specific services they seek to protect as a part of the ‘sell’.

On Wednesday at a Council Councils Network meeting in London county council leaders from across the county were grilling Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis MP about is the Secretary of State about to lower the referendum trigger point. After that meeting I had a chat with a couple of Leaders about their plans and increases they were considering and so the debate is clearly coming more to the fore as Councils are feeling that the current cuts are starting to become more and more difficult to implement.

So is Eric Pickles MP about to lower the referendum cap. To me if Government, as they approach an election year, think Councils are about to start putting up Council tax this may well force Mr. Pickles hand with his colleague in Cabinet to tighten control, something about a self-fulfilling prophecy springs to mind. Personally I think it might be quite telling that Essex where the Secretary of State has his seat is proposing 1.49%, clearly they have pitched it just below where the cap might go.

With regards Brighton, over the past few months I have got to know the Leader of Brighton Council a little bit as we have both contributed to the New Local Government Network’s work on Digital in Local Government and I have no doubt he is earnest in his aims, having said that he also knows that his is minority administration and if Labour and Conservatives join forces he will be defeated, so there might be a little bit of politics mixed in there too!

So what of Suffolk County Council and us keeping our promise of a Council Tax freeze over the next 4 years, following on from 3 years of 0% increases. Yesterday Ipswich Spy blogged about a presentation by my colleague Cllr. Andrew Reid presenting our Budget proposals to an Ipswich area Committee questioned our policy stance.

Well in my next blog I’ll talk about my thoughts and I look forward with interest to the first Council brave enough to actually hold a referendum and beyond the political class let’s see what those hard pressed families sitting at the kitchen table trying to pay their bills with their hard earned money think to a Council asking them if they want to pay more.

NG 7 years old

When I first became a Councillor I managed to get onto what looked like an interesting course entitled Next Generation being run by an organization called the Leadership Centre. What was interesting about it was that it was delivered in political group with a parallel track for Conservative, Labour and the Liberals. As it turns out this course is unique in that there is no other local government training which is party political. As the training offer around local government has changed over the years, with the Leadership Centre becoming a part of the LGA and the LGA have changed its programmes and trainers more times than I care to remember, the Next Generation course remains with its original aspiration of training the next generation of Local Government lead members in a political context. It has also retained its original course leader the remarkable Christina Dykes, part organizer of really interesting course sessions, part champion for the aims of the course, the strengths of the Alumni and on occasion strict time keeper particularly in the morning after too many of us have stayed up in the bar the night before talking politics.

Me and Eric, Eric and I - 7 years ago - how time flies!

Me and Eric, Eric and I – 7 years ago – how time flies!

The course is also remarkable in its longevity, it is now in year 8 and each year group, about 20 or so of us, gets to join the alumni. This is now a sizable group of Conservative Councillors in local government and amongst it’s members it has a number of Leaders, former Leaders, deputy Leaders and a lots of Cabinet members for this and that service, spread across the whole of England. In terms of political friends and experience of local politics I have found the original course, follow up meetings, shared experiences and discussions to be the best resource I have come across.

Last Wednesday I attended the Alumni annual get together where the 7 years cohorts of Conservative Councillors come together to discuss local government and anything else that takes our fancy. I can’t believe it was some seven years ago in the bowels of the BIC centre in Bournemouth, that I first met Christina and became a member of its inaugural first year cohort launched with the seal of approval from the then Chairman of the Party Mr. Eric Pickles. The picture on this blog is from that launch where we all had our picture taken with Eric. Mind you both Eric and I had more hair and I think we were both a touch lighter on our toes in those days!

Green/Labour alliance defeats council tax freeze in Brighton & Hove

Well surprise surprise, following on from the true to type position shown by Labour controlled Ipswich Borough Council to put up the Council Tax just below the threshold to trigger a referendum, the Greens and Labour in Brighton have joined forces to do the same see http://www.conservativehome.blogs.com/localgovernment/

As was evident from the Full Council meeting Budget Debate in Suffolk when the leader of the Green’s Cllr. Ereira (the former Labour party parliamentary candidate in Bury St. Edmunds) reacted so badly to our announcement that, if elected, we Conservatives would freeze the Council tax for the whole of the next term; the greens are a leftie as they come.

Indeed all I ever hear from them is how Labour or the Greens are the party’s of the people yet it seems to me in Local Government what that means is people’s wallets!

And make no mistake if it weren’t for the Eric Pickle’s referendum threshold Labour Councillors, many of whom are standing to be County Councillors in May would be making a even bigger raid in Ipswich if they could, but even they know the residents will not stand for such behaviour so the rise is just below the trigger point – funny that, not!

The people of Suffolk in May have a simple choice – a Conservative controlled council that lives within its means, constantly demanding more efficiencies and better services or a pact between the Liberals, Greens and Labour to see how they can take more of residents hard earned money because well let’s face it is easier that actually doing the job of properly running the Council.

As Cllr. Cllr Geoffrey Theobald, the leader of the Conservative Group on Brighton & Hove City Council succinctly puts it “This notion, widely pedalled by the parties of the Left, that the only way to protect frontline council services is to raise council tax, is fundamentally flawed. A growing number of Conservative councils up and down the country have shown that by thinking outside of the box, by being prepared to use private and voluntary sector providers and by showing ambition in working with other organisations, services can be maintained – even improved – at the same time as keeping the council tax low.”

The 0%, 0%, 0% council tax frezze of the past three years and the promise of 4 more years comes prcisely because we have run and lead the COuncil to learn to protect people’s hard earned monies, what a far cry from the last time the Liberals and Labour were in power in suffolk when they put up the Cuncil tax up in one year by 11.9% and 18.5% the next!

Lobbying Mr. Pickles

Last night I attended a reception at No. 10 Downing street and as promised to the East of England Network for Adult Social Care at our last meeting, if I got the chance to speak with Eric Pickles I would lobby his about the Dilnot proposals.

I did get that chance and in those few brief moments I talked about the costs, he said ‘its very expensive lad’ I said indeed but if we shift monies around the total health system in each county we can pay for, he ‘ehy but can you’ I said yet we can and that’s what the Health and Well Being Board can achieve, he pause, looked me in the eyes and then moved on!

Postcard from Birmingham

What a difference a year makes as I travel on the train to Birmingham, this time last year we were in opposition and looking forward to winning a general election, this year in coalition and facing up to what looks like its going to be a really tough day on 20th October the day of the Comprehensive Spending review.

As I near Birmingham and sit quietly planning my conference which plenary sessions which fringes which receptions and which restaurants, or is that which restaurants which drinks receptions which fringes something like that; my phone rings and my day changes when I get a call from the Central Office team that the question I tabled has got through and I am to present myself to the conference desk at 3:15pm, I am now on a deadline – clearly the recent publicity around the New Strategic Direction has certainly pushed Suffolk up the list of Local Councils to watch, err……think that’s a good thing!

So I check into my hotel, unpack and head off the conference to make myself known at the desk, a brief chat, I drew the high nubmer so go last, and its into the main hall for the Big Society plenary session. I take my place in the reserved seat for the speakers from the floor and natter to the others who are going to ask a question of the Local Government team. The debate begins and surprisingly Eric Pickles quite early on asked for contributions form the floor. Not a good start as the first name called is not there but at least that pushes me up the list, next speaker, then the next then the next, a bit nervous now as one to go before me, then in comes George Osborne and wife and Eric Pickles decides to stop the contributions from the floor and makes his speech instead, my big moment dashed! Oh well never mind!

Later at a drinks reception I am introduced to Eric and mention that he cut me short earlier in the day, he did not seem fussed at all! The next couple of days pass without incident and I enjoy talking to old friends attending different fringes on Social Care, Health, Housing and Local Government tax and efficiency. I also attended a closed meeting with the local government team which was very different from years past gone are the days of Eric giving a rousing speech of once more unto the breeches dear chums, once more push and we’ll be there instead we are getting down to the ‘nitty gritty’ of government and the relationship with us in Local Authorities.

During the course of the conference the Residential Care Home papers for the cabinet meeting on the 12th were published and nothing really happened on the Monday but by the Tuesday the press were making enquires and I agreed to go on the Mark Murphy Show on BBC Radio Suffolk on the Wednesday morning, I got up early took my notes and papers to Breakfast and was back in my room waiting for the call just after 8am sitting in my room with my notes around me, Mark Murphy was on form and it felt quite a tough interview particularly as I had not been able to hear what people on before were saying. His questions were quite quick fire but I tried to get across the maths of what we are doing and how we were going to go to all the care homes to explain our thoughts.

He then rather unexpectedly moved onto the Chief Executive’s pay following comment made by a few people the previous day, again I was out of that loop being in Birmingham and so as not quite ready for that; but was able to answer the questions as much as anything because I am simply staggered that in the face of the scale of the issues before us, people seem to be able to rally behind such calls. I suspect in part this is because it is actually quite difficult to articulate just how much she has achieved in terms of the organisational structure change that has taken place and got us to a place whereby we can propose something radical such as the New Strategic Direction and be in a position to start its implementation, something we could not have done before her arrival, equally from the start of her employment we said we wanted to become know not just as an organisation that has successfully become more efficient but we want to be known as the most cost efficient County Council in England, last year under her stewardship we can second only to Kent not a bad achievement but difficult to get across just how important both of these things are when we look towards the cuts that are coming, shielding Suffolk from the worst of those and delivering on our promise of low council tax rises.

I ‘checked in’ with my Director afterwards and she was concerned that I did not really get the maths of why we need to look at how best to deliver the Residential Care Homes. I was disappointed with her comments but really pleased to be able to have another go at doing just that on Anglia Tonight who kindly interviewed me at the conference at lunchtime and I was able to talk about how we indeed to deliver a ‘as good if not better’ standard of care at a cost saving to us.

Reflecting on the conference and writing this blog on the train home, I supposed I noticed a couple of things doing the three days; firstly the slightly surreal airbrushing out of the coalition, we won, the rest is mere detail!, as one world weary colleague put it. The second as and by far the clearest message coming from the conference was about the Comprehensive Spending Revenue in a couple of weeks time, not one Westminster MP was saying anything, which it my mind is quite worrying, clearly they have taken the decision that they did not want a conference of gloomy looking delegates with the worlds media camped on the door step and in the halls.

All in all a few good days spent talking politics, good keynote speeches, interesting fringes and good company; there were one or two receptions, a couple of kind invitations to dinners with the area teams and I seem to recall a couple of lively discussions into the wee small hours in a bar of the Copthorne hotel.

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