Posted by:23 February, 2012
It may have been St Valentine’s Day this week, but it’s unlikely that Interflora will have made many trips to Eland House on Tuesday. There is simply no love lost between the sector and the department at the moment.
And that shouldn’t come as a surprise. There has been much talk of communities secretary Eric Pickles’ new-found respect for councils in the wake of their response to last August’s riots. But ministers’ conduct over authorities’ decision on whether or not to put up council tax next year has been pretty shabby.
The government will seek to punish any local authority that defies it by increasing council tax next year
Last week Grant Shapps stood up in Parliament to state more bluntly what Mr Pickles had put in garbled terms a couple of weeks ago - that the government will seek to punish any local authority that defies it by increasing council tax next year.
Whatever the relevant merits are of giving taxpayers a freeze this year that could lead to higher tax rises or deeper spending cuts in future years - the opposite of the government’s deficit reduction rationale - by threatening councils, ministers are quite simply breaking their word.
The announcement of the one-year £675m funding offer that ministers were making available to English councils that keep tax levels frozen contained a simple statement: “The scheme will be voluntary.”
Except apparently it won’t. Quite how ministers intend to punish local authorities that choose to put up council tax is unclear.
Mr Shapps made hints about retrospectively adjusting baselines once the new retained business rates system is implemented. To do so according to whether or not a council took advantage of a voluntary offer would surely attract the interest of the legal profession.
Come Wednesday, Bob Neill was writing to local newspapers around the country telling their readers that any council putting up council tax was doing so at the behest of “municipal officers” intent on “filling the town hall coffers” and urging them to lobby against such a move.
That a minister was using the Central Office for Information -part of the civil service - to attack officers’ professionalism left more than one person I spoke to genuinely appalled. The department remains unrepentant.
And just in case councils are dealing too easily with the political pressure, the department has sown confusion by devising a method that leaves different types of council with different levels at which referendums kick in.
As Lord Beecham, the former LGA chairman, said in the Lords this week: “Making a council budget is a difficult and protracted process at the best of times”.
These are most certainly not the best of times. And if ministers are intent on using their platform to have a bit of sport at the expense of councils, the department could at least give some clarity on what the rules of the game are.
From Civic Regalia
LGC’s political editor Dan Drillsma-Milgrom blogs on all aspects of town hall life