WMN opinion: Is never-ending council tax escalator grinding to a halt?
At Devon County Council's budget setting meeting yesterday there was, understandably, some political differences over how much it was fair and reasonable to take from hard-pressed council tax payers in order to maintain essential public services. In Cornwall last week similarly contrary opinions were expressed – as they have been at district councils, fire authorities and the police panel recently.
But contrast the scale of those differences – and the potential size of council tax increases where any have been approved – with the way things used to be and for the most part householders have cause to be relieved. You don't have to have a very long memory to recall the time when increases in council tax could be measured in frightening percentage rises. When Labour was in power there was a concerted effort to switch responsibility for certain services from national to local government. There was also more than a little empire building going on at some local authorities, with the result that council tax went from a relatively modest part of most people's monthly outgoings to become a significant drain on their finances.
The bills have not gone down. But creative efforts by the coalition government to "encourage" tightly capped town and county hall increases, along with the clear need for far greater austerity across all public services has had a very noticeable dampening effect on further rises. That has to be a good thing. It is always possible to argue for extra funds to improve the quality across a range of public services. But there is only so much the public can afford. And that limit was reached a very long time ago.
It would be no bad thing if the kind of rigour many councillors and council leaders are currently applying to their spending plans stayed in place, even after the current 'austerity' is over. We saw local authority budgets running away in the past decade. In part that was because central Government kept on asking for more without providing matching grant aid. Councils had to raise the funds from communities to fulfil their obligations. In part, though, it was because some local authorities saw the opportunity to puff themselves up, increase salaries, ramp up expenses and allowances and generally expand. Let's hope that period is over.
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In a democracy there has to be debate. That is how minds are changed, opinions altered and influence brought to bear. So the idea that the Government could prevent the head of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency from discussing the future of a search and rescue helicopter base covering the Westcountry with its local member of Parliament sounds absurd. Yet according to the MP in question, Richard Drax, that is exactly what is happening. The subtext to all of this is that the decision has been made and that Mr Drax is a bit of a nuisance. But sometimes, that's just what MPs have to be.